Heading in the right direction

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 6 September 2021

Democracy is an aspiration that we must work toward. Two international days in September – International Democracy Day and the International Day for Universal Access to Information – make that clear.

Some words act like compasses. When we hear these words we slow down and become interested in exploring where they might take us. Other words are like flags. When we hear them we move directly to stand under them, ready to go to war with those who question them. Democracy is often a flag word. If we hear people speak loudly and proudly of Western Democracy, we know that we are being recruited to stand against Chinese Totalitarianism, Iranian Terrorism, Cuban Marxism or some other foreign and vicious system of governance. In this kind of conversation International Democracy Day may mean no more and no less than Our Own Day.

It is much better to see International Democracy Day on 15 September, not as a flag in which to give ourselves a big wrap, but as an encouragement to ask ourselves where our society is headed. Democracy is not a possession but an aspiration, a dream that we hope to realise. Though we may also use it as a light by which to judge the way in which other nations are ruled, its more important function is to illuminate the way in which we allow our own nation to be ruled.

Democracy means more than casting votes every few years for our federal, state and local governments. It means taking an intelligent part in conversation about public discussion of the values that our governments should pursue and the decisions that they must take, and being free to advocate and organise for good policies. In a functional democracy we can be confident that we are consulted and represented in the making of government decisions, and that our governments look to the good of the nation and its most vulnerable citizens and not to its own partisan good or that of those who have wealth and power. If we wish to stand proudly under that flag, we may do so, but our pride will be in the ideal and in those who have embodied it. If it represents the way democracy is realised in any time and place, the flag will be tatty. Its state will not lead us to boast but to strive to make our own nation more democratic.

For ensuring the health of democracy, the International Day for Universal Access to Information (28 September) offers one of the central keys. Any government that claims to represent the people must be transparent and allow its officers to be held to account. In making decisions it must share with the people information about the situation that they address and the reasons for acting as it does. The information that it provides must also be truthful. Democracy flourishes only when there if respect for truth both in government and in the governed. If false facts, rumour spreading and misleading spin flourish and are decisive in winning office, governance is not democratic but partisan.

Governments will always be economic with the truth and try to conceal information that might embarrass them. That is the rust that governments gather.

The more serious signs of corruption of democracy are found when government ministers lie outright, fail to resign and introduce legislation that criminalises the revelation of discreditable behaviour by government. When truth is of no account and silence about wrongdoing is imposed, as has sometimes been evident in Australia, democracy is seriously wounded. This is something against which we must all protest.

The cure for darkness and the beasties that crawl in it is light. That is why the sharing of information is so important for democracy.