Australia is in a democratic death spiral
THE other day I apparently surprised at least one ABC presenter by observing on TV that free speech didn't extend to people causing or urging physical harm to others.
For example, telling a cancer patient not to seek treatment or urging people to kill Jews.
To be honest I thought this was a rather mild and generous qualifier. Still, it obviously came as a shock to some, which is perhaps emblematic of a modern culture in which words are deemed offensive regardless of the meaning behind them.
But what was really surprising is that the presenter in question obviously thought my examples were extreme or far-fetched. In fact both are live issues right here in Australia, right now in 2018.
The Studio 10 discussion was sparked by a celebrity wellness video revealed this very month, which featured a woman claiming to have beaten breast cancer by rejecting all medical treatments and merely changing her diet. Needless to say, this deeply alarmed the Australian Medical Association - a body comprised of actual doctors.
And as for the threats to the Jews, sadly this was not a reference to Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia but from an extremist Islamic group in Australia in 2014, whose leader literally called on all Muslims to rid the world of the Jews, saying: "This mission will be accomplished by none but you, O Muslims … Judgment day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews … Tomorrow you Jews will see what will become of you - an eye for an eye, blood for blood, destruction for destruction."
Needless to say, this somewhat alarmed the Jewish community, yet there was nothing the police could do. Technically, the group hadn't breached any law.
And so in 2016 a coalition of 21 communities started a campaign to make advocating racial genocide a crime. Meanwhile supposedly anti-racist activists were trying to prosecute a cartoonist for depicting three indigenous people in a piece on child neglect. Last year the cartoonist was hounded to his grave while it took until this very month for legislation to be introduced in NSW finally outlawing those who call for genocide. And guess which cause the progressives pursued.
Nor let us forget the hypocrisy of those on the hard right who claim to be diehard defenders of free speech but demand the scalp of a Muslim who insults the Anzac legacy or a comedian who drops the C-bomb.
This of course brings us back to the ABC, for where else in society could a Muslim feminist activist and a gay C-bomb loving comedian so happily coexist?
In what has to be the most spectacular own-goal ever scored outside the World Cup, Liberal party apparatchiks this week called for the ABC to be privatised.
It is difficult to overstate how monumentally stupid this resolution is, especially given it was a scare campaign over Medicare privatisation that brought Labor within a bee's dick of winning government at the last election.
Now, thanks to a bunch of punch-drunk extremists in chinos, this and all manner of privatisation conspiracy theories have now been given a stiff whiff of legitimacy. Bill Shorten must've thought it was his birthday.
This is not to say that the ABC hasn't had some excruciatingly embarrassing lapses.
Of the three biggest howlers, two were clearly anti-Coalition and one was defamatory of Kevin Rudd, who is also a favourite target of the left because he wasn't well-mannered enough to die when Julia Gillard told him to.
Of course there is bias and inaccuracy in journalism all the time. After all, there are few human beings who don't think their assessment is the correct one and even fewer who never make mistakes.
But as a publicly-funded body with an explicit public service charter the ABC is rightly held to a much higher standard than its competitors. Like Caesar's wife, it must be above suspicion.
And for the most part, it does an exceptional job. While there is probably little doubt that most of its staff are left-leaning they genuinely try to be balanced. The problem is that when they fail they always seem to default to the watch-hand.
Indeed, it could be argued that even just working for a public broadcaster is an inherently left-wing position given that many on the right clearly believe it shouldn't even exist. Likewise it's pretty obvious that there aren't too many socialists in the business community, apart from that guy who still publishes The Saturday Paper.
Still, it's one thing to be biased on your own coin; it's another to be biased on the taxpayer's. And so one can understand the frustrations of the true blue-blood believers but it doesn't make their action any less lunatic. Not only have they loaded up the Labor arsenal but they look like a bunch of chambray-shirted sooks.
Thus we are living in a time in which incitement to kill is permitted while progressives demand cartoonists be hauled before the courts. A time in which those both for and against free speech trade daily in unbridled personal abuse. And a time in which both the left and right try to cripple whole media organisations with which they do not agree.
And this is the dangerous part of today's political debate. Instead of trying to win the argument or win power within a democratic framework, more and more people want to tear down democracy itself.
Extreme? Most certainly. Far-fetched? Sadly not.
According to the highly respected Lowy Institute Poll released just this week, fewer than half of Australian adults under the age of 45 actually believe in democratic government.
Just pause for a moment and read that sentence again.
Yes, only 47 per cent of 18-44 year olds agreed that "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government".
And it is not an aberration. In 2012, when the same question was asked of 18-29 year olds, only 39 per cent believed in democracy. This year, even with the age bracket extended right up until middle-age still only a minority of voters supported it.
At this point it is probably appropriate to ask: WHAT THE ACTUAL F**K?!?!?
What precisely do these people want instead? Fascism? Communism? And what are they planning to do if that doesn't work? Raise an army?
Granted, democracy hasn't exactly produced steady results for the world in recent years. Trump, Brexit, Macron, Trudeau, the hot pregnant chick from New Zealand - I mean seriously, where did all these people come from?
But, as Winston Churchill once observed, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." And as the bloke who defeated Hitler, won World War II and then got voted out that same year he should probably know.
More importantly, it is the most fragile form. It exists only as long as there is the will for it among the majority of the population, which is what makes the Lowy results so chilling.
There is no piece of paper that protects us - the day-to-day practice of Australia's government has little to do with the constitution and the UK has no written constitution at all.
Instead our democracy relies entirely on freedom of expression, not just at the ballot box but in constant debate and an understanding that such debate must always be allowed to continue.
The problem is that we now have limitless amounts of debate. People who would never normally come into contact are effortlessly interconnected. And so complete strangers who despise each other can become instantly intertwined in an endless double helix of rage.
In the old days such clashes were confined to town halls, parliaments or protest marches in public squares. Yet today they take place in bedrooms, on toilets and even power along inside our pockets. They are as intimate as they are eternal.
And it is this absolute democratisation which has presented an existential threat to democracy. The descent of debate into abuse and hate, the ultimate personalisation of the political, has left many wishing that debate itself would disappear - and if it won't disappear from them then they disappear from it. There is an exodus of young people from Facebook and Twitter is increasingly becoming a platform for shouty propaganda from political tragics.
Meanwhile the limitless diversity and extremity of political expression has left both major and minor parties struggling to hold on to their bases and leaders lurching wildly from one position to the next.
And so instead of great national and ideological armies crashing against each other as they did in the 20th century, liberal democracies are swirling internally, throwing up random short-term governments unable to deliver stability or lasting reform.
The democratic process has become so ugly, unpredictable and unwieldy that people have ceased believing in it, which then makes politics even more extreme and volatile, which in turn puts more and more people off democracy. In other words, we are looking at a democratic death-spiral.
And yet democracy's very strength is its fallibility. Its whole purpose is that where a government fails it can be replaced without force or bloodshed. Where socialism is built on ideology, democracy is built on practicality. Where dictatorships are built on terror, democracy is built on trial and error. It is the only form of government that comes with an emergency exit.
Moreover it is the only form of government under which we can be free. Under which we can be truly human.
And yet here we are in 21st century Australia and not even a majority of young adults believe in it. Who in the 20th century, in the aftermath of World War II or the fall of the Berlin Wall, could have believed that democracy would even need to be argued for in a civilised Western country? That a majority of young voters born and raised in freedom don't even believe in it?
Indeed, the only thing more terrifying than dictatorship being forced upon people is that one day we might end up voting for it.