Public ideas

Democracy in retreat

“Half of democratic governments around the world are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections.”

That’s the opening statement of the report Global Democracy Weakens in 2022, published by The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Unsurprisingly the USA comes in for special mention, where “threats to democracy persist after the Trump presidency, illustrated by Congress’s political paralysis, counter-majoritarianism and the rolling back of long-established rights”. The report also mentions the erosion of democracy in Europe.

One piece of positive news is that some African countries, including The Gambia, Niger and Zambia are improving in democratic quality.

Those who dig into the report can find the section applying to our Asia-Pacific region, written by Zin Mar Aung, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Myanmar’s National Unity Government (not the illegitimate government run by the country’s military thugs).

New Zealand comes out with some of the highest ratings, with Japan, Australia and South Korea not far behind. There is a great deal of reporting, generally positive, on how countries in our region including Australia have handled the pandemic. In countries with high trust in government people have complied with public health requirements without the need for heavy-handed enforcement. Our “National Cabinet” comes in for a positive mention.

Many countries claiming to be democracies score poorly, but China falls into a different category, because it endeavours “to offer itself as a viable alternative to democratic governance”. China has declined on “fundamental rights” and “checks on government”.

India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are mentioned as other countries in our region whose scores have gone backwards.

 A court win against a coal mine, on expanded legal principles

The Supreme Court of Queensland has rejected an application by Waratah Coal to develop a project in the Galilee Basin.

As Justine Bell-James notes in a Conversation contribution, this case has made legal historyfor two reasons.

First, the action was mounted by a First Nations-led group of young people aged 13 to 30, called Youth Verdict.

Second, the rejection was on legal grounds that go beyond normal development cases. The court rejected what is known as the “market substitution assumption” – the idea that a particular mine’s contribution to climate change is net zero, because if it doesn’t go ahead then another one will. It also brought to account the human rights of the First Nations people whose lives would be affected not only by the physical presence of the mine but also by its consequential contribution to climate change.

Measuring what matters – have your say by the end of January

In case you missed it, the budget presented by Treasurer Chalmers in October has a new section “Measuring what matters” in Budget Paper 1. We drew attention to it in the 29 October roundup.

This was the government’s first attempt to live up to its election promise to follow the lead of New Zealand and some other countries to present a wellbeing budget. After all, what’s the point of economic management if it does not contribute to human wellbeing?

Developing meaningful indicators of wellbeing is a mammoth task. Up until 2013 the ABS was engaged in developing Measures of Australia’s Progress, a project that brought a great deal of rigour into the task of measuring wellbeing. This was one of the first victims of the Abbott government’s assault on evidence-based policy. But its work is still archived on the ABS website where you can see its 26 indicators that are all relevant to wellbeing. They’re just 10 years out of date.

Since then The Australian Society for Progress and Wellbeing has been keeping alive the idea that we need to pay far more attention to wellbeing as the objective of our lives in the government and non-government public domain. The Society says that it seeks to “shift social progress and wellbeing considerations from government departments, supra-national organisations and academia into “mainstream” consciousness and decision making”.

In line with that spirit, Treasury is now calling for public involvement in developing community awareness of wellbeing, and on its Measuring what matters website, it is calling for public submissions by the end of January.

This is an opportunity to become engaged in a meaningful contribution to public life, after those long sessions with friends and family over the holidays when discussions turn to public policy.