How do you define democracy?

We thank the people who provided feedback on our birth of the Constitution article last week. You have helped us immensely and your contributions will be incorporated. We continue writing content for the Australian Constitution Centre which examines the principles that are contained within our Constitution. This week we explore the important theme ‘democracy’.

The meaning of democracy can be hard to put your finger on. We know it involves the Government and elections. And just to make it harder, countries around the world have different democratic systems. There are many published scales of democracy, but they use different criteria to measure and this means the outcomes vary.

One such scale published last year ranked Australia as the 10th most democratic country in the world. This scale had Norway as the most democratic country and North Korea as the least. Most would say North Korea is not democratic at all. So why are they on a democracy scale? There are other scales that instead measure System of Government. These comparisons are more interested in constitutional form, the role of the head of state and if there is a parliament, how independent it is.

As you know the Australian Constitution Centre will be at the High Court. The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia provides a summary of the courts conception of democracy in Australia. This gives us a good foundation for our discussion.

The origins of democracy

Many believe that democracy sprung up in Ancient Greece. However, the way that societies organise themselves doesn’t tend to happen quickly. Each generation improves upon the ideas of the last and progresses the social and political values of the community. Democracy in a more basic form goes back as long as humans first civilised.

Ancient Greece was a participatory democracy, which meant that all citizens voted on each law. This would not be possible today. Can you imagine the Government holding a plebiscite on each new law? As communities grew, civil society adapted and democracy evolved.

These days most people refer to western democracies like ours as liberal democracies. But you will also have heard us called a representative democracy and a constitutional democracy.

We are all those democracies. Being a representative democracy means that we have a parliament that represents the people and being a constitutional democracy is pretty straight forward- i.e. we have a constitution. But what is a liberal democracy?

It refers to political systems in which there are attempts to:

  • defend and increase civil liberties against the encroachment of governments, institutions and powerful forces in society
  • restrict or regulate government intervention in political, economic and moral matters affecting the citizenry
  • increase the scope for religious, political and intellectual freedom of citizens
  • question the demands made by vested interest groups seeking special privileges
  • develop a society open to talent and which rewards citizens on merit, rather than on rank, privilege or status
  • frame rules that maximise the well-being of all or most citizens

Australian democracy

Australian democracy shares some values with other countries (we have a parliament) and others that are not very common (compulsory voting). But together, all our democratic values create an Australian democracy that is unique.

The Australian democracy has at its heart, the following core defining values:

  • freedom of election and being elected;
  • freedom of assembly and political participation;
  • freedom of speech, expression and religious belief;
  • rule of law; and
  • other basic human rights

But democracy doesn’t stand still. It’s always changing, adapting, evolving to suit the times.

Democracy is something that progresses

The first European settlements in Australia were penal colonies and many would not associate convict colonies with democracy. But those who arrived in Australia during this period did have democratic ideals and principles. They were following a set of political and legal traditions from the United Kingdom. Some of the events that occurred during the early years of settlement in Australia would not be considered right, proper or democratic these days.

Over time as the colonies grew convicts were released and as free people arrived in these colonies they became more democratic. By the late 19th century the six colonies were all self-governing. They had parliaments and responsible governments. Then in 1901 the colonies joined together under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. Australian democracy is strong because of our Constitution. But even after our Constitution came into effect we have continued to make political and social progress.

But what sustains democracy? The Constitution outlines our democratic system in black and white and contains important democratic principles, like the separation of powers. But our democracy is sustained by the people and the institutions of Australia. Democracy can only continue with the approval of the people and so it is the democratic values of Australians that maintain our democracy. Values like the ‘fair go’ permeate throughout our democracy.

Civil society

Functioning democracies require the support and the attention of the people living within it. In the last few years many national Australian surveys have found that trust is democracy is very low. Only 54% of 18-29 year olds thought that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government in the last Lowy Poll and 28% thought that in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable. Here at CEFA we were shocked by these results.

Every building block in our democracy from the Constitution, the rule of law, the separation of powers and the parliament, protects and characterise us as a civil society. If we weren’t a democracy, then what would we be? How would the 23 million people in Australia organise themselves?

If you have time, let us know if you think our democracy should be different and what changes you would make. If you were one of the delegates who helped write our Constitution in the 1890’s which sections would you have omitted? What would you have added?

After all the Constitution belongs to the people and it can only be changed with our consent. 


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