Reviewed: Moira Rayner, Rooting Democracy (Allen & Unwin, 1997).
One of my early tasks as Minister for Health was to respond to the report of a government-established investigation of the use of human pituitary-derived hormones and the subsequent development in many patients of the debilitating and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The report detailed significant failings in government decision-making and in the operation of self-regulating professional bodies, and was typical of the sort of cautionary tale cited by Moira Rayner in Rooting Democracy.
While the tone of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob report was detached and careful, the full horror of a system allowed to operate without adequate scrutiny and accountability still emerged, as it does in Rayner’s more colourfully described case studies. The Creutzfeldt-Jakob investigation clearly revealed the failure of medical and research staff and administrators to heed growing concern in the scientific literature about the use of pituitary hormones derived from human cadavers. It also found that patients were offered the hormones for growth and fertility problems in ‘an unregulated fashion’, and that patients were rarely made aware of the source of the hormones or the associated side-effects and risk of disease. Among other difficulties, the report concluded that the government of the day ‘placed in the hands of those who ought to have been the subject of regulation, the very power of regulation itself’. Perhaps predictably, regulations were breached in several areas, including unauthorized use of ‘surplus’ stocks.
Although the report related to events that took place as long as twenty years ago, the current fashion for deregulation and self-regulation in areas such as product quality and occupational safety suggests that our governments have not learnt from examples such as these. Documented secrecy about emerging problems and the reluctance of some of those contacted to co-operate and reveal critical details about the collection of pituitary glands and their use in treatment regimes are familiar examples of an administration serving its own interests rather than those of its citizens. This is the nub of Rayner’s work.
The double entendre in the title of Moira Rayner’s Rooting Democracy is characteristic of her approach, illustrating at once the key themes and structure of her work and her own ambivalence about many of the issues. While Rayner appears to feel obliged to posit ideals and recommend cures for the ailments she detects, it is her flair for dissection and criticism that gives force and colour to this work.
The first part of the book is a rapid-fire précis of Rayner’s views of the fundamental features of a healthy democracy, and includes a call for the resumption of commitment to collective action and the engagement of governments with their people. This and the final section on solutions appear to have been included as a concession to symmetry—a cursory statement of the ideal before launching into the critique—as if anticipating the frequent and fatuous criticism of critics: that they have no right to express an opinion unless they can simultaneously offer solutions to the problems they identify. The larger and more impressive section of the book deals with the forces that weaken and threaten Galbraith’s ‘good society’ and diminish individual rights and freedoms. Here Rayner’s wit and passion are used to best effect in nailing the perpetrators who are ‘rooting our democracy’. Given the considerable educative value of the work it probably should be mandatory reading for all the offending parties, including serving politicians.
In outlining the necessary foundations of democracy, Rayner does not engage in speculation about their value; her arguments consist of assertions expressed emphatically and with little qualification. Typical is her claim that ‘Australians are embarrassed by citizenship rhetoric and suspect that it is manipulative.’ From the way she propels us through her catechism of democracy, this would certainly seem to be true of Rayner herself. Nevertheless, her exposition is direct and easily understood and she largely avoids the trap of high-flown, cottonwool rhetoric, though there is a flirtation with Putnam’s infuriatingly vague prescriptions for a ‘civic society’.1 Rayner refers to Putnam’s work on participation and shared responsibility in community organizations, which are said to form social capital and spill over to improve the quality of government, but she offers no evidence or mechanism for the translation of this social capital into a healthy democracy. While her review of democracy’s roots is a useful ready reckoner, many of the traits and ideals call for more extensive treatment, especially when they are contentious. This, however, may be asking more than is reasonable, given the author’s already broad canvas.
There is a sense of urgency in both the style and the arguments of Rooting Democracy. This is a book for the moment that pays little attention to the deeper, historical origins of Australian democracy or the relationship between Australian citizens and the institutional and legal structures they have inherited. Rayner makes no apology for this approach and it works to make her accounts of an impressive range of topics, normally reserved for academic and professional discourse, vivid and engaging. She is as assured in dealing with current economic orthodoxy as with communications policy, and is relentless in ferreting out offenders against the democratic ideal.
