Three things I've learnt about democracy

  • Written byDaryl Karp
  • DateTue, 15 Sep 2020

I suppose I may be expected to take this view, but MoAD is a unique museum - an institution dedicated to celebrating the spirit and stories of our democracy and encouraging civic engagement.

I suppose I may be expected to take this view, but MoAD is a unique museum - an institution dedicated to celebrating the spirit and stories of our democracy and encouraging civic engagement. We are a museum not just of objects, but of ideas, showcasing our nation’s rich political heritage within the spiritual home of Australian democracy—this iconic, heritage listed building, Old Parliament House – our first purpose built parliament for the newly federated nation.

During my seven years as Director of the Museum of Australian Democracy, almost two million visitors have come through our doors, to explore their democracy, learn from our exhibitions, and share their views and stories… and today on International Democracy Day, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learnt from them:

1. Australia has a world-leading democracy

I often say that if democracy were a sport, Australia would be Olympic champions. We are one of only a handful of democracies around the world who can claim:

  • seamless, peaceful transition between governments since Federation.
  • the first constitution written by and voted on by the people.
  • we were the first to give women universal suffrage - the right to vote and stand for parliament;
  • the introduction of the secret ballot and one of the highest voter turnouts in the world. (Helped by it being compulsory)
  • an independent AEC setting electoral boundaries, as well as an independent judiciary.

We should be really proud of this.

In 2017, we invited a diverse cross-section of our community to make a difference and become champions of democracy. Working with the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, we surveyed participants on what they considered to be Australia’s most important democratic values and what the responsibilities of a champion of democracy might be. The majority of the top 10 core democratic values selected by our Democratic Champions would probably be on the list of most committed democrats in Western liberal democracies. Freedom of speech and assembly, free and fair elections, the rule of law, the separation of powers, a parliamentary system sand provision for the protection of human rights (variously defined). Possibly the most distinctive Australian democratic value is compulsory voting.

Our Charter for Australian Democracy was drawn from the outcomes of this event.

2. We're in good hands with our future generations

Late in 2019 we interviewed 900 young people on their views on democracy, and our findings challenge the idea that young people are apathetic. In fact, they show that future voters are themselves champions of democracy, with 67% supporting democracy as the best option for Australia, and only 2 percent saying otherwise. Two thirds have an expressed interest in politics.

This fact is reinforced by the tens of thousands of students who visit us every year, and the deep and critical thinking that is showcased in initiatives like the Whitlam Institute’s ‘What Matters’ competition. If you need further proof that the future is in good hands, I leave you with an excerpt from student Tanisha Tahsin’s winning ‘What Matters’ entry:

“No child should ever have to feel like they don't belong because of the colour of their skin, or the dialect they speak, or what they eat.

Then why do we live in a world where this happens every day? To people like you and me, or even our family or friends.

Our children should be able to grow up proud of their identities, their cultures, their homes.”

3. We can't take democracy for granted

History shows us that democracies can fail. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, in a family that escaped pogroms and persecution in Europe, I’ve seen media used for both bad and good, as a tool of control and to hold those in power to account. So it falls to all of us to be vigilant, to recognise manipulation, to uphold an independent judiciary and a free press, and to stand up for our democratic values.

This is why museums like MoAD are really important. Museums are highly trusted. We tell important stories in unique ways - ways that connect, educate, expand thinking and – at their best, change minds. We make a difference.

Democracy is not innate, it’s a skill to be learnt and nurtured – and just how do you do that? You can start with making a commitment to learn more, to get engaged, and, of course, to visit MoAD online or in person.

A toy holds a sign that says 'Sending democracy to the world.