Democracy, Liberal Authoritarianism and the Voice

Hatred of democracy is certainly nothing new. Indeed it is as old as democracy itself. 
                                                 —Jacques Rancière

Who could possibly hate democracy? Well, lots of people, and the further back you go in history, the more you find. Of course, twentieth-century fascists, communists, Nazis and killjoys of all kinds were full of contempt for democracy, but they were angry about lots of things, and hatred of democracy was hardly their worst crime. In the nineteenth century, German philosophers buried democracy under thousands of pages of unreadable prose, and even unreadable poetry. In eighteenth-century France, neither the Jacobins nor the monarchists—the original “left” and “right” of the French Revolution—had much time for democracy. Enlightenment luminaries like Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire outright despised democracy. At the time they were writing, there hadn’t been any democracies worthy of the name for more than two thousand years, since the glory days of ancient Greece. Even then, democracy was far from universally popular. Aristotle considered it a “degenerate” form of government. Plato equated it with “mob rule”.

Today, by contrast, everyone loves democracy. Always “in crisis” or “under threat”, democracy must nonetheless be preserved “at all costs”. Right up until the Second World War, respectable intellectuals could criticise democracies for putting power in the hands of the uncultured masses or question the ability of democracies to face the challenges of the modern world. Not any more. After the war, democracy (or at least the idea of democracy) reigned supreme. As the Cold War kicked off in late 1945, the Soviet Union made a great show of holding democratic elections in occupied Hungary. The Soviets themselves went to the polls in February 1946, followed by elections in Czechoslovakia and a constitutional referendum in Poland. It seemed that even a sham democracy was better than no democracy at all. When the communist revolutionary Kim Il-sung proclaimed himself the “Great Leader” of the Korean people, he named his new country the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

In the twenty-first century, everyone except the Taliban wants to be (or to be seen to be) a democracy. Even Pakistan’s army holds regular elections to bring in civilian governments that can legally approve the military’s budget. The Islamic Republic of Iran hasn’t missed an election since the ayatollahs swept to power in 1979. When South Sudan voted in a referendum to break away from Sudan in 2011, it promptly held elections—then descended into a civil war over the outcome. When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, it held a referendum to legitimate its conquest, then an election for a regional parliament. When Myanmar’s generals overturned an election they lost in 2021, they proclaimed their intention of holding fresh elections as soon as possible (don’t hold your breath). Even the People’s Republic of China claims to be a democracy: a “democracy that works”. A government proclamation celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party helpfully explained that China’s “whole-process people’s democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state”.

Once considered a crazy experiment fit only for Americans, democracy is now the only game in town.

Obviously, democracies are not all created equal. Leaving aside China’s system of “whole-process people’s democracy” and Russia’s doctrine of “sovereign democracy”, Western political scientists have described (and often advocated) a wide variety of democratic forms of governance: direct democracy, deliberative democracy, digital democracy, social democracy, liquid democracy, monitory democracy, participatory democracy, Solonian democracy and even post-democracy. But the gold standard of democracy is and always has been liberal democracy. The United States was born under its Constitution a liberal democracy in 1789, and it remains one today. Despite all the criticisms of American democracy (and there are many), it remains the global gold standard for liberal democracy. Love it or hate it, all other democracies must ultimately judge themselves against American democracy. It may not be to every­one’s taste (sometimes it seems as if it’s to no one’s taste), but American democracy is inevitably the touchstone against which all others are compared.

Not that political theorists agree about what, exactly, makes a democracy liberal. The prestige of liberal democracy is so strong (at least in the Western world) that every side wants to claim the term for itself. Thus in defining liberal democracy, it’s best to turn to a dictionary, and to avoid cherry-picking of definitions, it’s best to turn to the dictionary that modestly describes itself as “the definitive record of the English language”. The Oxford English Dictionary is unique, not only for its scope and detail, but also for its scholarship. It takes a historical approach to language, documenting the origins of words and the ways they have been used throughout history. It is uniquely comprehensive and impeccably impartial. And it defines liberal democracy as “a democratic system of representative government in which individual rights and civil liberties are officially recognised and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law”.

The dictionary is pretty clear on this: liberal democracy is a form of democracy in which people vote for their own representatives, and are free to vote without fear of retribution from their leaders. Liberal democracies might have presidential or parliamentary systems of government; they might have elected judges or independent judiciaries; they might have single-member voting districts like the United States or proportional representation like many European countries; they might or might not allow ballot initiatives, referendums and recall elections; they might have bare-minimum social security protections or boast generous welfare states; in short, liberal democracies take many different shapes, but they always prioritise the dignity of the individual over the majesty of the state. In a (specifically) liberal democracy, the freedoms of individual people always take priority over the needs of the collective People.

