Activism, Politics, recent

Who Needs Democracy Anyway?

On June 18 this year, climate change demonstrators glued themselves to a main street in the centre of Brisbane, Australia, protesting what they regard as a climate emergency and voicing their objection to the recent approval of the Adani coal mine in Australia’s Galilee basin. Their protest caused major disruptions to business distric traffic and has continued with a series of deliberate actions to block inner city streets and cause as much congestion and disruption as possible.

Their moves started almost a month to the day since the national “climate change election” clearly resolved that the mood of the Australian electorate was not on the side of the climate protestors—at least not to the extent proposed by the more radical elements. (In fairness, there were other significant election issues, but having claimed this as “the climate change election,” those same political groups now need to stand by the results).

The Australian Labor Party, which promised a sweeping range of climate initiatives, recorded its worst showing in decades with just one in three votes.  In the resource rich state of Queensland—with Brisbane as its capital—the Labor vote fell to just one in four. In regional Queensland, traditionally blue-collar seats turned. Labor no longer holds any Federal seats north of Brisbane. Famously, Greens Party founder Bob Brown led a convoy of climate protestors north during the election campaign deep into resource seats of central Queensland—and was roundly rejected. If anything, their actions only aided their opposition. Nationally, the Greens failed to record much movement in their vote, eking out a 0.2 percent swing to record 10.4 percent of the primary vote. This was despite a very active and very high-profile campaign on climate issues that was also anti-coal, anti-Adani, and pro-renewables. The extent and profile of these issues was something we haven’t seen from a campaign in the lead up to a Federal election since the days of the Franklin Dam protests in Tasmania in the early 1980s. To say that coal, Adani and the climate were high profile issues in the last election is an understatement.

But being resoundingly rejected by the Australian electorate appears to make little difference to the strategies or determination of these groups. Far from being deterred, Bob Brown is now seeking to raise half a million dollars to establish a training camp for agitators, in defiance of electoral outcomes or due policy process (the Adani mine was approved after five years of delays and after passing rigorous environmental and economic assessments at State and Federal level).

“So far activists have helped to delay, disrupt and reduce the size of the Adani mega mine for over five years. Now is the time to come together and stop it for good. Mass civil disobedience is our last position to stop Adani in one of the biggest environmental battles in Australian history,” says the website raising funds for Brown’s activist training camp. No mention of the election result. (After two weeks, the fund had raised just over $26,000 of the $500,000 target).

The issue is not so much about the heated issues of climate politics but, rather, questions about the purpose and function of democracy itself. The rise of social media means that a limited number of academics, industry bodies or professional groups can promote almost any agenda, however obtuse, gain slightly wider support online, and create the appearance of significant authoritative status. Confirmation bias, the selection of opinions or information that support preconceived notions, is flourishing on the internet.

These groups increasingly see the ballot box as little more than a test of populism, or as evidence of an ignorant electorate (that being one which doesn’t agree with a particular agenda or point of view). Post-election, the entire state of Queensland was ridiculed by some as a backwater of rednecks. Many mockingly proposed a ‘Quexit’ separation from the rest of Australia, ignoring the fact that the swings in Queensland were not much greater than elsewhere in the country. The voters were blamed for making a mistake. The democratic outcome, in the eyes of some, was an error.

It’s for similar reasons that other issues of public policy are increasingly regarded as the domain of ‘experts’ not fit for democratic judgement by the people. For example, a rapidly growing urban population is widely supported by the professional class despite the obvious strain on the urban infrastructure of cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The solution proposed by the professional class is for ever-increasing urban density in the form of high-rise apartments in the urban cores, and medium density housing elsewhere. But if polls are to be believed, continued growth has limited support across the electorates most affected.

