John Keane | Is Democracy Not For Everyone?
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Is Democracy Not For Everyone?

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4 October 2009

IQ2 Australian Debate

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. In western countries like Australia the universal good of democracy is simply assumed. But are we assuming too much? “Democracy Is Not For Everyone” was the challenging proposition debated at the most recent IQ Squared event, held as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.


The first debater for the affirmative team was Carmen Lawrence which, given her experience at democracy’s coalface, is rather ironic. The speakers were, in order of appearance:

Simon Longstaff (moderator) is the executive director of the St. James Ethics Centre, which presents the IQ Squared Oz debates series.

Professor Carmen Lawrence is a former Premier of Western Australia. She then served as a Federal Labor politician and became Minister for Health and Human Services in the Keating Government. She is currently Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Australia.

Professor John Keane is an Australian author and academic. Among his many books is the recent The Life and Death of Democracy. He is currently Professor of Politics at the University of Westminster in the UK, but is soon to return to Australia to head Politics at the University of Sydney.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar is the former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Russia, amongst other countries. He is a specialist in Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs, and writes on energy and security issues for publications including The Hindu and Asia Online.

Amina Rasul-Bernardo is a research fellow at the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines. She is a former Presidential adviser on youth affairs, and is an expert on minority representation and democratic participation in the Philippines, her home country.

Professor Greg Craven is Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University. He is an expert in public law, having published numerous articles and books on the subject. He is a leading opinion writer and columnist for The Australian Financial Review.

Dr Michael Wesley is Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He’s a former Professor of International Relations and Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University. Between 2007 and 2009 was the Editor of The Australian Journal of International Affairs.

This event was presented by the Sydney Opera House and the St James Ethics Centre.


Dear Prof.John Keane, Thank you very much indeed and warm good wishes. It is lovely to find you in recent time on BBC World news that a public debate on Fesivel of Dangerous Policy at The Opera Hose in Sydney. “Life and death of Democracy” I am delighted too to listen your talk and participants were sounded quickly in favor and opposition. Democracy is not for some people. As I think,Prof Keane,In India,may be a large democratic after US but root of corruption and illiteracy are main cause and hindering against Democracy of India.People really don’t understand the fruits of Democracy in India. Kindly may reply with lovely wards. Thank you again. Best regards. D. Ghosh.

Any idea that tries to exclude some people is not a good idea. Because if you follow it, you will end up to a nasty situation! Suppose that those great men and women who dedicated their lives for abbolution of slavery, had said that “freedom is not for everyone” what world we could have lived in today? So democracy, in my view is for everybody and everywhere. But we should adabt it according to the local situation. We might face some challengers, but those challengers are everywhere even in Britain and US in different forms.

Democracy’ is derived from two Greek words – d?mos, (people), and kratos (rule). In the Encyclop?dia Britannica, a reader will discover that “democracy had its beginnings in certain of the city-states of ancient Greece, in which the whole citizen body formed the legislature”.
In our so-called Western Democracies we have surrendered our legislative power to elected representatives, who almost always put their own interests before those of their electors.
This is the fallacy of the Western Democracies. The greed, corruption, hedonism and sheer dishonesty go unchecked.
Perhaps the current ‘expenses scandal’ rocking the United Kingdom will mark the return of power to the electors. Oliver Cromwell’s opinions of politicians never rang truer than they do today.
It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.
In the name of God, go!

I couldn’t figure out what this debate was about. The way the subject or motion was formulated I thought the debate was going to be about whether all peoples should ideally live under democracy, or perhaps there are some peoples, places or nations for which democracy is not the best choice or perhaps not viable. But a member of the audience who rephrased the motion in this way was rebuked for asking a “silly question”! Some of those who argued against the motion also seemed to think that was the question. The panellists in favour of the motion, however, all seemed to be arguing simply that our existing democratic regimes are not perfect, with the result that not all citizens are properly represented. Well, we all know that! For me the debate was frustrating and rather shallow. Also, there too many references to the intricacies of Australian politics, most of which were not relevant for me. The panellist from the Philippines spoke eloquently and passionately, and that is the positive impression I’m left with from the debate.

