Keynote Address to the Engage2

Why is Democracy being Disrupted?
Governing in the 21st Century”

Dr. Alan Dupont
CEO, The Cognoscenti Group

Sydney, 5 June 2018
Location: State Library of NSW, Macquarie Street, Room: “The Gallery” Sydney, NSW 2000
Click here for full details.

Pick up the newspaper, tune in to the news or your twitter feeds, and there are daily examples of a political system which no longer seems to be listening to the concerns of ordinary people or able to respond effectively to them.

Disillusionment with democracy is particularly prevalent among the young.

According to a 2017 Lowy poll, only 52% of younger Australians aged 18–29 years agree that democracy is the preferable form of government.

To fully understand the problem and sensibly discuss solutions it’s important to appreciate that concerns about the future of democracy are not confined to Australia. It’s a global problem.

Democracies all over the world are being disrupted by political, technological and social forces that we barely comprehend.

They are also being gamed from within by arrogant, out of touch, elites; and externally by authoritarian regimes and non-state actors.

What are the root causes of this disruption? Five stand out.

The first is that the macro-system which gave birth to contemporary democracy is in the midst of a paradigm shift and has become unstable.

Pax Americana – the American peace – is clearly beginning to fracture as the relative power of the US declines and other states rise and compete.

But the decline is not just about America. It is also the decline of the Western canon and its foundational values.

Democracy, the rule of law and cosmopolitanism are under threat globally. There is a regression to authoritarianism in many parts of the world, including in once liberal countries.

Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are European examples. Closer to home, in Southeast Asia, both Thailand and the Philippines are becoming more authoritarian.

Although two thirds of the world’s population live in democracies the raw figures disguise the fact that momentum is shifting in favour of the autocrats.

Democracies are increasingly seen as ineffective, unrepresentative and divided.

None of this should surprise us.

Over time, political and economic systems lose their vitality and capacity for renewal.

Think of the rise and fall of the Pharaohs, the Roman Empire and a succession of Chinese dynasties.

The nation state system, which has been around for nearly 400 years, shifts to a new phase roughly every 70-100 years.

The last big shift occurred at the end of World War 2 when the US became the world’s leading nation and democracy.

That was 73 years ago so we are over-due for a system change.

Unfortunately, global power transitions usually result in conflict, turmoil and disruption before the emergence of a new, more stable system.

The big question for Australia is whether our democracy can survive in a more illiberal world.

A second cause is digital disruption.

System change is often triggered by technological innovation.

At the end of the 18th Century, textiles and the steam engine revolutionised western societies ushering in the industrial revolution.

Mass production of the automobile provided reliable, affordable individual mobility for the first time transforming the world of the 20th Century.

The seminal technological change of the past 20-30 years has been the revolution in information technology and the accompanying rise of social media.

The IT revolution has enriched our lives and facilitated democratisation by giving citizens unprecedented access to knowledge and a powerful voice for expressing their views.

But there is a dark side.

Behavioural and institutional imperfections are far more evident than they once were because IT has acted as a powerful social microscope revealing, and magnifying, flaws.

Democracies may not be more imperfect now than in our grandparent’s day. It’s just that we are more aware of the imperfections.

Social media has amplified this trend raising fears about an emerging tyranny of the noisy and politically active.

As a result, the shared space, knowledge and experience that once bound us has shrunk and been replaced by a cacophony of disparate voices, interest groups and agendas competing for attention and resources.

We can’t even seem to agree on facts these days – witness the advent of so-called “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

Meanwhile, autocracies have learned how to dilute the democratising aspects of the IT revolution by using the same technology to reinforce political control over their populations while deliberately disrupting democracies.

Examples are China’s digital great firewall, Iran’s omnipresent surveillance regime and Vladimir Putin’s enthusiasm for interfering in Western elections.

Democracies are more vulnerable to interference by autocrats because of our openness and the relative absence of political controls.

Our strengths are being turned against us in unexpected ways.

Digital disruption is compounded by the way in which time and space has been compressed by the sheer speed with which information and news is conveyed. This allows less time for considered thought and informed policy.