This vision of the future of urban settlement in our major cities was described by the Planning Institute in 2018 thusly: “We’ve got a great challenge to ensure that we don’t end with megacities like Lagos or Manila. We want Tokyos, Parises, and New Yorks—and we can do that by planning well.”  Any local, state or federal government candidate proposing a Tokyo- or New York-style urban form for Australian cities would not expect much support at the ballot box. (They might have better luck with Paris, but that city’s appeal as an urban model might find more support in Melbourne’s Brunswick, Sydney’s Redfern or Brisbane’s New Farm, while still being rejected in middle- and outer-suburbs.) Proposed policy directions take little heed of community support, or the lack of it.

In Brisbane, community rejection of townhouse-style developments encroaching on detached housing neighbourhoods saw the City Council respond by banning further encroachment. The community resistance, no doubt loudly and directly expressed to any number of sitting Councillors, has been rejected by a number of professional planners as shortsighted or misguided. But rather than seek to win the public hearts and minds using arguments and examples in favour of this style of housing, they are blaming the Council for limiting housing choice. This is, in effect, blaming democratically elected officials for responding to democratically expressed views.

The issue of private motor vehicles use is another area of pubic policy where professionals and experts promote minority ‘solutions’ which have little public support. High vehicle taxes, road user charges, limited carparking, ‘road diets,’ and other policy levers designed to pry us away from the most convenient form of transport available for many, might be measures toasted in academic and professional circles but are highly unlikely to win public support at the ballot box. Democracy, once again, is an inconvenience to be overcome if the solution proposed by the experts is ever to be applied.

Even what adults choose to eat and drink is likewise subject to a paternalistic “father knows best” attitude. Sugary drinks and fast foods should be punitively taxed and advertising restricted to save people from themselves, we are sagely warned by yet more experts. Meat is bad for any number of environmental, animal welfare or health reasons others will claim. These ideas could not survive a ballot box test, but that poses no deterrence to the proponents. They know best.

Winston Churchill famously recognized democracy’s limitations when he declared: “It has to be said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” While the ballot box outcome may frustrate ardent minority groups or cliques of professionals, it remains a great leveler. For the majority of people, the ballot box is their chance to express an opinion away from the daily noise of political debate on social and mainstream media. “One vote, one value” may irritate those who feel their own vote and opinion has a great deal more value than others, but it’s the best system we’ve got.

Rather than dismissing democratic outcomes or widely held views as ignorant, or planning activist campaigns that disregard the freshest ballot box evidence available, those who seek to change society need to work harder to bring society with them. They need to respect majority views, not deride them. They need to understand the freedoms they have to express and support their own views do not also mean the right to adopt stand-over tactics with those who do not agree, or resort to intellectual bullying of opponents by belittling or dismissing them.

They need to respect that the final decision in any democracy rests with the people. The alternative is a form of modern-day feudalism—something utterly at odds with the values of a free and open society.

Ross Elliott has over 30 years in urban and property policy. Views expressed are strictly personal.  

Comments

  1. Most seem to prefer the China and Russia models. Democracy, after all, is just white supremacy to those who prefer to control than live free.

  2. I totally support and respect representative Democracy and was with the author until the abrupt shift to urban planning issues. There is no evidence presented here that shows that density and “road diets” were rejected at the ballot box in any of the the three cities. This is not at all the same thing as the mining issue, which appears to be a statewide issue in Queensland. These are more local issues—and things like roads have long been the domain of specialists rather than being voted on by the entire electorate (for good or ill). The Planning Institute is a non-government professional organization that has no direct power—they are free to propose anything they like. Moreover, all of these cities already have high-density and mid-density and walkable streets. Check the older parts of town. In Brisbane, they have existed for nearly two centuries. Cities have always had surges and declines in population. Historically, this was allowed to happen, and a great deal of freedom was given to the property owners to respond to changes in demand. That is not about rejecting Democracy itself—at least there is no reason to think so, given the facts presented here.

  3. Pretty weak article. Check off a number of conservative talking points like regulating soda consumption and paternalistic urbanites and then conclude that because the Green party didn’t do better in the election that climate change activists are out to lunch? Ughh.