The majority of her case studies of various forms of bastardry are drawn from Victoria, where she has had recent, personal experience of the ruthlessness of an unrestrained executive government. In agreeing that ‘Guy Fawkes had a point’ Rayner appears to suggest that cynicism about politicians and the elected legislatures is terminal and that they are and are perceived to be out of touch with their constituents. While much in her description is reasonable, the attribution of these shortcomings solely to the structural weaknesses inherent in the party system and the adversarial nature of our Westminster-based parliamentary system seems to underestimate the deeper malaise identified by John Ralston Saul in his recent works: the unrestrained ascendancy of elites indifferent to humanist values and enamoured of the linear, rational solution.2
The chapter on the ‘expansionist’ executive is a timely and grim warning about the increasing curtailment of forces that should restrain and balance the sometimes feudal power of executives flush with a large mandate. Given the current fashion for contracting out and contracting public servants, her arguments in favour of a more traditional, apolitical public service deserve careful consideration. As she says, ‘Under the new regime, public servants are far more likely to second-guess their ministers and tell them what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear’ (116). Keeping ministers ignorant of countervailing arguments and telling them only the good news may make for a temporary sense of satisfaction, but in the long term good policy is certain to suffer.
Rayner also documents recent examples of Australian governments moving to muzzle dissenting voices and independent watchdogs in response to reasonable criticism and adverse publicity. Premier Kennett’s attacks on her own Commission for Equal Opportunity and on the Director of Public Prosecutions are bluntly portrayed and anticipate his government’s recent decision to emasculate the office of the Auditor General, a decision announced the day after the auditor reported possible corruption in the letting of contracts to manage the Victorian ambulance service.
Her analysis of the risks inherent in assaults on judicial independence are timely too. Since the publication of Rooting Democracy Australia’s chief justices have found it necessary to issue a statement defending judicial independence, a call reinforced by statements from the Chief Justice of the High Court. Acts by various governments to limit judicial independence attract Rayner’s ire, as does the increasing curtailment of citizens’ rights ‘to challenge decisions that infringe their rights and freedoms’ (138). Although many of these object lessons are likely to reinforce the cynicism and sense of helplessness that she identifies as a serious contemporary problem for democracy, her account does include some optimism. Rayner documents several instances in which determined community action and the use of independent judicial and review bodies have produced results for persistent citizens.
While Rayner’s treatments of Commonwealth and state government relations and the role of local government are solid and generally uncontroversial, her assessment of the media’s role seems to have been coloured by her own experience as a professional watchdog. She gives more weight to the few examples of effective investigative journalism that have caused authorities to change direction (e.g. Phil Dickie’s and Chris Masters’ exposure of corruption in Queensland) than is warranted by the more pernicious influences evident daily in the media. A stronger case could be made that, with few exceptions, the more characteristic approach by the media to news, current affairs and policy questions is not informative but promotional, not dispassionate but adversarial, not thoughtful but trivializing. In the electronic media the eight-second grab from interviewees is increasingly overwhelmed by reporters’ intrusions into news stories, and competent, well-informed journalists are often replaced by deliberately provocative ‘personalities’. Meanwhile, the separation between reporting and commentary has become so blurred in most of our newspapers that the reader’s ability to make independent analyses of issues is clearly compromised. The pressure to produce mediocre uniformity of opinion is enormous, something Rayner recognizes in the almost universal and largely uncritical embrace by decision-makers of ‘the religion of the market’.
Rayner deals only cursorily with the increasingly blatant manipulation of the media by public relations, political and other ‘spin doctors’ described in Stauber and Rampton’s Toxic Sludge is Good for You.3 This is a significant but, not surprisingly, under-reported feature of the management of public perceptions in modern societies. Since most citizens rely on the popular electronic media for their knowledge of current events, these distortions would appear to be a significant threat to the informed vigorous and reciprocal ‘conversation’ between governments and citizens that Rayner recommends.
Rooting Democracy deserves a wide readership, not least because it is one of the few Australian attempts to deal comprehensively with the questions we must tackle if we are to live together co-operatively while still protecting individual rights. This simply written and lucid exposition might lead some to complain that it fails to do justice to the complexity of many of the issues. While it is true that in some cases Rayner is doing little more than placing signposts for further exploration, she nevertheless succeeds admirably in her express purpose: ‘I have written this book … because I am one of the citizens. I don’t want to teach. I want to learn about how we live together best, and how we might deal with our lives in these decades of change. I want a society that offers a decent life for all its citizens; how do we build it together?’ (5)
Image credit: JJ Harrison
- R. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993).
- J. R. Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (Penguin, Toronto, 1993).
- J. Stauber and S. Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You (Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 1995).