That has always irked some liberals. Today it irks many liberals. The dignity of the individual may be the foundation of liberal democracy, but that doesn’t stop liberals from seeking to impose their preferred policies on recalcitrant unbelievers in the name of liberalism. They vilify their adversaries as being not merely wrong but immoral; they fervently believe that policies they oppose are not merely bad but intolerable. Nonetheless, American liberals have historically accepted the principle that their disagreements, no matter how deeply felt, should be settled through the democratic procedures laid out in the United States Constitution. No matter how passionate their electoral rhetoric, Americans have (almost) always respected the outcomes of elections, bided their time, and waited patiently for the next opportunity to compete at the polls. Only once in nearly two and a half centuries have Americans felt that the demands of justice were so intense that liberal policy reforms could not wait for a democratic majority. That democratic breakdown led to the American Civil War.

In the post-Trump era, many leading liberals believe (or at least say they believe) that a second democratic breakdown is imminent. They fear that the period 2021 to 2024 may turn out to have been only a Trump interregnum, and they seriously argue that the return of Donald Trump to the presidency would mean the end of American democracy. President Joe Biden has repeatedly invoked the memory of the Civil War, suggesting that former President Trump and his supporters pose an even greater threat to democracy than a conflict that killed nearly a million Americans. That original Civil War was fought in the service of a great moral cause: the abolition of slavery. Historians may split hairs over the causes of the war, but anyone who has read the contemporary sources knows that slavery was the key issue dividing the country. Biden and his supporters seem to genuinely believe that the current crisis is just as serious. Abhorrence of the former president, for them, actually rises to the grandeur of the nineteenth-century anti-slavery crusade. So they say.

People who equate Trump’s Tweets with plantation slavery have either a limited understanding of history or a tenuous grasp on reality. While the former remains a possibility, the latter is a near certainty. Trump Derangement Syndrome is a very real malady, and the prospect that the former president might actually make a comeback drives some liberals crazy. The original template for Trump Derangement Syndrome was Bush Derangement Syndrome, which was first diagnosed in 2003 by psycho-political pundit Charles Krauthammer as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush”. One might as well add a Reagan Derangement Syndrome and a Nixon Derangement Syndrome, and for those with long memories a Goldwater Derangement Syndrome. It seems every Republican president (or presidential candidate) sparks some kind of apoplectic response among liberals, both at home and abroad. You’d think people would have caught on by now.

The American liberal malady—also to be observed in Australia, and indeed wherever small-l liberals gather—is invariably associated with a horror for the supposed anti-intellectual predilections of the provoker. Trump was endlessly ridiculed for proclaiming “I love the poorly educated”, and in fact the poorly educated voted for him in record numbers. The American liberal establishment openly mocks Trump’s claims to be a “very stable genius”. They don’t even think he is an unstable evil genius. They think he is a moron.

They may be right, but if so, Trump is never going to admit it. What makes Trump Derangement Syndrome distinctive in American history is not that the American political establishment despises him, as it does all anti-intellectual conservatives. What makes Trump different is the evident (and very public) contempt he holds for the liberal establishment. Hell hath no fury like an establishment scorned, and Trump scorns them—all of them. So did those who voted for him. Having been warned that Trump was a rapist, a racist, a homophobe, an Islamophobe, a sexist, a Russian agent, and an all-round bigot, 63 million people voted for him anyway. After four years of incessantly shrill elite condemnation, an impeachment, and a pandemic, 74 million people voted to re-elect him in 2020. In the liberal establishment’s calculus, that makes at least one-third of all American adults absolutely “deplorable”. Yet Trump and his supporters stood their politically incorrect ground. They never gave in.

The last American president to stand up to the entire liberal establishment was Andrew Jackson, who held the office from 1829 to 1837. Jackson was a frontiersman, an Indian fighter and a military hero. He was the first president to be the target of an assassination attempt; when the assassin’s gun misfired, the sixty-eight-year-old Jackson nearly beat him to death with his walking stick. Jackson is believed to have fought more than 100 duels. In one, he was shot square in the chest. Desperately wounded but still standing, he levelled his gun, took aim, and killed his opponent. Jackson’s presidency came thirty years before the Civil War, but even then pressure for secession was already mounting in the south. Jackson, however, was staunchly pro-union, despite being a major slaveowner. When South Carolina threatened to secede in 1832, Jackson pledged that “if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find”. It was widely understood that he meant he would do it himself.

