The risks to Australia’s democracy

A police officer stops a driver at a checkpoint at Coolangatta on the Queensland - New South Wales border, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The Queensland Government  is introducing new border control measures effective Friday where Queenslander residents crossing the border back into Queensland will also now need a permit.  (AAP Image/Dave Hunt) NO ARCHIVINGNo Use Australia. No Use New Zealand.

Executive Summary

Democracy in Asia logoAustralians are proud that their country is one of the first genuine liberal democracies in the modern world. Its democratic institutions and practices have been hailed for its robustness, adaptability, functionality, and resilience. Indeed, Australia has been leading the world when it comes to a public conversation about protecting liberal institutions from subversion and interference by entities linked to foreign governments and passing legislation to deter and prosecute such activities. The ease with which foreign governments, especially the People’s Republic of China, have been able to infiltrate, disrupt and/or influence Australian decisionmakers and institutions are of the highest concern. But Australia is making good progress in managing these activities.

As important, but less appreciated, are domestic challenges to the country’s democratic institutions, practices, and governance in the context of a global pandemic and the national health emergence which continues to unfold. It is in this context that longstanding complacency with respect to governance standards, deep public ignorance about the proper workings of institutions, and arguable overreach by various levels of government without accountability for such overreach is worryingly evident. How the country assesses and responds to these governance failures, albeit at a time of immense stress brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, will determine whether Australia will emerge as an even more robust, adaptable, and functional democracy when the health crisis is over.


In March 2017, then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that Australia had the “most successful multicultural society in the world.” He did so at a launch of Australia’s Multicultural Statement which lauded the strength, unity, and success of the country’s democracy. In doing so, Turnbull praised the robustness, adaptability, functionality, and resilience of Australia’s democratic institutions. It was these institutions which has allowed Australia to offer a superior model of good governance for its citizens and create a diverse yet cohesive society at the same time.

That Australian citizenship is one of the most sought after in the world is further evidence of a successful and multicultural democratic nation…

There is much data and evidence to back up Turnbull’s boast. For example, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators places Australia in the top three Indo-Pacific countries with respect to all relevant categories such as accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and controlling corruption. That Australian citizenship is one of the most sought after in the world is further evidence of a successful and multicultural democratic nation, as is the extreme reluctance of Australians abroad to give up their citizenship (and therefore the right to return to Australia). In short, any discussion about successful democratic nations and institutions ought to include Australia.

Nevertheless, the standing of democracy amongst Australians — presumably including that of Australian democracy — is not overwhelmingly positive. In the latest authoritative Lowy Institute Poll of Australian attitudes towards democracy, it is troubling that 30% of 18-29 year-old citizens surveyed believed a non-democratic system is preferable to a democratic one under some circumstances, while 55% believed democracy is preferable regardless of circumstance. This is a contrast to those 60 years and over surveyed, only 15% of whom believed a non-democratic system might be preferable, while 72% believed democracy was always preferable. The overall numbers for all surveyed was 22% and 65%, respectively. The lower regard for democracy amongst younger Australians is reflected in previous polling going back to 2012. The reasons for this must be understood and addressed.

Furthermore, there are some domestic and external challenges which have the great potential to weaken or corrupt the country’s democracy and related institutions. “Exogenous” factors such as the rise of an increasingly authoritarian and ambitious China, the emergence and use of certain forms of technology, and the immense disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted vulnerabilities and shortcomings regarding the purported robustness, adaptability, and functionality of Australian democracy. In turn, one would expect that failure to meet these challenges will result in decreased regard for democracy even if it does not necessarily entail an increased regard for autocracy.

Australian democracy and COVID-19

Most Australians are famously disinterested in politics and contrast their general disinterest in politics favorably with the passionate and intense American debates about the state of U.S. democracy. While there is broad support for the fact that Australia is one of the few democracies where voting is compulsory, there is perhaps a sense that one’s democratic duty is fulfilled when one is lining up to cast a vote during a federal, state, or local election. As one former prime minister commented to this author several years ago, “we [Australians] don’t need to talk about democracy — we just do it.”

This more flippant attitude to politics means that Australian democracy is far less partisan and divisive than in a country such as the United States. However, there are downsides. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a widespread Australian ignorance about the structure and workings of its democracy.

This has been illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic health emergency where difficult decisions must be made to prevent infection and protect the community while limiting negative impacts to the economy and civil society at the same time. There is immense public ignorance as to the respective roles of the federal and state governments. Much of the Australian public is ignorant of the reality that it is the latter which is largely responsible for the health and public response to prevent and/or manage the consequences of the pandemic — decisions which have immense impact on the daily lives and livelihoods of Australians.

Yet, community scrutiny and criticism are being (mis)directed toward the federal government for decisions being taken by state authorities on issues such as closing domestic borders, lockdown laws, and domestic quarantine procedures. The upshot is state governments are enjoying far less public and media scrutiny of decisions they have taken which is resulting in lower standards of accountability and transparency from state governments than ought to be the case. The lower the accountability and transparency for decisions taken and implemented, the poorer the incentive that these be proportionate and appropriate for the problem at hand.

