Elections and parliaments may be the most visible part of a democracy, but it’s the rights of participation that are extended to every citizen that is the true measure. Parliament itself is a much older institution than elections or voting and has only had universal suffrage grafted on to its procedures in the last 150 years at most. Without robust rights of participation and a tolerance of non-violent civil disobedience we are on a slippery slope to totalitarianism.

Gate A in fuull swing at Bentley Blockade

Photo by David Lowe

There is a lot more that goes into a healthy functioning democracy than elections and rule by elected representatives. That’s just the representative democracy part of the process. If elections are relatively new, the ascendancy of major political parties is even newer. Our Westminster system is designed to allow governments to be formed from the floor of parliament without the need for political parties. Political parties emerged as a means for consolidating the votes of local members into blocs that could ultimately form governments in their own right and push their bloc agendas. Unfortunately in allowing major parties to dominate our political landscape, we turn the parliamentary model on its head and governments control parliament rather than parliament controlling governments. The power of local representatives becomes sublimated to the agendas of major parties and we risk ending up with a kind of elected dictatorship.

Once our democracy is reduced to choosing between two entrenched political parties, we are in trouble, because as we have seen these parties become the target of corporate lobbyists and political corruption sets in.

So representative democracy has its value but it cannot work well unless we also have a thriving culture of participatory democracy. Where all citizens are empowered to engage in political activity, form associations, campaign, protest, march and where necessary, strike, blockade or engage in non-violent civil disobedience.

These are the three essential layers to a healthy democracy: elections; rights of participation; and as a final resort non-violent civil disobedience. Non-violence is an essential democratic value because political violence is undemocratic by nature; it is imposed on people against their will. We can see the role of non-violent civil disobedience in the struggle of the suffragettes to gain the vote for women, in the path of India toward democracy and in the American civil rights movement. Environmental protests and blockades in Australia have continued that proud and democratic tradition.

Unfortunately Australia is forgetting where democracy comes from and what is needed for it to thrive. We hear politicians and corporate lobbyists spinning us lines about protest being Ok as long as it remains lawful. Well it’s the nature of protest that it isn’t always lawful, and particularly where governments in lockstep with corporations keep making news laws to make it more unlawful. It’s understandable that there are basic public order laws to punish minor offences like obstructing roadways and the like, but when politicians start to explicitly outlaw particular forms of protest we are heading towards an elected dictatorship.

Earlier this year the Victorian government passed laws to enable protesters to be ‘moved on’ from protests sites; to enable individuals to be subjected to ongoing exclusion orders and to be liable to up to 2 years imprisonment. These laws directly attack the rights to protest and association and our freedom of movement. In Tasmania new laws have been passed that go even further and protesters can face up to $10,000 spot fines for hitherto common types of protest such as blockades and pickets of businesses, the laws even include three-month mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders. It is the complete assault on democracy and the rule of law of law to propose to jail people simply for non-violent protest, and to sideline the role of the judiciary in sentencing.

Somehow the privilege of corporations to do business however harmful or unpopular is being placed above and beyond the reach of democracy. We have much to be proud of in the Northern Rivers region with our long history of non-violent protest and civil disobedience when required. Most the great national parks we enjoy in this region have their origins in forest protests that often included blockades, and our continued status as a clean green farming and tourism region has depends on our ability to defend our region from the mining and petroleum industry.

Regardless of what opinion you have about particular day to day issues, we should all stand strong for a healthy democracy and condemn moves by governments at any level to outlaw participatory democracy.


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