Donald Trump was known to speculate about whether the Civil War ever would have occurred under a president like Jackson. It’s a fair question. The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 certainly wouldn’t have stood a chance.

By the standards laid down by Jackson, Trump’s anti-intellectual intransigence is mild, and the reasons for it are not so clear. Maybe it’s all that money. No one knows how rich Trump really is (one suspects that he refused to release his tax returns because they would reveal that he’s not as rich as everyone thinks), but he’s certainly rich enough not to be overawed by Wall Street or the Rockefeller Foundation. And whether or not he really is flush with cash, he’s sufficiently full of himself to stand his ground in the face of near-universal pressure to conform to the dictates of authoritative institutions. He certainly wouldn’t have been cowed into a bank bailout like Bush was in 2008, or into backing down over Syria like Obama in 2013. He may be no Andrew Jackson, but he’s as stubborn and wilful as any politician practising today.

As president, Trump notoriously disregarded the opinions of established experts on everything from the border wall to the design of elevators on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The funny thing is, he was right on both. In time, he’ll probably be proven right on ivermectin, too. But right or wrong is not the important thing, as seen from the liberal perspective. Trump’s crime was believing that he—or even the voters who elected him—had the authority to make decisions for the American people without first gaining the approval of the liberal class and the expert policy establishment it supports. Trump’s naive approach to the presidency was simply to implement the policies that he had promised to pursue. He actually fulfilled (or at least tried to fulfil) the sometimes-crazy promises that had got him elected. That made him unique in the American political landscape. Driven by negative polling, Hillary Clinton had matched Trump’s promise to cancel the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but no one actually believed her. Trump pulled out on his fourth day in office.

Business as usual in politics is to listen to the voters on the campaign trail, then listen to the experts in office. Everyone knows that, and (nearly) everyone plays the game. In the United States, how many Democrats have promised pro-union policies, universal healthcare and legislation to ensure abortion rights? How many Republicans have promised international trade protections, balanced budgets and legislation to prohibit the practice of abortion? Joe Biden’s headline economic policy pledge was to renegotiate international trade agreements to allow the United States government to “buy American”; one of his headline foreign policy pledges was to end American “support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen”. The first was inserted into his agenda at the behest of unions; the second, at the behest of peace activists. Each group was, in effect, bought off with a campaign promise that neither expected would actually be kept. That may seem like a low price, but who else could they support? Donald Trump?

No one serious took Biden’s campaign pledges seriously, not even his supporters. In the minds of the liberal establishment, elections are not appropriate venues for serious policy discussion. The establishment consensus is exactly the opposite: the “politicisation” of policy issues is something to be condemned, and the keeping of election promises constitutes “pandering” to voters. Responsive politicians are no better than political pimps, finding out what the voters want and giving it to them in exchange for their votes. As mainstream political scientists ceaselessly assert, giving the voters what they want on the basis of majority rule is not “real” democracy but “demagoguery”. In the liberal establishment view, promising policies to voters and then carrying them out once elected is actually a form of democratic breakdown. Such “majoritarian” democracy is no democracy at all.

Elite disdain for majority rule is a serious problem in the United States, but it has much deeper roots in Europe. Until the middle of the twentieth century, there was no consensus among European intellectuals that democracy was actually a good thing. Even after the Second World War, Western European politicians on both the Left and the Right arguably accepted democracy only as an inevitable consequence of Anglo-American occupation. They quickly sought to shift power to the supernational level as a way to mitigate the demands of electoral politics. Historically, the European elites attempting to subvert democracy were either monarchist or Jacobin, aristocratic or socialist, theocratic or atheist—anything but liberal. Seventy years of democracy brought liberalism to the fore, but it didn’t change the elite distaste for democracy. European liberals, once a beleaguered minority living under anti-democratic regimes, are now an ascendant minority, yearning for an anti-democratic regime. Today, European liberalism is strongest precisely where democracy is weakest: in the administrative bureaucracy of the European Union.

If the Anglo-American world was the birthplace of liberalism, continental Europe was the birthplace of authoritarianism. Portugal’s António Salazar was the first prominent political leader to be described as “authoritarian”. By most contemporary accounts, he was an effective ruler, at least in his first two decades. Winston Churchill praised him; Oxford gave him an honorary degree. Salazar succeeded in keeping Portugal neutral throughout the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, then got his country invited to become a founding member of NATO in 1949. His biggest mistake seems to have been falling for the dictator’s perpetual dilemma: not knowing when to quit. He remained in office until he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma in 1968. There is little reason to believe that Portugal would have been better governed in the middle of the twentieth century under the unstable democracy that preceded him than under Salazar’s firm authoritarianism. The most serious complaint that can be levelled at this, the archetype of all authoritarian regimes, is simply that it was not democratic.