A third cause is falling productivity and rising income inequality as the old economy runs out of steam and the new economy takes hold, creating losers and winners.

Losers from the old economy – Donald Trump’s rust belt states for example – become politically and socially disconnected over time.

They lose faith in the political process and mainstream politicians seeing them as representing liberal elites and an entrenched, unrepresentative establishment.

When Italian President, Sergio Mattarella, vetoed the winning parties’ Eurosceptic nominee for Economy Minister, Northern League leader Matteo Salvini declared: “This is a very bad day for Italy and democracy…. this isn’t democracy.”

He has a point.

The decades long decline in productivity and economic growth in developed economies was made worse by the global financial crisis which impacted severely on liberal democracies, causing unemployment to shoot up particularly in Europe among the young.

The GFC was widely perceived as a failure of governance aggravated by elite corruption deepening disenchantment with democratic institutions and the capacity of Western governments to deliver for all their citizens in a fair and equitable manner.

A fourth cause is the enormous growth in unregulated migration which has undermined support in the West for multiculturalism and fuelled nativism and populism.

This had the unintended consequence of sharpening identity debates, polarising public opinion, reducing trust in democratic processes and public institutions and shrinking the moderate, democratic centre.

We saw this play out in Australia during the surge in “boat people” arrivals under the Rudd Labor government.

Europe’s recent experiences in trying to deal with a massive influx of asylum seekers from the developing world underlines the challenge that large-scale, unregulated migration poses for democracies.

The challenge is not only political but also social and economic. Resident populations become increasingly resentful and hostile towards immigrants when they arrive in large numbers, from very different societies and in an unregulated way.

The financial cost of providing housing, food, amenities, social benefits and language training for these new arrivals is substantial, straining infrastructure and national budgets.

Fears that terrorists, or terrorist sympathisers, are posing as asylum seekers has further hardened attitudes towards migration and created new tensions in democracies over the appropriate balance to be struck between border security and compassion for refugees and asylum seekers.

A fifth, and related cause of democratic disruption, is demography – the dramatic post World War 2 growth in global population and urbanisation.

As the saying goes, demography is destiny.

In my life-time the world’s population has tripled – from 2.5 billion to 7.5 billion. This is less a reflection on my age than the rapidity of recent population growth.

On current projections, 9.8 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

That’s a lot of extra people.

The other significant part of the demographic story for democracies is that the proportion of the world’s population living in cities or urban environments will more than double from 30 to 66 percent between 1950 and 2050.

This means another 2.5 billion people will be added to the world’s urban population by the middle of this century.

Then there is the growth of mega cities with populations more than 10 million. By 2030, we’ll have 41 of them.

What about Australia?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics we could have a population of nearly 50 million by 2061 and as many as 70 million by the end of the century.

In many respects, urbanisation is a hall-mark of successful economic development, enriching societies culturally and allowing ready access to facilities, jobs and education that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago.

But rapid urbanisation has also brought many problems in the form of pollution, traffic grid-lock, housing affordability and escalating energy costs to name only a few.

Democratic leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to show strong leadership in the face of entrenched political partisanship, regulatory impediments and social activism by special interest groups.

Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, are increasingly regarded as being able to better manage these problems than democracies because they can more quickly mobilise capital and resources and silence or ignore opposition to contentious policies.

China is expected to build 900 new airports for general aviation in the next three years while we spent fifty years debating the merits of building a second airport in Sydney.

It’s pretty clear that democracy is not in good shape and needs corrective surgery as well as protection from illiberal interference.

But if you are inclined to a radical shake up then be very careful what you wish for as the cure may be worse than the ailment.

In my experience, revolutions or radical overhauls of political systems seldom improve people’s lives and often lead to chaos and dictatorship.

The end of the Roman Republic paved the way for the tyrannies of Nero and Caligula; the decidedly undemocratic Soviet Union was born of the Bolshevik revolution; and in more recent times, the promise of the “Arab Spring” has turned into a winter of discontent.

Yes, our democracy is being disrupted but in my view it’s not beyond repair.

The challenge is to imagine and construct an improved version that reconnects the disenfranchised and disempowered.

In doing so we should bear in mind Winston Churchill’s enduring insight that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”