A word to the wise – this is not the first time the proposition or motion for a debate is open to such a wide range of interpretations that it’s hard to know who’s in favour and who’s against. Debates would be more meaningful if all the participants were agreed on the meaning of the motion.

I enjoyed it for the most part although I felt a couple of the panelists could have been a little more robust in their presentations but mostly excellent and lively.  Always too short and would love to see a longer format.  I am not convinced that democracy is for everyone.  Freedom of thought, speech and movement and the right to work should be a given for men and women everywhere but if that could work under a benevolent dictatorship – it could be more efficient (in an ideal world).

It was a weak topic conducted well and very very humorously. Whatever word you bleeped out from Greg Caven, I hope it was irreverent enough for the Dean (?) of a Catholic University.
I was surprised that no one positioned Democracy and the human condition as a work-in-progress rather than a gift from God that was born perfect. Sure – “we” won the debate, but if the outcome of the proposition was a foregone conclusion (possibly not) then the topic was a waste.
If it was not a foregone conclusion, then it was not argued well enough.
I prejudicially and personally prefer debates that teach me something. This one was unsually weak. ( Humour is no substitute for usefulness. Saying that politicians don’t have personalities may be funny – but it doesn’t answer the question. )
Sorry – but – bad choice of topic.

I don’t mind to be called pessimist because I think I’m realist and I wonder why loose time trying to figure out if democracy is for everyone in a world that I can’t quote a country that I’m sure it’s really democratic. I confess there are countries I don’t know much about, but as far as I have knowledge maybe Netherlands and Switzerland can be examples, I’m not sure. But in a world that people have to follow rules made by the premise that there is a God is not democratic at principle.
I think the debate should be much more deep than the rhetoric I’m tired to listen. There must be people who can talk about daily basis issues that have been hided under the carpet by the power of ideology and while people still have opinions instead of thoughts, democracy will remain an abstract concept.

An interesting debate; very well organized. The opinions and motions, for and against the topic, mixed with the satires/puns by some of the participants, were impressive.

Their were really good arguments with all the panelists. It really got me thinking. We do need to stay democracy. We wouldn’t have any freedoms or rights, like non democracy countries like the Islamic one’s.
One of the panielists turned the debate into a comedy routine. I have never seen this before and it was really funny.
Thanks for sharing the programme with me.

An excellent debate about a very important subject.

The questions and comments from the audience were generally good, although I think they went on a bit too long. The six panel members were well-balanced, with two
taking a pragmatic approach, one a humorous tone, one who presented traditional arguments why democracy is not for everyone, and two a comprehensive view of why it is but not for usual reasons. The moderator kept things moving and the music was appropriate.

The title of the debate is a point made by leaders of quasi-democracies.  John Keane hit the nail on the head.  Why do dictatorships hide behind the myth that their country is democratic if the title is true.  They think that using the word “democracy” gives them a sort of legality.  It is important to change your government when its time is up.  This debate was decided in a democratic way, as one participant pointed out.  To attain democracy is the ultimate aim of everyone.  What a resounding result against the motion.

We sincerely got hooked to this debate, and enjoyed the “Against the motion” panellists vey much. The were more concise and persuasive in their reasons/arguments, I think.
I entirely agree on Dr Michael Wesley’s view when he says “we need democracy at all levels of government. We can’t risk any other types of leadership” given that there are many global challenging problems nowadays.
It was a very welcoming venue – Sydney Opera House – to debate this important issue. Had we been there, we would certainly vote against the motion , that is expressing how democracy is for everyone. (Despite recognising some failures…)

First of all I want to apologize for any grammatical errors in these paragraphs.
I do believe that almost all of us want an ideal democracy, in which all the people within some “social system” (such as a country) could have a balanced decision power. It is true that must of the democracies have fallen in some of their goals, however I do believe that instead of make high emphasis on those troubles, lets analyze also the way to solve them.
By my side I do believe that we could develop systems based on information technology, in order to grant the balanced decision power of each member in a social system. Now a days it has been possible to interconnect millions of people among each other around the world, why not used such tecnology to allow people take an active roll on politic matters?.
This will be my advice to BBC programs:
It will be interesting if you point into the trouble and also into the solution, at least some idea to overcome the given problem.

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