John Keane | Is democracy dead? in PM’s ABC Australia
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Is democracy dead? in PM’s ABC Australia

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PM’s ABC Australia

In the words of Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

That implies, of course, that democracy is just one thing, when its history indicates that it has been many things; from a group of well-off men in Athens to the parliamentary and congressional systems of today.

And some historians paint democracy as an ever-expanding almost inevitable force; while others see it as more fragile and difficult to maintain.

The Australian born John Keane, who’s Professor of Politics at the University of Westminster in London, has written a 950 page book surveying the history and called it “The Life and Death of Democracy”.

He also describes what he thinks is a new development following representative democracy, which he thinks is making significant changes. Professor Keane calls it monitory democracy.

JOHN KEANE: Don’t mistake the word for monetary. Monitory democracy… well, the kind of democracy that developed after 1945, when there were only 12 democracies left on the face on the Earth.

The kind of democracy that developed is not to be described as liberal democracy or a continuation of what went on before representative democracy was typically called.

What’s new is that elections continue to be important. Democracy means nothing less than fair, free, clean elections.

But democracy is coming to mean, and we are only at the beginning of this process, much more than that.

It means the development and nurturing of power scrutinising; power monitoring bodies that are extra-parliamentary.

India is a cutting edge example. India has invented a whole series of institutions and processes, institutions like the panchayat system of local government; the compulsory representation of women; Lok Adalat, these courts, railway courts, in Mumbai; fiercely contested student elections.

So, the political geography of democracy as I see it is changing towards a kind of rough and tumble democracy, where there is permanent scrutinising of not only governmental but non-governmental power.

And, monitory democracy is different because for the first time in the history of democracy, these monitoring mechanisms are stretching across borders.

Best case in point is the European Parliament and the attempt to develop a process of scrutinising power across borders within the European Union.

Monitory democracy – this permanent keeping of governments on their toes through not only elections but also extra-parliamentary scrutiny.

MARK COLVIN: After 1989, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was in some intellectual circles, almost a sense of complacency, that not only was it the fall of the Soviet Union, but it was the end of history, and the triumph of liberal democracy.

Is your book to some degree an answer to that?

JOHN KEANE: It’s a strong attack on that Fukuyama… Francis Fukuyama 1989 idea, which as you know and listeners know just captured the moment of those velvet revolutions in the Summer and Autumn of 1989 by saying that this represented proof of the triumph of the idea of liberal democracy that is traceable back to the American founding fathers.

This book, “The Life and Death of Democracy”, argues in two ways against that view. It says that actually this is not a continuation of pre-1989 democracy at all; there is some kind of rupture, some kind of transformation that’s going on – monitory democracy – that’s different.

And secondly, Fukuyama has no understanding and today still has no understanding of what could be called the indigenisation of democracy.

I mean, if you go to India you see that they key question is… are not only what democracy has done to India, but what India has done to democracy. It has given it colour, life, but it’s also changed the meaning of democracy.

It is an experiment, sticking with the Indian case, completely absent in Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history.

India is a case where it shows that you can democratise in a context where the vast majority that has no reading or writing skills, where there are multiple faiths, multiple identities and multiple languages.

One of the basic ideas of the book is that the centre of gravity of democracy is now in the Asia and Pacific region. This is where its future will be decided.

MARK COLVIN: So finally then, and this is obviously in our region an extraordinarily important question, which is more likely to succeed: the Indian model which you’ve been praising, or the Chinese model where they try to have economic freedom but no political freedom; no democracy?

JOHN KEANE: Well, if I was Professor Marvel, the character in the possibly most famous American move ever “The Wizard of Oz”, I would be able to look in my crystal ball and tell you the outcome.

In the book…

MARK COLVIN: You can look backwards though and probably extrapolate a little…

JOHN KEANE: Yes, in the book, I… Well one can, and one of the key reasons for putting eyes in the backs of our heads when it comes to democracy is that it can teach us about the novelties of our times, and of the things that should not be done.

And it’s clear looking at the region that we have mixed a mixture of systems. There is the most successful breakthrough, the Indian case.

I see it as not only the world’s largest democracy; that’s the conveniently cliche, but it is a cutting edge example of where democracy is going in the 21st century.

And we have – on the other hand – we have the Chinese case. The present regime is one which talks the language of democracy, it even issued a while paper quite recently on the subject.

But it practices a system of authoritarianism, growing inequality and growing military power. And I think the Australian difficulty is somehow to fashion a new foreign policy that can reconcile these irreconcilables.

I have no doubt that it must involve a regional settlement. I do not think, contrary probably to the present Government that China is the key player in this relationship. It will have to include India because India too is a rising power.

And in a way, the analogy is with the European Union that the problem is somehow to fashion, to create, the craft new institutions that can develop a process further in which non-violent reconciliation differences among these states, not only makes democracy possible and secures democracy in India and Australia, in Japan, probably in Indonesia, in Taiwan, but can also assist, if it’s going to happen, the democratisation process in China.

MARK COLVIN: Professor John Keane, as I said, Australian born, living in Britain, but returning to Australia next year as Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney.

Now you can hear more of that interview, a long wide-ranging interview with John Keane, at our website a little later this evening.

And he’ll be speaking at a public forum at the New South Wales Parliament tomorrow night.