Now, if this spirit is of the essence of democracy, can we rightly say that we have understood or practised it. For, if man is to be adjusted to man, if we are to live together in mutual amity and justice, if we are to be dignified without being proud or overbearing, we must be givers rather than receivers; we must be quick to discharge our duties and modest about our rights. For the harmony and brotherly love of a family is not maintained on a basis of claims. In the wise language of the Bible, the family are “in honour preferring one another” Robert Menzies The Nature of Democracy
[This post was prompted by a round table discussion in which I was involved in Melbourne recently, hosted as part of their 10th anniversary by the Centre for Policy Development. I am a CPD director but these brief comments are very much my personal reflections and don’t represent the views either of the CPD, any of the participants in the round table or anyone else for that matter. You can read more about the event here.]
In the current climate of Trumpism, Brexit and the general decline in trust in many of our public institutions and, it seems, imploding assumptions and beliefs on which our democratic system relies, there is room for a fundamental rethink about how we refresh the Australian democratic experiment.
Any attempt to hit the ’re-set’ button on democracy must confront three truths:
- Democracy is a demanding doctrine. It calls forth a temper of mind and often difficult and persistent work by all of us, not just politicians, that doesn’t come easily and requires constant practice.
- Making democracy work well is only partly a matter of technique and tools, although good tools and techniques are inescapable. It is mostly a matter of belief and a predisposition to see our success as individuals as a function of the quality of the lives we share with others.
- Although democracy is about voting, it isn’t about voting. It is a particular way to configure and use (and sometimes abuse) power, knowledge and accountability. And those three things are being completely redesigned in and for the digital age in ways we are only just beginning to understand.
Any refresh project on democracy needs to combine a sense of democracy as a narrative, a sense of democracy as a set of tools and techniques and a sense of democracy as a way, the best available way, to get things done, often through big changes and major reforms, that impact economic opportunity, a sense of safety and resilience, social and community solidarity and environmental care and sustainability.
In other words, the ambition to repair and strengthen the basic fabric of our democratic system has to answer three simple questions. What do we need to do to ‘fix’ the problem, why do we think we have a problem in the first place and how will get the work of renewal and reform done?
Democracy is like a piano
Maybe Robert Menzies was right when he wrote that democracy was like a piano.
I may have the most expensive and perfect piano in the world, but it will give out only crashing discords unless I learn to play it. And when I have learnt the mere mechanics of playing it, my knowledge will be no more than a curse to my neighbours and my friends unless I catch something of the spirit of music, and learn that subtle magic which converts ordered noise into celestial harmony.
There’s not much point, he suggested, owning a piano if it just sits in the corner and makes no noise. And there’s certainly no point, he might have added, staring at the piano and asking, “what can this piano do for me?”
The point of the piano is to make music, which means learning how to play it (admittedly you can sit there and wait for someone else to come along who can play it and listen to them, but in the end, the point of music, and democracy, is to learn how to do it yourself).
In this democracy-as-piano essay, Menzies goes on to make some other important observations that are apt in the current crisis-laden climate about the state and prospects of our democratic traditions and practices.
He suggested, for example, that “our most grievous error” is to consider democracy essentially as a machine, “a system of government”, rather than, as Menzies described it, “a spirit, a moving force; not a mere vehicle for the expression of the human mind alone, but a challenge to the human spirit.”
There’s something important in that exhortation. Menzies’ observation should alert us to the need to engage not just the “tools and techniques” part, but to call out the deeper cultural and emotional foundations on which effective democracy rests.
His point seems to be that, in the end, you can’t outsource the ‘core code’ of the democratic endeavour:
No, democracy is more than a piece of equipment. The fact that, for a score of years we have – the privilege of self-government attained – delegated its exercise to a relatively few patriotic and earnest, or ambitious and noisy, people, asking for ourselves only that we shall be left alone to our money-making or our pleasures, is the best proof that we have attached no value to a system the essence of which we have not tried to understand.
To be successful, any democratic renewal program has to stick with the Menzian call to “bestir ourselves.” It might be a slightly quaint exhortation, but it carries some very crunchy consequences:
If, then, there is tyranny, it is our own. If there is injustice, we have ordered or permitted it. If there is hunger or unemployment, we must look to ourselves for the remedy. For when we are the masters as well as the servants, we cannot either wisely or usefully blame others for bad direction or faulty planning or fumbling execution. To stand erect and say, “I am one of the rulers of my country” – there is a position of dignity and of responsibility. Yet, they are a dignity and a responsibility which democracy, properly understood, gives to every grown man and woman in this nation
Menzies reflects an explicitly Christian conception that “there is in every human soul a spark of the divine; that, with all their inequalities of mind and body, the souls of men stand equal in the sight of God.”
The implications are simple and, writing in the middle of the last century, pertinent. While Fascists and Nazis regard the citizen as “the mere minister” to the power of the State, democrats must concern themselves “with what they see to be the true end and final justification of the State – a full and good life for every individual citizen”.
The chief end of man, he suggests, ceases to be the upholding of the power of the State; “the chief end of the State becomes man – man the individual, man the immortal spirit.”
Learning to play the piano
Learning how to play the “piano” of effective democracy means embracing at least these few precepts:
- It takes persistence and practice. The point about democracy, to grab a metaphor for from the world of ‘agile’ software development, is that it is in “permanent beta”, a never-quite-finished experiment in which we keep learning, by doing it, how to do it better.