The same charge can be laid against twenty-first-century liberal authoritarianism. It may be that independent central banks, apolitical court systems and fully empowered health bureaucracies can manage public affairs better than elected politicians. And it must be admitted that liberal icons like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern are often more reliable sources of “truth” than populist demagogues like Donald Trump. But democracy is neither a mechanism for producing good policy nor a tool for discovering truth. It is a process through which the amorphous will of the people is crystallised into concrete decisions, for good or (it must be admitted) sometimes for bad. Democracies aren’t always on the right side of history.

To see that, just think of the slave-owning democrat Thomas Jefferson preaching the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and that “liberty” was an “unalienable” right. Or go back to the archetype of all democracies. In 427 BC, ancient Athens crushed a revolt in its client state of Mytilene and the Athenians voted to kill all the men and enslave the women and children. Thucydides wrote of how they famously reopened the debate and reversed their harsh decision. Score 1 for democracy. The very next year, the Athenians conquered the island of Melos … and voted to kill all the men and enslave the women and children. This time there was no heroic reversal. From Melos right through to Bomber Harris, Rolling Thunder and the Obama “kill list”, democracies have repeatedly demonstrated their amorality in times of war. The fact that many non-democracies were not amoral, but absolutely evil, is hardly a ringing endorsement.

No, if we are to believe in democracy, it must be because free people believe in self-government. Authoritarianism is not so much a flawed form of government as an abnegation of human dignity. Europe’s classic authoritarianisms were coalitions between clerical and security establishments to maintain consensus rule in the absence of strong political parties or genuine political competition. They were, in many ways, Platonic. Most of them were ultimately brought down, not by democracies, but by the revolutionary anti-authoritarian forces of bolshevism, fascism and Nazism. These movements replaced authoritarian regimes with totalitarian ones. Contrary to popular (and even academic) misconceptions, the party-based totalitarian regimes of the mid-twentieth century were absolutely not authoritarian. They were anti-authoritarian, pulling down established institutions to replace them with dictatorships based on pure power. These, too, have thankfully passed into history—at least in Europe.

But although Europe’s old authoritarian regimes are now long gone, and old-style authoritarianisms persist only on the margins of the continent (in places like Turkey, Serbia and Russia), a new, transnational authoritarianism has taken root at the heart of Europe. It is the liberal authoritarianism of the European Union itself. Liberal authoritarianism is an emerging phenomenon, and as such it is not well theorised. It is a form of authoritarianism in which the relevant authorities are neither religious nor military, but thoroughly secular and intellectual. Like all authoritarianisms, liberal authoritarianism asserts that the moral authority of the political establishment is superior to the democratic authority of the majority will. It only differs from the old authoritarianisms in the identity of the political establishment that claims this moral authority. In the old authoritarianisms, establishment institutions inherited their moral authority from ancient feudal traditions. In the new authoritarianism, establishment institutions tend to appoint themselves.

Continental European liberals have rarely been successful in winning elections. They have, however, been much more successful in capturing bureaucracies, and especially Europe-wide bureaucracies like the Council of Europe (founded 1949), the European Court of Justice (1952), the European Central Bank (1998) and the European Union tout court. Insulated by design from the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics, these institutions are increasingly self-perpetuating and self-indulgent. Each has repeatedly expanded the scope of its authority in the absence of any additional legislative mandate: the European Court of Justice the authority to review member state constitutions, and the European Central Bank the authority (if not the power) to manage the climate of the very Earth itself. The democratic links through which the citizens of the European Union can oversee these institutions are weak and tenuous. These insulated institutions draw their authority from the acquiescence of the European political establishment, not from the approval of the European peoples. They are, by construction and in practice, anti-democratic tools of liberal authoritarianism.

This new, liberal authoritarianism is closely associated with globalism, technocracy and rule by experts. It is an attractive-sounding but ultimately anti-democratic approach to governance and reform. Whenever leading establishment figures insist that a particular policy realm is “too important” to be subjected to democratic decision-making, liberal authoritarianism is clearly in evidence. Whenever entire areas of policy-making are insulated from democratic processes by referring them to unelected technocrats, liberal authoritarianism is nakedly exposed.