  4. Even what adults choose to eat and drink is likewise subject to a paternalistic “father knows best” attitude.

    That’s “mother knows best” for the proles: fathers are stripped of all authority as they’re infected with toxic masculinity (formerly known as machismo).

  5. the national “climate change election” clearly resolved that the mood of the Australian electorate…

    …is as divided as the result indicates. But Elliott seems to be seriously suggesting that those who voted for the Coalition are “the Australian electorate” and the many millions who did not are a collection of public enemies.

    Does he expect that these millions of Australians will now say: “Oh well, I suppose environmental issues don’t matter after all, our concerns were misplaced. We’ll bow to the majority, and keep our mouths shut from now on.”

    In reality, democracy doesn’t mean that those who vote for the losing side in an election then become non-citizens whose views should not be expressed.

    One can certainly argue that protest tactics which seriously inconvenience the general public are not a good idea and should be avoided. But Elliott goes much further than that, suggesting that the very concept of protest is “undemocratic”, when in fact it’s one of the fundamental forms of democratic participation.

    Sorry Ross, but as long as this country remains relatively free, you’re just going to have to get used to lots of people loudly and publicly disagreeing with you.

  6. Bob Brown’s convoy stunt only highlighted how blatantly out of touch he is with the average Australian. The mind boggles that one could think that driving 2,500km to wag one’s finger in disapproval at Clermont locals’ livelihoods - not only that, but to expect such to be reasonably received.

    The LNP should send Bob a Christmas card.

  7. One of the sensible climate policies that Bjorn Lomborg has endorsed is a $5 tax per tonne, that works out as doing $140 worth of good. Another is ending all fossil fuel subsidy. But there is a view within the more extreme elements of the green movement, that climate change policy should be used as a battering ram to fundamentally reform or overthrow capitalism- this, when between 2000 and 2012, it was the principal and overwhelming force that lifted over a billion people out of absolute poverty worldwide and is continuing that process with eight out of the ten countries that consistently score above 8% in GDP growth, year on year, African nations.

    On housing, Leftists persistently fail to recognise that people just don’t want to live in the type of high density, urban housing, which they view as the future, packed in like sardines, elbows drawn in to their neighbours. There are ways to build affordable housing which efficiently use available land using perspective, fencing/hedges and layout to create the illusion that people can have a space of their own, but this conflicts with their dystopian view of everyone living together in compulsory communities, spending their time nosing through other people’s business, like some poorly written episode of Eastenders- with one of the strongest criticisms of many eco-housing projects, that you can hear what they’re having for dinner, or guess which position they like in bed.

    But perhaps my biggest criticism of the chattering classes is that they proscribe for others, what they hoard for themselves. They support progressive state-run schooling whilst blithely sending their own children to private schools. They want to save the environment, whilst driving around in four-by-four tanks that provide a literal elevation for their high-minded thinking, because they know they can afford whatever tax is levied. They consume and advocate for organic food, whilst failing to recognise that this inefficient use of land, could never feed the world at affordable prices- and would actually require more land clearances to feed populations.

    But perhaps worst of all they sneer at the technological innovation already in progress, or in some instances even currently available, such as nuclear, simple changes to refrigeration and air con, cement manufacturing and the fact that by 2050 fully electric passenger planes should be rolling off the production lines… Instead they imagine themselves in some nice rustic cottage, cooking with an Aga, whilst poor people live cheek-by-jowl, packed into breeze block government housing, living poorer than they have done for the past 50 years, because of the ill-informed government policies that they pushed the masses to vote into office.

  8. While I agree with the general gist of your comment, I would like to point out that all housing is affordable by those who pay for (the consumption of) said housing.