That lack of accountability and transparency is exacerbated by the peculiarity of the Australian taxation system where the federal government collects more than 81% of all taxation revenue including all income tax. Other levels of government collect more obscure taxes such as land, payroll, and stamp duties on the purchase of property. This means Australian citizens overwhelmingly associate paying taxes with the federal government, and consequently, predominantly only apply scrutiny to policy decisions made by the federal government.

In the current environment, this has led to shortcomings with respect to issues of accountability. State governments retain primary authority to respond to COVID-19 through decisions which have profoundly disruptive and sometimes destructive impacts on Australian citizens, households, and businesses — border closures, lockdowns, curfews, and diverting of health care resources away from other much needed areas, etc. At the same time, it is the federal government which must manage and finance the economic, social, health, and other impacts of decisions made by state governments.

This means that dissatisfaction with policies made and implemented by state governments is frequently directed against the federal government, accompanied by public demands that further federal resources be allocated to alleviate the economic impacts of measures enacted by state governments including domestic border closures. The point about poor democratic accountability arises because state governments have few incentives to consider the economic and non-economic impacts of their policies.

More troubling than flaws in institutional and fiscal design is the mindset by some state governments that legislation and actions to suspend civil and even some human rights of citizens so as to respond to the health emergency can be applied arbitrarily and must be accepted uncritically, promptly, and without the need for scrutiny as to the reasoning or implementation of such emergency measures.

The most egregious occurred in Victoria, the country’s second most populous state. As with any great crisis or disruption, democratic institutions, practices, and mindsets are being tested in a way which does not occur during business as usual. The suspension of the state parliament in August to “prevent the spread of COVID-19” means that the government has not been subject to the peak forum for political and public scrutiny. This was a period in which there was a spike in infections following the poor handling of quarantine for returning international travellers by the Victorian government. The suspension of parliament also meant there was no formal political debate on the imposition of an indefinite curfew from early August onward despite the high controversy surrounding the decision.

To put this in context, federal and state parliaments sat during both world wars and the Spanish Flu, and curfews have never been imposed. In responding to a question about whether he had gone too far with respect to imposing a curfew (avoiding the question of why a curfew was needed when no other state had one), Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews replied: “it is not about human rights. It is about human life.”

There was little explanation of the reasons for declaring both a state of emergence and disaster, which hands the state’s police minister extraordinary powers to suspend the operation of any legislation passed by parliament, control all movement in and out of Victoria, take possession and make use of any person’s property, and direct any government agency to do or refrain from performing any act considered necessary in responding to what was a poorly defined emergency or disaster.

Note also that the passing of the COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bill 2020 in October in the same state which was condemned by a group of eminent lawyers, including a former High Court judge, in an open letter as “unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse.” It may be that the measures are necessary in the current time but there was little effort by the government to invite debate or make the case for it as one would expect in an open democracy.

Finally, many Australians have become disconcertingly accepting of the need for premiers to exercise emergency powers without regard to time limits and when such powers might cease. This writer observed widespread admiration for the “effectiveness” of China’s decision to impose a brutal lockdown in Wuhan earlier in 2020 amid public calls that similar measures be applied to so-called but ill-defined “hotspots” within Australia, without regard to the checks and balances that are intrinsic to a liberal democracy.

Checks, balances, and rights are perceived to be obstacles to solutions rather than inalienable principles around which solutions must be derived.

One should also note that concerns are not just centered around relatively unaccountable state premiers. Majorities of those polled continue to support state premiers promising harsher policies that suspend the normal rights of citizens, suggesting a preference for an “authoritarian” solution to pressing public crises and challenges. Checks, balances, and rights are perceived to be obstacles to solutions rather than inalienable principles around which solutions must be derived.

It is so far unclear whether Australia will emerge as a more robust, adaptable, and functional democracy after COVID-19. Australian politicians and citizens need reminding that decisionmakers ought to bear the political and economic costs of their actions. The failure to understand how institutions influence incentives, and therefore behavior, is dangerous.

In a region where alternative political systems are assessed according to capacity to overcome challenges and results, the suspension of normal standards of transparency, accountability and debate when faced with a serious emergency is a nod to those believing that authoritarian approaches are superior when it comes to meeting complex problems. That is a dangerous line of argument in any democracy.

Finally, Australia’s ability to constantly refine and improve its own democracy has impacts on its standing, and consequently, for Australian efforts to promote democracy in the region. Australia is one of the few genuine liberal democracies in the region and shoulders a special responsibility. Australian democracy promotion efforts in the region, including through its aid and developments programs, champion the implementation of principles and practices such as transparency, accountability, and adaptability at all levels of government. One of the selling points is that such liberal institutions will ultimately strengthen national resilience and help stable governments through balancing the competing rights and interests of a pluralistic society — especially at a time of crisis. The ability of Australia to weather the pandemic and maintain faith in its own democratic institutions and processes will be closely watched by its neighbors.

