Is democracy on its last legs?

Originally published in The New Daily, November 12, 2016, here.


Stephanie Ross, left, believes there should be no abortion after rape.


Wow, what a few months it has been in politics! Brexit. Trump. Deplorables. Pauline Hanson climbing from the ‘swamp’ to the ocean complete with skin-tight rubber to declare the Barrier Reef safe.

Into all of this comes Stephanie Ross. As a young want-to-be Liberal Party candidate, she stepped into the national media spotlight last week by declaring that abortions should not be allowed for those who suffer rape.

You don’t need to be a Political-Correctness aware Liberal Party staffer to see the resultant media frenzy coming. Ross did not step on one of the most predictable political land mines. She jumped up and down on it yelling “please go bang, please go bang”.

What we don’t see is people sticking up for her right to hold her views. The cornerstone of democracy is the facilitation of dialogue and the encouragement of difference. If we seek to silence difference we then suffocate democracy.

Now I will declare my colours on this. Rape is horrific. If a victim of rape decides that she wishes to abort a resultant pregnancy, I believe she should be allowed to do so.

Hence I disagree profoundly with Ross’s view. I do however respect her right to hold her view, which seems to derive from her deeply held Catholic faith.

OK, I might think that the idea of the world saved by a super-natural being who came to life 2,000 years ago through a virgin birth only to be killed by his father and then risen again, only to float of into the clouds promising to return again some day, may have one or two logical holes in the narrative.

To then have a whole bunch of his male-only celibate followers don white robes over the next 2,000 years and declare what a woman may do with her body, is to me somewhat anachronistic.

Yet a national parliament needs a cross-section of views on the Parliament floor. Hence to me, Ross isn’t someone to be condemned. Knowing the storm her opinion would create she should be congratulated for putting her view regardless.

What of the ALP, a part that has within it a number of Catholic dominated unions for whom right to life is of critical importance? I happen to be on the public Facebook feed of a young Labor prospective candidate. This young activist took on Kelly O’Dwyer in Higgins at the last Federal election and recently missed out on a seat in the Melbourne City Council elections. What would her feed reveal about the state of democracy?

I really hoped I’d read comments like “I profoundly disagree with Ross and look forward to debating her on the issues and allow the public to decide who should represent us in parliament”. Even better would have been “Like the Liberal Party, we in the ALP have a multi-faith membership and need to respect deeply held religious beliefs like this one, even though I disagree”.

Fat chance.

Her feed was full of comments from followers like F$%*ng Tories – as if only conservative politics had pro-life supporters. Many comments on the feed said things like ‘She shouldn’t be in parliament’. Or ‘She has no reasonable basis for that view’.

Since when is a deeply held religious belief not a reasonable basis to hold a view that has deep ethical and moral dilemmas? After all, religion has been the home of moral and ethical thinking since humanity first used a rock to crush a seed.

In the middle of all of this low-quality debate, but high-quality name-calling, we see evidence of ‘echo-chambers’ and self-reinforcing silos where political debate has been replaced by people loudly supporting other people with whom they already agree.

Three cheers for hearty, informed debate!

Not so well-thought-out use of single syllable swear words, partially hidden by not so subtle use of symbols such as “F@$&ing Tories”, don’t auger well for quality debate if these activist were to make their way up the greasy pole of politics.

I really hope both young prospective candidates run for election but only if they engage in a contest of ideas. It would be a great sign for our democracy if both were to engage in political debate and resist the temptation at name-calling.

If on the other hand, the next generation of leaders slips down the greasy pole and sinks into the so-called ‘swamp’, then maybe democracy is on its last legs.

Andrew MacLeod is a visiting Professor at Kings College London, a corporate director in Australia and the US, a former high-level UN official and former CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. He can be followed on @AndrewMMacleod


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