The coronavirus pandemic made the arrival of liberal authoritarianism obvious to everyone. Establishment liberals throughout the Western world enthusiastically (some might say: sadistically) embraced public health strategies that compromised civil liberties in ways never before experienced in liberal democratic countries. They did this despite the fact that the global consensus on pandemic responses as late as September 2019 was that contact tracing and quarantines of non-infected individuals were “not recommended in any circumstances”. This, according to the World Health Organisation’s expert panel. There is perhaps no better illustration of Lord Acton’s maxim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Public health bureaucrats are not bad people, and there is no reason to believe they are inherently authoritarian. But given the opportunity to govern on their own authority instead of having to submit their recommendations for democratic scrutiny, they quickly conspired to accumulate power, suppress dissent and subvert democracy.

Since the passing of the pandemic, the authoritarian legitimation of power under the Biden administration has been extraordinary. It can be seen most clearly in the application of the law. A simple comparison of the aggressive prosecution of the January 6 Capitol occupiers with the relatively lax approach to Black Lives Matter protesters one year earlier makes that abundantly clear. The self-proclaimed anti-fascists who literally seized control of city centres while openly brandishing firearms, who burned down federal courthouses and local police stations, and who volubly called for the overthrow of the duly elected president of the United States, largely escaped prosecution or were let off with light sentences. Meanwhile the self-proclaimed patriots who streamed into the Capitol building “armed” with flagpoles and pepper spray have been branded “insurrectionists” for chanting anti-government slogans and propping their feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

The point of the comparison is not to exonerate the Capitol occupiers. It’s to contrast the disproportionate government responses to these strikingly disproportionate criminal activities. And it’s not only the United States that has become markedly more authoritarian in the wake of the coronavirus. Canada’s Justin Trudeau actually invoked his country’s Emergencies Act—intended for use in “an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada and that is so serious as to be a national emergency”—to aid his repression of trucker protests against vaccine mandates. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern frankly asserted that her administration would be her country’s “single source of truth” on health issues, and presumably on everything else. Victorian police actually arrested a pregnant woman for posting information about an anti-government coronavirus protest to social media. Anglo-American liberals were once queasy about appearing too authoritarian in their smug dismissals of dissenting opinion. Not anymore.

Now Australia is about to get its first serious bout of national-level liberal authoritarianism. Forget about Victoria’s Chairman Dan, and instead consider Anthony Albanese, a liberal if ever there was one. Don’t be misled by the “Labor” label: the so-called “jobs summit” resulted in “jobs and training pathways for women, First Nations people, regional Australians and culturally and linguistically diverse people”—and a massive boost in immigration. Middle-class union staffers got to virtue-signal; existing union members got little more than nothing. One year in, the Albanese government has established an anti-corruption Star Chamber, put price caps on gas and coal (but not wind or solar), and made it a top priority to help people end their own lives. The last, presumably in support of its promises to “improve patient access to general practitioners … multidisciplinary team care, including nursing and allied health” and to “decrease pressure on hospitals”. Noble causes, one and all, and nary a nationalisation in sight.

If this is socialism, call it socialism with Australian characteristics. The Albanese govern­ment is thoroughly liberal, so liberal that the actual Liberals are now routinely ridiculed for being “Labor lite”. The obvious implication is that Labor itself is really just “Liberal heavy”—that is, a party that embraces the same policy priorities as the Liberals (carbon targets, increased immigration and nuclear submarines), but with feeling.

And then there’s the “Voice”. Half of the Liberals in Parliament seem to endorse the Labor Voice, with the other half equivocating on support for a regional Liberal voice. The six teal ersatz Liberals are holding an informal competition to see who can get the highest Voice vote out of her electorate, with these blue-ribbon seats likely to post the strongest “yes” majorities in the country. The absolute consensus of Australia’s liberal political class is that there should be some form of organised indigenous Voice, and that it should be organised now. Peter Dutton may argue that the Voice should not be enshrined in the Constitution, and the Samuel Griffith Society may quibble over the two words “executive government”, but everyone in a position to have a voice on the Voice—from the frontbenchers to Facebook—supports it. Call it courtesy, or call it cringe: only retired politicians have proved ready to openly oppose the idea of an organised indigenous voice. And they’re retired for a reason.

There are many good arguments in favour of constituting an organised indigenous voice to parliament (and government), and many well-functioning international precedents for such a voice. The United States incorporates 326 indigenous “domestic dependent nations” within its borders, each of them possessing quasi-sovereign powers of self-determination. The largest of these, the Navajo, has more than 300,000 members. Canada officially recognises 634 “first nations”. In 1999 it also carved out a territory, Nunavut, with the explicit purpose of creating an indigenous-majority subnational unit. Nunavut is more than 85 per cent indigenous, and the neighbouring Northwest Territories are more than 50 per cent indigenous. Both have indigenous premiers. Closer to home, New Zealand has seven Maori electorates. The Sami people of northern Norway have their own parliament with serious fiscal, educational and cultural responsibilities. The Sami in Finland also have a parliament with more limited powers. Even Ireland has home rule.

