As attacks on the façade of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House finally come to an end, it’s easy to miss that attacks on the institution itself have been going on for years—but they haven’t come from violent mobs. They come from the Australian Government itself.
For many years, the Museum has been a leading observer of the global decline of trust in democracy. In response to ‘the lowest level recording of public trust and satisfaction with Australia’s democratic arrangements and set against the global rise of debased semi-democracies,’ in 2018 the Museum established a research partnership with the University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.
Called Democracy 2025, this work ‘audits the qualities of Australian democracy’ to ‘improve our democratic practice and be the best democracy that we can be’, as well ‘building a new generation of democratically engaged Australians.’
Its key questions include How to Rebuild Trust in Government, Public Engagement and its Impact on Parliament, and How Can We Clean Up Politics?
‘By 2025 if nothing is done and current trends continue,’ Democracy 2025 warns, ‘fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions—resulting in ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic wellbeing’.
Central to this work has been the bold exhibition Democracy: Are You In?, offering compelling and fun ways for adults and kids alike to grapple with these crucial matters. Carefully curated objects and experiences inspire us to understand the basic tenets of democracy and to improve our critical capacities, ensuring we’re able to hold the people we elect to account.
So has this been a wake-up call for governments to do better? A valuable encouragement to re-engage us by demonstrating clearly and passionately their commitment to the public good? Quite the reverse.
The year after Democracy 2025 was launched, the Inquiry into Australia’s National Cultural Institutions singled out the Museum of Australian Democracy as venturing beyond its scope by undermining ‘a shared and consistent vision about Australian democracy’. The report recommends that the Museum limit its focus to ‘inspiring [visitors’] faith in our democracy… rather than focusing on critical debates.’
A review of the Museum’s scope is also called for, suggesting that its spaces become ‘a working extension of Parliament House’ which is ‘presently facing space constraints and rents commercial space elsewhere.’
With Museum Director Daryl Karp AM’s contract up in just over a year, we’ll need to keep a close eye on such moves.
The Joint Standing Committee then goes on to make programming recommendations overriding the Director, suggesting that the Museum display items that tell the story of ‘our democratically governed and member-owned and operated political parties, particularly given the rise of activist political companies that have no broad membership-based ownership or governance structures’. This, they suggest, is an appropriate role for the Museum because ‘political parties do not have the resources to independently and comprehensively undertake this task’.
Confirmed in last May’s budget, the Australian Government is imposing on the Museum a permanent exhibition ‘curated’ by the Australian Electoral Commission. The $6m announcement said: ‘The AEC’s highly acclaimed education centre has successfully taught many thousands of students… but there has never been a space for public visitors to Old Parliament House to have the same educational experience.’
In fact, the Museum of Australian Democracy has been open at Old Parliament House since 2009, with pre-pandemic visitation attracting 300-350,000 people annually. Its collections already hold party-political material, and it welcomes tens of thousands of students each year.
What happens when museums get politicised? We lose valuable public spaces for interpreting our history, reflecting on our present and imagining our shared future. We diminish opportunities for collective critical thinking. We undermine the value of the artefacts of democracy—objects rigorously collected and conserved by experts in fostering independent interpretation by diverse communities of adults and children.
Worse: we normalise the failure to distinguish between the national interest and the political interest.
Quite rightly for an Australian public institution focused on civic issues, the Museum is engaging actively with the global decline in trust in democracy.
‘Inspiring faith in our democracy’, on the other hand, is a fundamental duty of the people we elect.
If the Museum were collecting the artefacts of politicians’ behaviour today, what would those objects and media clips be, and what would they show us? Rather than upholding that faith, we see elected members actively feeding that distrust to pursue narrow political objectives, rather than significant national objectives toward the public good.
We see politicians rejecting climate science, undermining public health measures, actively promoting dangerous coronavirus remedies, telling us how sick they are of the government being in their lives, and prizing Australians who are quiet, not critical.
Whether it’s silencing the advocacy of charities, politicising university research priorities, engaging in deliberate and extensive pork-barrelling, avoiding the promised establishment of a national anti-corruption commission, or restricting the right to vote, Australia’s democracy is indeed in trouble.
The Museum presents exhibitions that encourage critical approaches to citizenship as the foundation of a robust, healthy democracy. As a nation, we should be proud of its approach and proud of its collections.
Front doors at the Museum of Australian Democracy destroyed by a small group of people who have been denounced by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Ngambri Ngunnawal Elders are disturbing—but what’s even more alarming are the threats to Australian democracy coming from Parliament House.
Esther Anatolitis is Director of Test Pattern, Honorary Associate Professor at RMIT School of Art, and Deputy Chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts.