What do electoral laws, social media, climate change and secure work have in common?
All have been prioritised for reform by the Labor government – and all are areas where democratic reform is essential. In fact, the links between these four priorities provide a unique opportunity for change.
Disinformation and manipulation
The age-old problem of political falsehoods has been given steroids by the speed, targeting and anonymity of digital media. Disinformation is besieging democracies across the world – and Australia is not immune.
To tackle the “deceit [that is] degrading our democracy” Labor’s national platform commits the government to introducing truth in political advertising laws. Recently reiterated by Special Minister of State Don Farrell, this pledge should be welcomed. While truth in political advertising laws must be carefully designed, measures are undoubtedly needed to protect the information environment in which Australian democracy operates.
Indeed, the reform focus should broaden to other forms of political manipulation enabled by “big data”. It should grapple with the threats to democracy and political autonomy posed by “surveillance capitalism”, including micro-targeting and the “choice architecture” created by big tech companies. These tools have fuelled (echo chamber polarisation and put a premium on emotional appeals.
A key priority here, which dovetails with the government’s data transparency initiatives, is “radical transparency”. The other is coverage of digital campaigning under political finance laws, to which we’ll return.
Money in politics
Labor’s national platform commits the government to minimise the disproportionate influence of vested interests in the democratic process [including] through the introduction of spending caps.
Laissez-faire regulation has not only resulted in the federal government becoming a laggard domestically and internationally. It has also allowed excessive campaign spending, notably by Clive Palmer and his United Australia Party, which undermines the fairness of elections. Farrell has confirmed Labor’s commitment to “overdue campaign finance reform”.
To be effective, spending caps should cover all digital campaigning (including “cyber armies” and the gathering and use of data. They should be accompanied by other measures, particularly:
• a real-time donation disclosure system
• controls on government advertising in the lead-up to elections
• robust regulation of lobbying.
Connecting with climate
Democracy and the climate crisis are linked by money. As David Attenborough has pointed out, powerful vested interests are “the most formidable obstacle” to switching to clean energy. Australia bears out the truth of this observation: our fossil fuel industries have blocked climate action for decades. And political donations and lobbying are a key part of their arsenal.
Effective political finance regulation has multiple dividends: it promotes political equality, curbs corruption and enables climate action.
But there is a deeper connection between democracy and the climate crisis. The very same features lauded as democracy’s defining virtues – popular sovereignty, the accountability and responsiveness of elected officials, public debate and deliberation – can hinder climate action.
Democracy at its worst – dominated by inexpert and ineffectual judgements, short-termism, and slow, cumbersome policy processes – can seem like a fair-weather regime unable to navigate crises, and particularly existential crises such as climate change. For some, “democracy is the planet’s biggest enemy”.
The climate crisis will require significant democratic innovation to deal with shortcomings in the way our democracy operates. Four pillars of reform are central: a democratic planning state; an ethos of solidarity; invigorated multilateralism; fair and inclusive politics.
But the conversation has barely begun; progressing it should be one of the reform priorities of the Labor government.
The world of work
The final priority for electoral reform puts democracy to work – literally.
The climate crisis highlights the importance of democratising work. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate has stressed that a climate-safe future requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. The International Labour Organization has said the impact of the climate crisis on the world of work will be “akin to an industrial revolution”.
Critical here are “a just transition of the [fossil fuel] workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”, as emphasised by the Paris Agreement.
The International Labour Organization has identified workers’ voices (including through trade unions) as an essential element of a just transition. Labor’s policy platform affirms the Paris Agreement’s “requirement for just transition planning involving local communities, unions, and industry”.
A manifesto signed by more than 6,000 leading scholars proposes similar action, issuing a call to “[d]emocratise firms; decommodify work; stop treating human beings as resources so that we can focus together on sustaining life on this planet”.
A just transition connects the Labor government’s climate action with its secure work agenda. Voice security is a key part of labour security.
Democracy should extend to workplaces. After all, our working lives are a key part of our lives.
Labor’s constitution recognises this fact by calling for:
the application of democracy in industry to increase the opportunities for people to work in satisfying, healthy and humane conditions; and to participate in and to increase their control over the decision making processes affecting them.
Australia’s democracy faces serious challenges – challenges that also provide opportunities to more fully realise democracy as a system in which “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority in government”.
This article was written by Centre for Public Integrity board director, Melbourne University’s Professor Joo-Cheong Tham. It was originally published in the Conversation.