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Pandemics, people and democracy

  • Written byDaryl Karp
  • DateWed, 15 Sep 2021

There’s a photo that used to hang in one of our galleries, from remote Australia, where a farmer is casting his vote.

Blue heeler nearby, nothing to be seen for miles—just dust road, scorched horizon, a rusted gate, a bridge table and the words ‘Polling Place’. It is quintessentially Australian. Voting is compulsory, and regardless of where you live, there is invariably a voting booth (or opportunity for a postal vote) nearby. 

Best in class

Australia has a world class democracy, with a number of firsts—the first constitution to be written by and voted on by the people; the first nation to give most non-Indigenous women the right to vote and to stand for election. We were the first to introduce compulsory voting in 1924, and one of only a handful of nations with peaceful transitions between governments. And our electoral processes are overseen by an independent Electoral Commission, which also sets electoral boundaries, and validates the outcomes. There is much of which to be proud.

Indeed, the Freedom House Index for 2021 places us near the top of democratic nations with a score of 97 of a possible 100. We get full marks for our political rights (electoral processes, political participation and functioning of government) and slightly less for civil liberties, marked down for the lack of explicit protections for press freedom; issues in rule of law which recognises the independence of judiciary and due process but questions equality of treatment; and under personal autonomy and individual rights raises concerns about freedom of movement and equality of opportunity.

Democracy in a pandemic

The pandemic has been challenging for all democracies around the world. For the 15th consecutive year the number of democracies that declined outnumbered those that improved. During 2020, whether the result of the COVID pandemic, economic insecurity or conflict, nearly 75% of the world’s population lost democratic freedoms.[1]

In Australia COVID-19 has sped up flexible work practices, policy making and budgeting. It has resulted in streamlined governance processes through National Cabinet and taskforces, and renewed the focus on experts and scientists. It has also seen us willingly give up personal freedoms and civil liberties - accepting  lockdowns, border closures, mask wearing, and smartphone location tracking - for the benefit of the larger community. 

A new exhibition—Democracy DNA

These tensions, between the ideals of freedomand equality, are at the heart of Australia’s democracy and underpin a new permanent exhibition called Democracy DNA due to open at MoAD early next year. Australia’s democracy is a unique amalgam of institutions and practice adapted from the UK, USA and elsewhere. It’s something we’ve built. It is not innate, nor simply inherited, nor is it fixed in time. It reflects our pragmatism, our mistrust of authority and our willingness to work together. When completed, Democracy DNA will occupy the core, three central spaces in Old Parliament House, encouraging Australians to value our democracy, to understand how it works, see themselves as part of the story; consider how they engage with it, and what they expect from their representative and government.

Audit of Australian Democracy

So what do Australians expect from their democracy and government?  We established the research initiative Democracy 2025, to find out and to strengthen democratic practice. It has a great collection of resources[2], research papers and podcasts, and the good news is that our citizens care strongly about our democracy, and the declining satisfaction trend was reversed in 2020 during the first response to COVID.

But detailed, comprehensive baseline data is sketchy so in collaboration with the Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom and many of our universities we have established an independent audit of Australia’s democratic practice providing ongoing intelligence on our democratic institutions, bridging the evidence gaps in democratic practice and providing support for civics education in Australia.

Democracy is not innate

Democracy is not innate. We need to keep working at it. International Day of Democracy is the perfect time to think about what we want from our democracy, how we practise it, and how we might improve our practice. Education is a key part of this. Know how the system works. Read critically and become informed on the issues. Engage with your political representative. Support your community and become a volunteer. Join a political party. Support our core institutions. And of course make your vote count.

Becoming the culturally diverse, values-led, democratic nation we are today is an ongoing journey. It’s one that needs all of us - to be involved, to care, and stand up to injustice everywhere. And I arrive full circle, back at the Museum of Australian Democracy (or more accurately what was then Parliament House) on a cold autumn day in May 1927. Two Wiradjuri elders, Jimmy Clements and John Noble, both almost 80, had walked for nearly a week to attend the opening of our first purpose built federal parliament by Prince Albert, Duke of Cornwall and York.

On reaching our newly minted capital they stood in the crowd at Parliament House. The police however decided the demeanour of the two men wasn’t fit for royalty and decided to move them on. The crowd, though, would have none of it. Indeed, the Argus newspaper reported that when onlookers saw that Jimmy Clements wasn’t getting a fair go:

 [t]here were choruses of advice and encouragement for him to do as he pleased. A well-known clergyman stood up and called out that he … had a better right than any man present to a place on the steps of the House of Parliament and in the Senate during the ceremony. The old man’s persistence and the sympathy of the crowd won him an excellent front row position.[3]

Our democracy journey is ongoing and incomplete. On this International Day of Democracy consider our national story—what works, what needs improvement, what future you would like for you and your loved ones. And make the commitment to be a champion of democracy.

[1] World freedom index 2021 ( downloaded 14 Sept 2021


[3] While two elders attended, the Argus newspaper referenced just Jimmy Clement