External challenges to Australian democracy

Australia is an immigrant nation and is proud of its multicultural values. At the same time, Australia is at the forefront of calling out and passing legislation against covert influence and foreign interference activities, mainly by Chinese operatives. Of highest concern is Beijing’s United Front, a vast, organized, and well-resourced network of domestic and foreign entities and individuals, whose purpose is to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and organizations, which has been called a “magical weapon” by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

As awkward as it is, there is no escaping that race and ethnicity has become a legitimate political and national security issue, and a challenge to Australia democratic institutions. The following is just one illustration. In April 2019, the ABC reported that Gladys Liu, the first Chinese-born member of Parliament in Australia, was associated with Australian-based organizations with ties to the United Front. Liu’s loyalty was widely questioned when she refused to criticize Beijing or affirm Australia’s settled position on the South China Sea when asked about it on a television interview.

Regardless of whether Liu was fairly scrutinized or not, one needs to be clear about the origins of the problem: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has chosen to politicize and even weaponize race as a tool of foreign policy and subversion. Xi has delivered multiple speeches and made it formal policy to demand loyalty and commitment from diasporas who the Party refers to as the “sons and daughters” of China. This implies one’s identity and loyalty are not defined by citizenship but race or ethnicity.

In Australia, the majority of Chinese-language press is owned by entities linked to Beijing. The problem is compounded by the reality that social media platforms used by Chinese-Australians such as WeChat and Weibo are already moderated and censored by authorities in China. Many Australian-based Chinese community organizations have been set up specifically to influence the diaspora while existing ones are targets for influence and infiltration through financial incentives or intimidation.

Beijing’s policies are creating concern for the government and outrage amongst many Australian citizens. A chilling illustration of the CCP threatening to use its supposed “magic weapon’ occurred in April 2017 at a time when the opposition Australian Labor Party was opposing the ratification of an extradition treaty between the two countries. In a meeting with Labor’s spokespersons for foreign affairs and defence, then-Politburo member and security czar Meng Jianzhu was widely reported to have issued the threat to his Australian interlocutors that Beijing would be forced to tell Australians of Chinese ethnicity the Labor Party did not support the Australia-China relationship unless the party changed its position on the treaty.

As it is in other liberal democracies, the objective must be to ensure that Australians of all ethnicities feel free to hold and express their legitimate views without fear of censure or consequences. The point is not to tell the Chinese diaspora what they should think — it is to protect them against foreign governments telling them what they must think.

Members of Chinese community organizations and the population at large both need to have the assurance that these organizations are not front entities for Beijing or else have been infiltrated to support the CCP’s agenda. If that assurance is lacking, all members will inevitably and unfairly be tainted simply by association. That will only lead to the fracturing of multicultural societies.

If Chinese diasporas are to feel respected and valued in Australia and other countries, and if more ethnic Chinese citizens are to be encouraged to run for political office, the countering of Beijing’s United Front operations needs to be taken seriously. That is the source of the fissure in the first place. Existing legislation is largely about transparency with respect to one’s source of funds and who one takes instruction from. Legislation prohibiting such activities ought to be passed. Politicians, community leaders, and individuals must be given the space and support to call out external attempts to covertly influence, silence, or intimidate.

There needs to be transparency in media ownership and prohibitions on Chinese controlling ownership of media assets. Regarding social media and apps, the current Australian government’s acknowledgment that applications such as TikTok and WeChat carry the risk of data being sent back to and misused by Beijing, but that there is no basis on national security grounds to ban these apps, appear to be a contradiction. It would be dangerous for these Chinese platforms to become the dominant ones used by Chinese diasporas in the country. Many Chinese diasporas receive most of their news via social apps in Mandarin and most of the news content on these apps are drawn from censored material from mainland China.

Most of all, the perceived link between race on the one hand and one’s loyalty and views on the other, must be broken. In Australia’s case, failure to do so could mean that Liu is the first and last Chinese-born Australian to join the federal parliament — with ramifications for other democracies.


Liberal democracies (i.e., those with universal suffrage and liberal institutions such as a free press and rule of law) excel at highlighting their weaknesses and are poor at showcasing their strengths. Authoritarian systems tend to the converse. Xi Jinping’s China has become adept at overplaying its achievements and underplaying its failures. Importantly, Beijing has become far more confident and brazen in promoting its approach to governance as a superior one to democratic approaches for developing economies.

COVID-19 has challenged the robustness, adaptability, functionality, and resilience of all governance systems. That must be understood within the framework of the contest of values, institutions, and systems which is currently playing out, most of all in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia has stood up well so far, but there are indications of weaknesses and failings. These should not be swept under the carpet when the pandemic passes. Any  deterioration in standards of one of the few genuinely liberal democratic nations in the Indo-Pacific would have consequences for Australians and for fledgling democracies throughout the region.