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Competing Oz-ocracies and the corruption of democracy

By Ken Macnab - posted Tuesday, 26 February 2013


During 2012 Australians were battered by relentless propaganda from a plague of self-serving 'ocracies'. We were not alone in this. The credibility of virtually every designated democracy in the world has been seriously undermined, by deceptive constitutions, manipulated voting systems, egotistical but incompetent leadership, avaricious legislators, strident but servile media, aggressive finance capitalists and powerful pressure groups. The case of the currently competing Oz-ocracies is illustrative of the general problem.

The Greek suffixes -ocracy and -cracy, from the word for strength or power, mean 'government by', and are used to designate government by a particular sort of people or according to a particular principle. Thus a democracy, which we in Australia boast of being, is a government by the people as a whole (from 'demos', Greek for 'the people'), who all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege. But which people actually wield power, how many, in whose interests, by what methods?

Historically, Australia rejected aristocracy, meaning literally government by a privileged elite, those most distinguished by birth or fortune. An attempt by William Wentworth to establish a titled aristocracy in colonial New South Wales was savagely satirised in 1853 by Daniel Deniehy, with the label 'bunyip aristocracy'. This referred to a mythical Aboriginal creature said to inhabit waterholes, swamps and riverbeds. When he got around to potential 'bunyip' aristocrat James MacArthur, Deniehy speculated that he would aspire to be the Earl of Camden, and suggested for his coat of arms 'a field vert, the heraldic term for green, and emblazoned on this field should be a rum keg of a New South Wales order of chivalry.'

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Australia evolved into a parliamentary democracy in the early twentieth century, with a constitution approved by referendum, a peculiar (and changing) relationship with the British Crown, contending political parties representing different people and ideologies, mostly bi-cameral legislatures and three interrelated layers of governance: local, state and federal. The introduction of compulsory voting and expansion of the franchise strengthened its democratic foundations. Since then, however, the character of the political decision-making process has become complicated and distorted, under the impact of competing Oz-ocracies.

The influence of plutocracy, for example, meaning government in the interests of the wealthy, has been a constant component of the equation. This has been occasionally disguised as meritocracy (coined 1958), but in Australia education and intellect have been assumed to be inferior to worldly success as sources of authority and leadership. A plethora of mostly self-appointed and self-serving individuals assumed the mantle of authority without sufficient challenge or ridicule. This applied to the self-appointed meritocracy of shock-jocks and media 'stars', led by Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands, many of whom ascend like rockets and come down as singed sticks. It also applied to many other self-appointed authorities, such as Gina Rinehart, Nathan Tinkler, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest from the material world, or Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Peter Jensen and the Reverend Fred Nile from the spiritual.

As a result of uncritical deference to success, 'inherit-it-and-gloat' individuals are treated as gurus, 'dig-it-up-and-sell-it' successes are called mining magnates, 'make-it-up-and-sell-it' merchants are called newspaper barons or media moguls, 'ham-it-up-and-sell-it' performers are called celebrities or socialites, 'dress-it-up-and-sell-it' prelates are called spiritual leaders and 'tart-it-up-and-sell-it' spruikers are called political leaders!

Whatever the guise, they all have several things in common. They trumpet their own virtues, disguise their mercenary motives in weasel-words, talk to the initiated in dog-whistle jargon, and utterly believe that they have the right both to run the country and tell the rest of us how to run our lives. Democracy is the last thing they understand, let alone believe in or practice.

Moreover, most of them are devotees of unbridled capitalism, the free reign of market forces, minimal public responsibility and unregulated exploitation of the unwary and vulnerable. In their own pecuniary interests, they spend vast amounts on political campaigns, mobilize specious 'experts' and shock jocks and ignore both the opinions and democratic rights of the public. On occasion they even tout a fundamental weakening of the principle of compulsory voting, a unique and valuable component of Australian democracy, primarily because the believe (correctly) this would enhance their political clout.

When Liberal-National Queensland Premier Campbell Newman floated this old shibboleth in January 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard's response hit the nail on the head. She tweeted: 'Fight @theqldpremier's plan to end compulsory voting. Don't let the Liberals make our democracy the plaything of cashed up interest groups JG'. The Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have plenty of experience in this area, in relation to areas such as the mining tax, carbon pricing scheme, Murray-Darling water plan, and poker machine regulation, to name a few.

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Over the last fifteen years or so, commentators in Australia and abroad have coined a range of derogatory 'ocracies' to voice their disquiet at the white-anting of democracy. In 2011 Jeffrey Sachs wrote that America was being run by the 'corporatocracy', in which a small number of 'powerful corporate interest groups dominate the political agenda.' The 'military-industrial complex' heads the list, closely followed by (and linked to) big business, and the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. Early in 2012, British Labour MP Paul Flynn apparently coined a new word when describing what the Coalition Government had created as 'An ineptocracy of greed.' Some have said it's even worse than this; that kakistocracy, Greek for the government of a state by the worst citizens, has arrived in some places.

The methods by which candidates for political office are selected often reward organisation hacks and nonentities. Taking advantage of widespread mediocracy are those practicing kleptocracy, who have no scruples about diverting and expropriating public money, and crony-ocracy, where 'mates rates' and 'political insider trading' reap gross rewards. Prime examples are sometimes revealed to the public, as with the current NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings.

The success of these parasites on democracy is enhanced by public servants beholden to political masters, political processes designed to obfuscate rather than produce the best outcome, and the power of lobby groups and the media. The power of the bureaucracy, which John Stuart Mill in 1837 described as a 'vast network of administrative tyranny', was first acknowledged in Western Europe in the early nineteenth century.

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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