Chapter 34 - The Sickness of Democracy

Posted in The Forgotten People

Last week I spoke to you about the nature of democracy. I am sure you will agree that it is a problem worth the best thought we can put into it. Tonight I want to say something to you about the sickness from which democracy has suffered. This is important, for if we are unwilling to study the course of the disease we shall be quite unfit to discover the cure.

For a generation now, in Australia and elsewhere, we have not been doing our best with democracy. On the contrary, we have frequently done our worst. This statement can, I imagine, be readily proved if we consider our political history during that period.

Parliament should, if popular self-government is to be good government - indeed the best government - represent the cream of the nation. For, if we value and understand the privilege of choosing our own rulers from among ourselves, how strange that we should not be at pains to find and appoint our wisest and our best citizens! If we are shareholders or directors seeking a manager, with what closeness shall we scrutinize the applicant and consider his abilities and record! But to the abilities and record of those who are to manage the affairs of the nation we have, all too frequently, been sublimely indifferent.

I went into politics for the first time fourteen years ago. Many of my friends shrugged their shoulders at what they obviously thought a harmless eccentricity. The most generous unspoken comment was, "Another good man gone wrong!" It was plainly not thought by many that the government of the country was as important as the practice of the law.

During those fourteen years I have, times without number, heard the loud complaint of the business man about the politician. I have, as you have, repeatedly heard the statement that "What the country needs is a Government of business men." On scores of occasions I have made the obvious rejoinder, "All right, what's preventing you? Why not go into Parliament yourself?" And then, as in the old story, "they all, with one accord, began to make an excuse." One was too busy - as if only the leisured or the unemployed were needed in Parliament. One would lose too much money- as if serving the people in Parliament ought to be a profitable job. One could not face the bitter criticism and misrepresentation through which the parliamentary candidate so often has to wade - as if only the thick-skinned are fit to devise the laws of the land. And so on. All excuses, masking the fundamental fact that the business of politics was disregarded as fit only for loud-mouthed careerists. It was, and is, very depressing. What should be, if we understood democracy, the noblest and highest of civil vocations, degraded into something of less importance than the higgling of the market and the acquisition of wealth!

Now, what has been the effect of this on Parliament itself? Surely it has been to make it very little more than an average representation of the people. It is, in my experience, a perfect cross-section: all sorts of occupations, all sorts of men, almost always possessed - contrary to cheap rumour - of honesty and decency, and anxiety to do the right thing. As a jury of the nation, it would be hard to improve it. But the world's progress depends in the first instance not on the average man, but on what Confucius called the "superior man". The great movements of history have sprung from a few uncommon men. Great rulers, Prime Ministers, Presidents, ministers of State, must be men who are above the ordinary. A greater democratic Parliament must provide the leaders of the people, not merely an average reflection of a fleeting popular will.

I hope nobody is so foolish as to think that the problems in front of us in the next ten years can be solved without hard thinking and infinite labour, not by a jury of men in the street but by the very best brains and courage that this country can select.

Again, we have been at fault in our failure to maintain a constant and steady interest in the government of the country. If we come to life only at election times and go back to indifference or grumbling criticism for the years that intervene, our political judgment, being based on no continuing principle, will be spasmodic, uncertain and inconsistent. We shall take only short views, and the candidate who plays up to them will be elected. Yet, a moment's reflection should tell us that only long-range thinking and planning can save either democracy or the world.

It was taking the long view which restored Russia. It was living from day to day in a grumble of short-sighted politics which cast down France. Can we expect long-range thinking from a Parliament which we have all too frequently chosen for its capacity to cater for our short-range selfishness?

To all this sickness of democracy, the Press has, I fear, made its contribution. We are all influenced by what we read, and particularly by what we read in the news columns. The parliamentary items will quickly colour our outlook upon Parliament and the nature of our interest in its debates and doings. Yet for many years every new member of Parliament has been quickly taught that a much speedier entrance into the headlines is guaranteed by a five minutes' exchange of personalities on the floor of the House than by an hour's thoughtful contribution on a problem of great moment.

This has been a real tragedy, for it has indeed a good deal of contempt for Parliament, and it has given to the word "politician" a connotation and a flavour - a sort of sneering quality - which is not only grossly unjust to the many men who give honourable service in public places, but is infinitely damaging to representative government.

This misconception has extended to the civil service - that indispensable instrument of government, democratic or otherwise. Do not underrate the civil servant. He is for the most part anonymous and unadvertised, but he is responsible for by far the greater part of the achievements sometimes loudly claimed by others. He provides, as a witty friend of mine once said, "a level of competence below which no Government can fall". He has done a marvellous job in this war. His importance will grow, not diminish, for Government activity is here to stay.

Obviously, then, we should be at pains to look to the future, and recruit the very best young men and women for the civil service. Yet most of our great public schools have for many years neglected this fact, considering the professions more important, while a move some years back to provide for the entrance of a certain number of university graduates into the Commonwealth public service each year was resisted by many members on the astonishing ground that the move was "undemocratic". Does democracy demand that managing directors should be recruited only from office boys? Is not democracy entitled to the best minds and the best training in those who are to serve it?

These cheap fallacies and superstitions, which appear to include a belief that it is undemocratic to be educated, will destroy us unless we destroy them.

Next, we have increasingly misunderstood and debased the function of the member of Parliament. We have treated him as a paid delegate to run our errands and obey our wishes, and not as a representative, bound, as Edmund Burke so nobly said, to bring his "matured judgment" to the service of his electors. We encourage our members of Parliament to tremble at the thought of a hostile public meeting, and expect them to flutter in the breeze caused by thousands of printed forms demanding this or that, and signed with suitable threats by carefully canvassed voters.

Quite bluntly, if you want paid agents, hired men, bound to do your bidding even when they know or believe that you are wrong, anxious at all costs to keep your favour, their eyes turned always towards the next election, then you will get a parliament of the spineless, and democracy will disappear. For political systems have much more frequently been overthrown by their own corruption and decay than by external forces.

My own father, who was and is a good democrat, and was for some years a member of the Victorian parliament, had the excellent habit, whenever he heard that his electors were disagreeing with some vote of his in the House, of going straight away to visit them and addressing a meeting to explain why he thought he was right and the meeting was wrong. His simple and accurate belief was that the first function of a member of Parliament was to be a man and not a phonograph record, a guide and not a mere follower.

Finally, and most importantly, we have not succeeded in elevating democracy into a living faith. We have become sceptical and indifferent. Freedom has for too many become a word and not a passion. I sometimes wonder whether freedom in any of its shapes is clearly seen by us as the living element in our history and the principal object of the democratic system.

The best epitaph for a true democrat will not be, "I tickled people's ears, I got their votes, I spent their money", but, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."

There can be no doubt that this democracy of ours has been very sick. If and when it can be cured, it has great work to do. But it will never be cured unless we see the past clearly, and recognize frankly that we cannot ignore politics and treat democracy as a mere matter of loaves and fishes and demean the politician, and at the same time sensibly demand that "government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth".

30 October, 1942