  9. My point would be that affordable housing can bring the price of housing down through the mechanism of streamlined planning, reduced bureaucracy, limiting the price of land speculation and the price-busting economies of scale inherent to New Engineering Project style developments. Unfortunately, housing seems to be one of the very few areas of the market that doesn’t conform to the normal rules of competition, supply and demand- partially because of the ‘democratic’ tilt towards nimbyism, but also because most of the incentives that would normally tend to be associated with relieving a shortage in supply are trapped by the ‘cost-pull’ inherent to a system that, over time, becomes dominated by land speculation. It’s rent-seeking pure and simple, even if the means that cause higher rents are based on capital growth.

    So the default position of a totally unrestricted market would one in which the poor are crammed into a slums and charged a disproportionately high rent, as a percentage of income. Unfortunately, this also leads to inherently higher taxes on the middle classes, as contributing taxpayers are forced to pay for more policing, a larger prison population and higher insurance rates on their property and their health. We can see the impact of this from the endemically high crime rates that were prevalent when high density, slum neighbourhoods were the norm. I do think that liberals tend to underestimate the role that data-driven policing strategies have had on reducing crime rates, but slum conditions are very much an exception to the rule that social policy is less effective in reducing crime than good policing.

    I’m not entirely sure what the solution is. I did think that it might be possible to drastically reduce inheritance tax to a level that is far more inline with what the Laffer curve might suggest would be an ideal tax rate- on the proviso that a portion of the estate is invested into affordable housing funds with similar rates of return to government bonds- but the level of coercion allowed by government in this instance might set a dangerous precedent, and lead to a proliferation of ‘good causes’ sponsored by government. One possible way to mitigate this might be to make it more voluntary, by charging a higher rate of tax on income from estates, that could then by offset by investment in an affordable housing fund- but I really don’t like this solution either, as again it hands the power of compulsion over to government. It should be noted that this system would probably lead to the need to externalise costs back to government, in order to maintain modest long term profitability.

    There are other way to do it. The government doesn’t make best use of the $15 billion it spends on affordable housing as, instead of commissioning affordable homes, it should spread the money as incentives to the best low-cost housing suppliers. There should also be some form of credit system that allows developers that build affordable homes to benefit from a developers veto, on higher profit developments.

    The current system needs fixing though. Higher embedded prices to the cost of living, tend towards a loss of the type of economic liberty that leaves people free to spend their money in the way they choose, and sponsor the virtuous cycle of market-driven products and services, that has made the West so great as a civilisation, and an example to the world. The fact that government restricts the use of mobile homes and compact utilitarian pre-fabs, only makes the situation worse.

    I thought I might include a documentary by Ian Hislop, purely for the purposes of entertainment, as I imagine it has been a bit of an ordeal to trawl through my thoughts on this subject. I do have a tendency to get somewhat long-winded when I am not entirely sure of my thoughts on a subject:

  10. May I point out that when Joe Sixpack chooses between a short-term variable rate mortgage & a long-term fixed rate mortgage, then Mr Sixpack engages in speculation?

  11. Agreed. But there is an extent to which it often becomes more profitable to speculate in the intermediary position of controlling the supply of goods, than to actually invest in supply or value-adding. To me, in some instances this can qualify as force or coercion that government has a duty to protect us from. Unfortunately, it is also a field shaded by subtlety and nuance that government doesn’t do well at- and there is also the argument that why should we substitute one source of force or coercion, for another?

  12. I’m sorry but I have trouble imagining & understanding the process you’re talking about: would you be so kind as to give an example, historical or hypothetical?

  13. How does this “capture a particular commodity” happens in practice?

  14. So what about the obscure pharma drug for which the price is drastically increased by a speculator intent on increasing the price exponentially. Free exchange is only possible, where the market is unrestrained by actors intent on monopoly, the ubiquity of competition laws across the Western world underscores it’s necessity. Adam Smith himself was a particularly harsh critic of the East India Company, in that he saw competition as vital to the process of heterogeneous specialism. One of the principle ways that monopolists operate, is by lobbying government to introduce regulation that infringes on the ability of small and vibrant businesses to compete with their monopoly.

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