Australians are in a unique place today – we are witnessing our democracy being called to account.
The nature of Australian democracy is being debated by on the one hand, its Treasurer and on the other, one of its richest men. They have fought it out in the nation’s media in two key articles.
The first is an emotional essay by Wayne Swan in The Monthly magazine, and the second a comparatively short response by Clive Palmer in Fairfax media outlets today. Both boil down to how Australians understand equality – a core principle of the theory of “basic democracy”.
A question of equality
It is mainly economic equality – or, to be more precise, inequality – that is at stake. This is not about individuality, which Palmer appears to think is the issue at hand.
His tirade is essentially calling on the government and citizenry of Australia to leave him, and presumably other truly unusually wealthy individuals, alone – but that is not human society. No one person is an island.
Nor, would I argue, is Mr Swan calling for anything beyond what for example Hans Blokland, John Maynard-Keynes, Franklin D Roosevelt and Barack Obama have argued in the past. All look to a competitive, compassionate, and sustainable capitalist system where individuals are celebrated, social networks are promoted, and the whole citizenry enjoys the advancements and peace of our times.
How does Australia stack up?
We can look overseas to help understand the nature of this debate. When we think of shrinking the income gap, many turn to Scandinavia. But many other countries, like Switzerland, Germany, France, greater China, El Salvador, and Spain score similar economic points when it comes to quality of life.
Switzerland, while boasting many elite wealthy individuals, is in general one of the world’s highest paying countries. There is a sense there that everyone should have access to the best society can offer, that every individual is important and should have a “fair go”, that people will be helped to get back on their feet if they fall, and that they will give back to society generously.
What else, save for including concern for the environment, could be nobler?
Economic acts of violence
International standards, as formed by the United Nations and its affiliated institutions like the International Labour Organization or the United Nations Development Program, argue that economic disparity between people in any given society foments violence, resentment, and the breakdown of democracy.
It is not, as Palmer suggested, the other way around. Indeed, as Professor John Keane and other internationally recognised experts have expressed, democracy cannot operate well when violence abounds and fractures the citizenry. I will extend the point further and argue that one individual amassing unimaginable sums of money is actually committing an act of economic violence.
International standards promote the reduction of economic disparity for many reasons including the reduction of violence and the improvement of democracy.
Swan on the money
Most scholars agree there are two main tenets of modern democracy. The first is the capacity for citizens to reach decisions and to right whatever wrongs there may in a non-violent way. The second is for citizens to be able to improve and progress their condition.
It is truly difficult to argue that democracy does not stand for at least those two things. For this reason, Wayne Swan’s position is the right position for Australia, as it is for all other polities internationally.
Clive Palmer, and I address this to you, unless you place yourself on a salary cap, agree to sharing the wealth that your market-tactics have created with Australians, as well as offer any profits that exceed your salary-cap to projects addressing societal problems, there is no legitimacy in your position.
Clive’s behind the times
There is great anxiety among scholars over the influence of money, vested interests, and corporate lobbies in most modern governments.
Moves looking to place spending caps on political campaigns, caps on the salaries of politicians, and the banning of private contributions are all in motion – so too are far more robust accountability, transparency and anti-corruption measures.
This is happening almost across the board internationally and speaks to the need to ensure individuals are not getting shafted by the wealthy and powerful.
Swan’s position is more in line with the broad international and deep humanistic ethos of democracy. Palmer has no legitimacy and his comments have served to further erode the power of money, crass materialism and useless greed.