In his account of how democratic states have dealt with major crises over the past century, David Runciman argues that responsiveness to public opinion makes democracies more adaptable than autocratic regimes. They perform well in emergencies, but in doing so fall into a confidence trap since electoral politics demands short-term solutions at the expense of long-term planning. They are good at dealing with emergencies but bad at avoiding them.
It is possible to see this logic in the historical record of Australian statecraft. The country was faced with an unprecedented threat when Japan entered the Second World War, and the measures taken to meet it mobilised the population for a total war effort. In federal elections in 1943 and 1946 voters were prepared to accept measures of economic and social reconstruction that strengthened the nation’s capacity, inaugurated a period of sustained growth, rising living standards and increased social provision. The national purpose had faltered by the 1960s, but it was not until a decade of futile argument over public policy failed to break the stagflation caused by the OPEC oil crisis that an Accord allowed the Hawke government to undertake measures needed to revive growth.
Were the remedies adopted here in the 1940s and 1980s short-term solutions? It is certainly possible to point to shortcomings in the arrangements that were devised. The full employment of the 1950s and 1960s was based on high levels of protection of local manufacturers with a consequent failure to keep up with new technologies and thus a decline in relative productivity. The far-reaching measures to revive the economy in the 1980s—including the redirection of teaching and research in the universities—were premised on the judgement that commodity exports could not sustain the balance of payments. In each case there was no lack of long-term projections; the problem was that these projections were based on mistaken assumptions.
Runciman’s argument is that such long-term planning is in any case vitiated in capitalist democracies by the short-term expectations of the electorate. In preparing postwar reconstruction the Curtin government sought an augmentation of Commonwealth powers (over employment, finance, trade, transport, national works, social welfare and Aboriginal affairs). Had the government pressed for these powers by referendum at the end of 1942 (when the states temporised with an undertaking to transfer them), there is little doubt it would have prevailed. But despite the failure of the states to do so, Curtin held off until August 1944, by which time the emergency was over and most voters no longer felt them necessary.
Runciman’s confidence trap is engendered by the fact that no crisis is as bad as it seems. Democracies muddle through. Once their complacency and overconfidence are upset, they find ways of adapting, experimenting and recovering from mistakes. That might well be true of the seven economic and geopolitical crises of the last century that he examines, though it is less clear it applies to more protracted and pervasive problems such as climate change. Nor is Runciman’s own confidence that flexible democracies prevail over rigid autocracies persuasive. Only with substantial reservations can it be sustained for the First World War (in which the principal combatants were imperial powers that coerced their colonial subjects). The collapse of Soviet rule did not bring down the Chinese rulers, and the war on terror goes badly.
In the aftermath of 1989 it is common to speak of a crisis in democracy. The predictions of commentators who expected a constitutional order protecting open and accountable government were illusory. The hopes of those who brought down the one-party states were followed by widespread disillusionment with the political regimes that followed. The political aftermath of the global financial crisis has compounded the problem. The emergency brought measures that averted a more serious collapse but did little to solve the flaws in the financial system that had engendered it. Elective governments that imposed the austerity measures demanded by the finance sector were turned out of office, only for their successors to renege on undertakings and tighten the belt.
There is a substantial international and Australian literature on the democratic deficit, one that takes in the narrowing of party differences, the decline in membership and participation, the incestuous character of the political class and its increased reliance on the large sums of money needed to practise its dark arts. Too many of these diagnoses are ahistorical. Dissatisfaction with politics arose almost from the inception of representative democracy in this country. Candidates for the colonial legislatures outbid each other with inflated promises of the benefits they would confer. Public life was punctuated by revelations of corruption, vitiated by cynicism.
It was the same in the early years of the last century, when a popular movement got up by businessmen demanded that government be put on a business footing, and again between the wars when organisations such as the All for Australia League wanted to clean up politics. ‘We hate all the parties’, the Citizens League of South Australia proclaimed. The political scientist Peter Loveday suggested that this form of anti-political political thought ran deep in this country where politicians were regarded as parasitic deceivers. The same sentiment was apparent in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, a franchise operation that inveighed against self-serving politicians and traded on public funding of its candidates’ electoral expenses.
‘Why do Australians dislike their politicians?’ was the subtitle of a collection of essays, The Prince’s New Clothes, edited by David Burchell and Andrew Leigh in 2002. In it Murray Goot drew on opinion polls going back to the 1940s to challenge the view that a crisis of cynicism was enveloping Australian politics. There was some evidence that the public standing of politicians had fallen, but from a low base, while that of bank managers, lawyers and journalists had fallen more steeply. Political engagement was higher at the end of the century than in the 1960s.
It is as unrealistic to think that dissatisfaction with democracy is a timeless condition as it is to regard the present dissatisfaction as unprecedented. Political participation is most compelling when it allows for alternative courses of action on matters of moment. There is nothing like an emergency to concentrate the mind. The problem is to sustain the momentum when the immediate emergency passes, to build on the mobilisation and make it a movement for lasting change. But that would take a crisis of unusual proportions.