- It takes time and effort to learn and to practice. Piano playing, and democracy are investments and the more you put in, the better you get at it and the more you enjoy it which, in turn, motivates you to keep putting in the effort.
- Democracy is all about trade-offs, learning how to adjust expectations and needs and requirements to not only get a workable solution that is as fair and sensible as possible but to do it in a way which maintains, and even improves, the ability to keep making those trade-offs and adjustments into the future. You can’t fight for an outcome which jeopardises the ability for people to fight for the next result.
- You don’t always win in a democracy (which is what trade-offs mean) but if you can make it work tolerably well, you do always win, even when you don’t. The larger system wins if the sub-elements of the system learn how to adjust their individual behaviour for the good of the bigger outcome. Turns out that isn’t an especially easy trick to pull off (on the basis that “collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults”).
- Democracy is never about just fighting for what you want or what you feel without understanding the consequences for what other people want and feel. Being responsive to the “will of the people” isn’t a simply matter of doing what the people want, assuming of course that they know and you can find out.
These design principles need to be called out early in any attempt to construct an Australian democratic renewal program or initiative. We must be realistic as well as ambitious.
Seeing each other
Perhaps part of the problem is that:
- We have allowed the conversation about renewing democracy to be reduced to largely technocratic and instrumental terms, primarily focusing on changing, renewing or adding new bits of machinery and “technology” (in the sense of technique).
- Our democratic instincts need to be refreshed at a more fundamental level with a story whose narrative is as deep and broad as the deep human endeavour that it has always been; is our conversation about democratic renewal is too narrow and too timid?
- We have forgotten how to navigate the ambiguity at the heart of the human condition, which is that we are most fully individual and free when we are most fully engaged with, and accountable to, others and the broader communities of which we are part. The problem seems to be, as Nick Timmins put it in a recent debate at the RSA on the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report on the British welfare state, that we don’t “see each other” anymore. As a consequence, we have lost a lively and practical sense of the things we share in common and the consequent responsibilities we owe to each other.
- And finally, because so much of the debate is controlled or dominated by people who either don’t or can’t understand its true significance, we’re grievously missing the real significance of the way in which digital changes everything.
Our conversation about democratic renewal is too narrowly defined, doesn’t understand its deep roots in what it means to be human and tends to be dominated by technocrats and policy “engineers” who are intent on improving what they see fundamentally as a machine that needs tuning up.
The problem is it isn’t a machine we’re trying to fix. We’re trying to fix something which in the end speaks to our sense of ourselves as people and as a community as much as it does about the way we conduct the business of governing and collective problem solving.
Outlining a renewal project
A program of democratic renewal needs to be part storytelling, part engineering and part practical problem solving.
There is room to put together a piece of work that combines those three distinct, but interdependent dimensions. Working across all three dimensions – narrative, technique and practical purpose – might constitute a distinctively Australian approach to a task whose value and impact is now as important to us all as it is grievously overdue.
If I was designing such a program, I might split it into three parts:
- The mechanics of democratic renewal – institutions, processes, systems, organisations
- The narrative of democratic renewal – solidarity, what we owe each other, how we flourish
- Democratic renewal in action – policy reform for change and innovation in several specific areas (education, health and social care, climate risk and so on)
A small group could be convened to provide a design focus for the project. The group needs to reflect a mix of usual and unusual “suspects”, combining different experience and expertise. The group would have a couple of people who were deeply digital, with a good knowledge of the multitude of experiments now popping up around the world about different ways to deploy digital for democracy.
The design would look to tap small groups of associated experts, leaders and practitioners, similarly likely and unlikely in their mix of background, profile and perspective. It would also harness many of the other “futures” groups and projects to learn and leverage, avoid unnecessary conflict and duplication and, as far as possible, to make common cause for shared ambitions.
As well as extending some of the values research about beliefs about Australian democracy which we heard about at the CPD round table (undertaken by Glenn Withers and Essential Media), the program would also privilege a “design and digital” approach to crafting events and activities within the overall program that brought to life a commitment to co-design and co-production.
Ask not: attributes of success
For democracy to work, we need to witness these attributes:
- Other people, and not just those in power or with authority, need to see and hear us; that doesn’t mean we get what we want all the time, but we need to be seen, heard and recognised.
- At some point, and in ways that we can feel in our own lives, democracy has to work so that we feel we’re better off as a result; sometimes we might forget and lose the thread, so someone might have to remind us, but we need to sense its value in simple, daily ways.
- People in positions of power, influence or authority need to sense the foundation-destroying implications of the continuing drift of intent and rhetoric from action and decision making. If it’s true that people listen to what you do and not what you say, if those things (saying and doing) don’t seem connected, the faith and constancy which Menzies was calling forth as the heart of effective democracy will drain away.
The words that come to mind about the deeper level of renewal of the democratic venture are feeding, nourishment and gardening. The way we talk to and about each other, the way our public institutions behave and deal with us, the stories we tell ourselves about what we owe to each other and to the larger fabric of law, culture and practice that rips and tears if we’re clumsy and forgetful – all of these things are ways we can do democracy better.
I’m sure if he was alive and still giving speeches, JFK would have had no difficulty responding to the contemporary complaint about the quality and effectiveness of democracy. Ask not, he would undoubtedly have admonished, what democracy can do for you, but ask what you can do for democracy.