Addendum: Unless you have a strange interest in the tensions inherent within Australia's liberal democracy you probably won't enjoy reading this. Damn! Writing it at the last minute after a busy weekend means that I stuffed it up pretty badly as well. Fingers crossed that I pass...
According to Andrew Parkin (p.13), liberal democratic politics entails managing the tension between liberal and democratic values: ‘Structuring many political disputes and arguments…is the much deeper phenomenon of the balance (shifting, sliding, adjusting, recorrecting, but always present) between liberal and democratic instincts, voices and embedded practices’.
Explain what Parkin means by this statement. Give examples to illustrate his claims
Andrew Parkin, in his comment on the tension inherent within Australia’s liberal democracy, is attempting to explain the balancing act that must be performed in order for Australia’s political system to accommodate two political theories that can at times possess conflicting aims. Though not saying that liberalism and democracy are incompatible, Parkin is suggesting that the two political forces often shape the nature in which politics – from policy to debate – is played out in Australia. In order to understand Parkin’s comments it is necessary to understand the theory underpinning liberalism and democracy; it is also necessary to understand the practical application of these theories as they arise in the Australian political landscape.
Historically, liberal theory developed out of the European desire to wrest power away from the old-regime aristocratic ruling elite. The central desire of liberalism, then, is freedom – emancipation from heavy-handed government participation in the private lives of citizens. The success of liberalism’s central aspiration can be assessed via the emergence of these key indicators: it will be a society with inherent rights, laws and privacy; it will incorporate the development of private business interests, private property and economic prosperity derived from private endeavour; and, finally, the protection of minority interests will be observed.
The methods adopted by liberalism’s adherents to achieve their aim must all be seen through the prism of an attempt to limit the government’s roll in the private lives’ of its citizens. The formation of a written constitution, one that, as Parkin puts it, “specified a list of individual rights which governments may not violate no matter how popular such a violation may be,” plays an important part as a liberalising device. A constitution can be used to set limits on government power; it can also be used to establish a division of government institutions with a view to weakening its ability to accumulate and exercise power. A set of laws, and the government’s observance of these laws (even when applicable to the government itself) is another important medium through which liberalism is observed. These liberal beliefs, initially fermented in Europe, have taken root in Australian politics. Armed with this knowledge we can undertake an examination of another political value that dominates the Australian landscape – democracy.
Although a primitive notion of democracy materialized in ancient Greece the theory did not receive wide popularity until about a hundred years ago. Democracy was originally seen as a threat because it was widely believed that the will of the majority could not be trusted. As we shall see, when democracy is introduced into the context of Australian liberalism, it is this perceived threat that causes one of Parkin’s political tensions.
The main principal of democracy is the communal participation of the citizens in the political process of determining the leadership of the nation. This is brought about by the election through a universally franchised adult vote of a government that has the support of the majority. Elections under democracy must be regular, free and fair. The elected government is (theoretically) expected to represent the will of the majority as well as establish public services – health, defence, education, etc. – in order to meet that expectation. It is through such provisions that the government has an opportunity to establish legitimate authority.
It is important at this juncture to make a small digression into the distinction between liberal-democratic theory and liberal-democratic practical politics. Liberal-democratic theory entails the beliefs and values outlined in the earlier discussion of both liberal and democratic values respectively. However, the various principals found within the two ideologies take a different form when put into practice in working politics. Compromises must be struck, and positions moderated. It would be impossible, as we shall see in the case of government welfare, to satisfy the will of the majority in every instance.
And so we reach the stage of addressing Australian liberal democracy in its applied form. The two aforementioned political belief systems are fused together to form Australia’s present liberal democratic reality. A careful reader will already have observed conflicting aspirations within the two sets of values, and it is these conflicts to which Parkin’s original statement directs itself. On one hand we have democracy’s desire for policy prescriptions representing the will of the majority. In direct conflict with that is liberalism’s desire that the rights of the individual should not be impinged upon.
As Parkin asserts, “it would be a mistake to conclude that successful and durable liberal democracies embody a frictionless reconciliation or amalgamation of the democratic and liberal traditions.” Consider another tension – the liberal desire for limited government. A desire for limited government means that government is prevented from interfering too heavily in the private lives and, importantly, the private economy of individuals. However, as a counterpoint to the desire for limited government, democratic principles necessitate the extraction of taxes from private individuals in order to provide services for the public.
But Parkin actually goes further with his comment. What he is saying is not that the two competing principles necessarily cancel each other out. Instead he is saying that competition between the two colours the way that policy is developed, and moulds the way that politicians interact with each other and the general public. By way of example, Parkin sites an instance of liberal-democracy in Australian practice. The Australian welfare debate entails the democratic notion that taxation from “self-reliant individuals” should provide support for those in need; however standard liberal thinking would encourage a suspicion of the government appropriating money from the individual. This is a debate that is never resolved; it simply remains in a state of tension that is manifest in the way that the different political parties put forward policy.
Another practical example of the playing out of this tension is, or will be, environmental policy – at some stage in the future it is foreseeable that government will have to intercede on behalf of the majority into the private affairs of individuals to achieve positive environmental outcomes. This is already occurring, for example when restrictions are placed on private industry curtailing the amount of carbon emissions that a given business can produce. Once again, under the liberal-democratic framework this is a political discussion that will be in a state of continual conversation; ergo it will continually flavour the nature of policy platform and discourse.
Australia’s liberal-democracy is in a constant state of tension between the desires of the collective and the rights of the individual. We have seen through the various examples, both of the ideological principles of liberalism and democracy and the reality of these principles put into political practice, that politicians must balance these ideas when producing policy and campaigning for election. Parkin’s insightful comment shows us that, although conflicting, the concepts of liberalism and democracy maintain a workable balance in Australia’s political system.