Democracy is about serving the people

The past decade has seen a disturbing decline in the political systems of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The clash of ideals has been supplanted by the excess of ego. And it is proving to be a kiss of death for good governance.

The recent furore in the United States over the so-called fiscal cliff is a perfect illustration of the syndrome. At its root is a trend for those parties and alliances that do not win an election to believe – and behave – as if the voters were too stupid to give them a mandate.  That is, the voters must have made a mistake.

The danger is obvious as major political parties delve ever deeper into the mindset that they are right and the voters keep getting it wrong. Next stop: totalitarianism.

The same scenario has been played-out in Australia after a national election in which the governing party (Labor) copped an electoral hiding and barely managed to form a minority administration cobbled together with the support of a few independents. The opposition (Liberal-National coalition) immediately began a ceaseless campaign of denigration arguing that the government had no mandate.

This is deeply disturbing because – even if a narrow majority of voters did not want this government – our political system provides the current outcome as a reasonable and acceptable element of our democratic process. The legitimacy of the government, given its ability to continue to win a majority in the lower house, is entirely sacrosanct no matter how frustrated the opposition might be that they lost by only a slender margin.

It is impossible to see the vituperative campaign of belittlement as anything more than sour grapes that the perks, privileges and power of office was denied them.

It is exactly the same with the Republicans in America. They appear to sit, stewing in anger and frustration, that voters got it completely wrong by granting the Democrats a renewed mandate. The Republicans appear to believe that their platform was so intelligent, appropriate and worthwhile that it could not possibly have failed to attract a majority of the vote.

Hey, guys, it didn’t! You got done! You got beaten in a fair contest. What is unutterably difficult to understand is that the Republicans, especially the lunatic-fringe Tea Party element, cannot accept that the democratic system they are sworn to uphold could deliver them a rebuff. That is the ‘born to rule’ syndrome gone feral.

If it grows much more virulent than it already has – bearing in mind it has infected Australia and the United Kingdom also – it represents a very serious threat to democracy as we know it.

The immediate concern is the unwillingness of those in opposition to strike any kind of compromise with those who hold office. The fiscal cliff is a key example where American voters – and, in this case, much of the global population – have been held to ransom by the refusal of Republicans to strike a deal reflecting the Democrat’s electoral mandate.

The argument that this is an example of the checks and balances that are integral to the proper functioning of the democracy is facile because it strikes at the heart of our freedom to elect one side or another to implement the platform on which they sought a mandate. It is, in practice, subversive.

It is cheap trash talk to suggest that refusing to let your opponent implement its policies is protecting the electorate. Even if the electorate were to suffer adverse consequences, the administration which has been given a mandate has been empowered by voters to get on with the job.

If their policies prove ineffective or unpalatable, it is the right of voters to throw them out. But it is not legitimate to claim that voters have given the opposition parties a mandate to obstruct the government of the day. Certainly not to the suffocating effect that has become the norm now.

We have seen with chilling effect in Australia and America that these tactics are making government almost unworkable. In fact, they threaten the very fabric of our democratic tradition.

Voters must give voice to their concerns loudly and clearly if we are to restore a semblance of sensibility to the process of government. Those who would destroy our democracy should be brought to heel.