In each and every one of these cases, indigenous political rights are recognised in their respective countries’ constitutions. And in each and every one of these cases, the opinions of indigenous peoples are amalgamated, distilled and expressed via formal democratic means. Even in Ireland. Throughout the Western world, indigenous peoples elect their leaders on the basis of universal adult suffrage. The principle of one person, one vote is so deeply engrained in today’s norms of good governance that it’s hard to imagine a developed Western democracy hosting an indigenous representative body on any other basis. It’s hard to imagine—except in Australia.

Here, the National Co-Design Group of the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process considered the option of holding elections for membership in the Voice … and rejected it. The plan was for each state and territory to return two members to the national Voice in separate electorates, one for women and the other for men (there apparently being no non-binary indigenous Australians). But the National Co-Design Group had a “strong consensus” in favour of an alternative model under which local and regional bodies would “collectively” appoint members to the national Voice. The members of the National Co-Design Group include an AC, four AOs, three AMs, five CEOs, a PSM, an academic, a festival director, and a woman of the year. Together, they worried that an elected Voice would “be dominated by known, well-resourced metropolitan-based candidates, or candidates with large networks, to the disadvantage of community candidates”.

A more discreet, less transparent selection process would, they felt, “build a stronger connection between the National Voice and communities”. The eminent Professor Tim Rowse is quoted in the co-design report as explaining that “direct election is a bad idea because it is likely to provide the wider public with grounds for doubting the legitimacy of the Voice”. More broadly, “many concerns were shared by a considerable majority” of the National Co-Design Group that direct elections would “threaten the legitimacy of the National Voice if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a jurisdiction do not prefer elections”. The National Co-Design Group seems not to have been concerned that the legitimacy of a stitch-up national Voice could be called into question if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a jurisdiction actually did prefer elections. And, of course, no one is going to ask them. The last thing the Voice advocates want is a referendum.

In an earlier age, the arguments against constituting an indigenous representative body along democratic lines would likely have focused on the supposed “immaturity” of the indigenous electorate, their “backward” customs, and their “unreadiness” for democracy. The present-day euphemism for such racist generalisations is that indigenous representative institutions must “observe and respect traditional cultural governance systems”. This, from KPMG Australia. As the accountancy explains in its Voice submission, in a passage picked up and highlighted in the co-design report: “Western and [indigenous] cultural systems of governance do not always align, and meaningful systemic and institutional change needs to occur for empowerment to be achieved.” If there’s a more polite way to imply that institutionally immature indigenous peoples must abandon their backward customs before they can be ready to embrace democracy, I’d love to see it.

It is an absolute misnomer acceptable for use only by activists, politicians and lawyers to call the proposed consultation mechanism for indigenous consultation an “Indigenous Voice”, since it will not, in fact, give indigenous Australians a voice. In the spirit of present-day liberal double-speak, it will actually suppress the voices of the vast majority of indigenous Australians. Instead of holding an equal Jack’s-as-good-as-his-master share in advising on policies for indigenous Australia, ordinary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be locked out of these debates. The Voice might deliver “reconciliation” between elite indigenous activists and elite white Australia, but it would do little to involve non-elite indigenous Australians in the dignity of self-governance. It would do absolutely nothing to “close the gap”.

Instead of embracing democracy, the indigenous Voice proposed by the National Co-Design Group and endorsed by Prime Minister Albanese and the “Yes” campaign is designed to be nakedly authoritarian. It would draw its legitimacy from the consensus of establishment institutions, not the consent of the governed. It would have indigenous Australians be spoken for and spoken to, but it would not allow them to speak. Individual indigenous Australians would not have the ability to object to positions taken by the Voice within the Voice system; they would not have access to mechanisms for dissent; none would, to use the language of the law, have “standing” to challenge the Voice. The “No” campaign seems to be focused mainly on the divisiveness of inserting a race-based institution into the Australian Constitution. It should be more concerned with the criminality of disenfranchising Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to tell you the truth you already know about yourself, but just can’t admit. As a foreigner, a friend, and a Philistine, I’m here to tell Australians that the indigenous Voice on which you will soon vote is a dud. It is an anti-democratic mechanism for authoritarian governance that will set a precedent for other forms of liberal authoritarianism to follow. Today, the Voice. Tomorrow, the Carbon Commission. And soon enough, the return of the National Cabinet. All well-meaning, all thoroughly liberal, and all authoritarian.

Liberal authoritarianism is probably the best possible kind of authoritarianism, and if authoritarianism were unavoidable, it would be the authoritarianism of choice. Fortunately, authoritarianism is not unavoidable. No well-institutionalised democracy has ever actually fallen into authoritarianism. With the vigilance and conviction of committed democrats, we can reasonably hope that none ever will.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney. His “Philistine” column appears monthly in Quadrant

27 thoughts on “Democracy, Liberal Authoritarianism and the Voice

  • Michael says:

    Great piece Salvatore!

  • DougD says:

    A great article. It’s full of good things. The unkindest cut? – “Even Ireland has home rule.”

  • rosross says:

    Some excellent points in this which makes it an even greater pity for the subjective bias on some counts, positive and negative. Eulogising the Americans and demonising the Russians has become tiresome.

    You said: When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, it held a referendum to legitimate its conquest, then an election for a regional parliament. When Myanmar’s generals overturned an election they lost in 2021, they proclaimed their intention of holding fresh elections as soon as possible (don’t hold your breath).

    Surely there is a difference between the Crimean referendum, a country where most people are ethnic Russians and wanted to return to Russia after being foolishly handed over to Ukraine when the Soviet Union fell, and Myanmar generals overturning an election? It is problematic that you do not see why those comparisons are not apples with apples.

    You said: The dictionary is pretty clear on this: liberal democracy is a form of democracy in which people vote for their own representatives, and are free to vote without fear of retribution from their leaders.

    By which criteria India is not a democracy. The bullying and fear-based pressure at local levels is immense. Anyone who thinks a poverty-stricken Indian votes freely without fear of retribution does not understand India.

    Of course there are variations on the theme of democracy and as we know historically, English leaders were keen to hold elections in Winter where it was more of a challenge for the poor to vote than it was the rich. The US as a Constitutional Republic, with its Electoral College, is hardly a true democracy, or a system to copy.

    From what I can see the demonisation of Trump by one side, is no different to the demonisation of Biden by another side. Democracy is flawed but it is still a better system than anything else which has come up and one which needs to be managed and monitored.

    And it is not liberal democracy we need in Australia but a conservative party which the Liberals once were. Liberalism, from what I can see, is not a good word for any Government. Conservatism however, while sometimes inflexible, is more likely to ensure cautious, considered, careful and stable Government. Liberal and Conservative are not the same thing. Labor is liberal and so liberal it melts and the Liberal party is now increasingly in melt mode and offering no solid alternative. It is not so much democracy which is the problem as the calibre, or lack of it, of the participants.

  • ianl says:

    >”And soon enough, the return of the National Cabinet. All well-meaning …”< [quote from Salvatore B above]

    A fine essay, with my only quibble demonstrated in the above quote. The real point to the unconstitutional "National Cabinet" is to spread responsibility, stretch it to the point of invisibility; individual States can then crabwalk away. Not well-meaning at all.

  • Michael says:

    ” [The No campaign] should be more concerned with the criminality of disenfranchising Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.” Warren Mundine has made this point.

  • pgang says:

    Salvatore tends to take an optimistic view of motivations which is refreshing when combined with his sarcasm. For me the description of secular liberalism is spot-on, which built nicely into the Voice’s innate authoritarianism. The only part that lost me was the comparison between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. I think I understand the difference in principle but I fail to make the distinction in practice, given the unrelenting liberal-socialist putsch to ruin us all.

  • Sindri says:

    Another good piece Salvatore, though I can’t say I agree with you about D. Trump. Rosross makes an excellent point about the demonisation of those with whom we disagree and if I may paraphrase here, we all tend to go a little too hard against the people we don’t like, and tend to be a little too soft on those we do. That said, whatever Trump’s record may be on this or that issue, he has flaws of character, in matters of honesty and honour, that make him quite unfit to be President – not least of which is his adherence to the “stolen election” nonsense – too childish and vain to admit that he was defeated, with not a thought to the damage conduct of that sort can do to political life. But that’s just my opinion of course. I can express it because we live ain a liberal democracy – “liberal” not used here as a banal, clunky synonym for “left-wing”, bit in its fine old sense.

    • rosross says:

      What is perhaps of greatest concern is that Biden hardly stands out as exemplary to Trump and it is the poor quality of American leaders which is most dangerous. Having said that, poor quality leaders seems to be universal in the Western world and at our peril. There are many reasons why this might be so but they need to be identified, clarified and addressed.

  • Paul W says:

    It’s apartheid, plain and simple. Two babies born free and equal today with two different political rights tomorrow.

  • STD says:

    Thanks for the freedom demo Salvatore.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Modern democracies seem to be becoming more like elected dictatorships. That’s what we experienced during Covid. When I was attending protest rallies in Melbourne (they were just like the good old anti-Vietnam rallies, except that the police were carrying guns this time) my youngest daughter was not too pleased. “You get your turn to vote in the next election”, she said – or words to that effect.
    That remark, to me, was just an endorsement of the modern view that, once elected, the government can do anything it likes (especially if the speaker agrees with it). But real democracy must involve more than voting-in a tyrant. There must be limits to government power. There must rights to free speech, to freedom of movement, to private property, to free association, and to freedom of religion. All rights must be equal across the population. All these rights and more are currently under threat. If all we are left with is the freedom to vote, we will not be living in a democracy any more.

  • Alistair says:

    Excellent piece – though I dont know how you managed to get all through that without mentioning the World Economic Forum.
    It seems to me now that democracy was really only ever a mechanism for the clericy to wrestle control away from the hands of the aristocracy by the old trick of pretending to empower the plebian majority. Works every time. Democracy has now run its course and the clerisy is dumping the plebs as an unnecessary complication that can easily be sidetracked with “bread and circuses” As somebody said the other day “If the vote really mattered, they never would have given it to us.”
    What we have is the uniparty which is manipulated by the oligarchs based in Switzerland – using their controlled-media empires to signal the required policy agenda and various global financial institutions to ensure compliance. Neil Oliver was right – out politicians are just “sock puppets”.

    • rosross says:

      Well said.

    • maryse.usher says:

      Seems to me the world is enslaved by squillionaires who are enslaved by Satan, who inspired the axiom “The love of money is the root of all evil

    • maryse.usher says:

      Seems to me the world is enslaved by squillionaires who are enslaved by Satan, who inspired the axiom “The love of money is the root of all evil” Doesn’t matter under what system we are governed; only morals count. I refer to the Natural Law, not the legalised evils we are forced to worship now.

  • vickisanderson says:

    A very erudite and penetrating analysis of the increasing authoritarianism in the western word. As you expect from our resident Philistine Salvatore Balbones.

    And now, how to resist this creeping loss of our precious liberties by these infernal bureaucrats (and their corporate colluders) – whether domestic or international.

  • Michael Waugh says:

    This article was a hoot to read, but I have some queries :
    1. Are the 6 Teals “ersatz Liberals” or ersatz Laborites ?
    2. What are the “many good arguments in favour of constituting an indigenous voice to parliament and government “? The Aboriginal bodies created and funded over the last 50 years to make representations to parliament and government have failed to make a difference, apparently. The Yes campaign presumably thinks that entrenching this failed policy into the constitution will make a difference, but does not explain why.
    3. “ In each and every one of these cases, indigenous political rights are recognised in the respective countries’ constitutions.” Is this so ? Does the US constitution mention the Navajo ? Or recognise the “326 indigenous “domestic dependent nations””?
    4. Finally, Salvatore, your concerns about the voice are on the narrow ground that its design is likely to be authoritarian and not democratic. I assume that, if Albo deigned to reveal to us exactly what the voice will look like, and it was democratic, you’d encourage a Yes vote ? You don’t say why it would be a good idea other than that other countries have made similar arrangements with their indigenous populations, but that is insufficient for me to be convinced that an inherently racist and undemocratic amendment to our constitution would be a good idea. It might be, but at present I cannot see why.

  • Louis Cook says:

    Thank you Mr Babones.
    As I read through the article it occurred to me that substituting ‘communist(ism)’ for ‘democracy’ does not alter the sense of your written word.
    An interesting definition of ‘Democracy’ in my COMMUNESE/ENGLISH Dictionary is ‘a system of government where communism can freely flourish’.
    That is the hallmark of a free society!

  • norsaint says:

    Great article by Salvatore.
    If I may take on an editing role, I think what he’s trying to say is never accept any offerings from the predator class. (with apologies to James Delingpole)

  • don coyote says:

    I like this comment about Henry Kissinger (not sure who made it):
    Kissinger, as a student of history, was opposed to overly moralistic foreign policy (he was an admirer of Metternich, about whom he wrote a book). “The most fundamental problem of politics,” he wrote in his doctoral dissertation in 1966, “is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.”

  • jbhackett says:

    My limited understanding of both the NZ and Canadian situations is that there are some serious problems with the legal arrangements now in place. To refer to “many well-functioning international precedents for … a voice’ doesn’t gel with me. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of this could comment?

Leave a Reply