Democracy Matters

It will surely surprise none of you that I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy this year. There are a few particular reasons I’d like to share for my musings on democracy:

  1. I’m an elected President of a national organisation.
  2. I was deeply uncomfortable with the word ‘democracy’ before this year.
  3. I was involved in the establishment of a new peak body for international students in July.
  4. I have the honour of being an Ambassador for Aung San Suu Kyi through the Burma Campaign Australia.
  5. I’m an elected member of my children’s primary school council.

I’ve taken my roles on various councils very seriously these last five years – some might even call me a governance junkie (I do).

I understand democracy to mean a system where people are free to speak their views, insofar as they are not harmful to others, and to vote for elected representatives who will do their utmost to work in the direct interest of those they serve. When the constituency’s views are not well understood, democratically-elected representatives will do all in their power to survey the population to ensure they are truly aware of majority views. They will also ensure that minority views are well understood and their needs met.

Let me begin though with my second point – I was profoundly uncomfortable with using the word ‘democracy’ until this year. There is a fairly simple reason for this, which is that I was raised in the United States and swung heavily to the left during my undergraduate years at UCSD, whereupon I first heard Chomsky’s famous line that “America is the most brainwashed nation in the world”, as I protested the 1991 Gulf War. I won’t expound at length here on why I think democracy in America is broken, but essentially, I have thought so for a long time.

But stepping carefully away from that Big Conversation, let’s jump to this year. I’ve now been on a number of governance bodies, all related to the education sector, and so obviously believe in the system of democracy. I believe in the importance of voice, and of using it well. Having a voice is a privilege, and not one I take for granted. I’ve often been called a ‘squeaky wheel’, and it’s true, I usually get the oil. I’m quite proud of this fact, especially given I use my voice regularly and resoundingly to help others.

So in July there we were down in Hobart, having managed to get about 100 international students from all levels of post-secondary education to a three-day forum, which resulted in the establishment of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA). As the chair for the three days, I was constantly amazed and impressed as I led the democratic process. And I had the opportunity to reflect on the many students present who had never participated in democracy. It was exhilarating when the constitution was adopted, and inaugural office bearers elected.

Perhaps what heightened my awareness of the diversity of political experiences of those present at the International Students Forum was that in June I had the great honour to be invited by the Burma Campaign Australia to be an Ambassador for Aung San Suu Kyi. The primary role of the ambassadors has been to ‘use our liberty to promote Burma’s’ – to use our voices to bring attention to the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house detention on the 13th of November 2010, having spent 15 of the past 21 years imprisoned in her home by the military dictatorship. The elections held just days before her release saw the UNDP maintain power in a process widely regarded as rigged. Democracy does not exist in modern Burma, but Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), intend to keep fighting for it. And in my limited capacity, I’ll keep using my voice to raise awareness of Burma’s plight.

I’ve learned a great deal about democracy these last few years, and I’m now able to comfortably say I believe in it. Even in America, where the system is limping along, people have a voice, if they would only use it. A weak education system certainly does not enable a healthy democracy, and nor does a failure of the state to look after its people’s health or ensure they all have safe housing. And yet the right to speak and to vote still exists in real terms, which must surely give one hope for a brighter future. In Burma, such rights are at best limited and at worst subverted by unscrupulous so-called leaders.

Aung San Suu Kyi perhaps best summed up the people’s essential role in democracy during her speeches after release:

“Please don’t have the attitude that politics do not concern you. […] Everything is politics. Politics is not just coming here and supporting us. The housewife, who is cooking at home, also has something to do with politics because she is struggling to feed her family with the money she has. Struggling to send children to school is politics. Everything is politics. No one is free of politics. So saying that politics does not concern you and that you do not wish to be involved in politics is a lack of awareness of politics.”

Hear hear. Every purchase you do or don’t make, such as buying green power, is a political act.

I’ll close, predictably, with a reflection on the impact of so-called Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) on student voice. Some of you may have seen today’s article in The Australian about my organisation, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) closing down our offices in Trades Hall due to lack of funds. The article highlights the decline of our members as their funding dried up, even in cases where universities have tried to support them by diverting money from teaching and learning funds.

I must reassure everyone that CAPA will continue to lobby at the national level, continuing our 30-year history of transforming national policy for Australia’s 270,000+ postgraduate students. We’ll just work from home. In fact, even with our limited financial resources, we’ve just released our Benchmarking Report on Minimum Resources for Postgraduate Study 2010.

There are many who supported the VSU legislation in 2005 based on the fallacy that the Amenities Fee only supported radical student politics and free beer. In fact, the fee paid for many essential services on campuses, as well as independent representation and advocacy.

Who cares whether there are student reps on university committees, some may wonder? Well, if coursework postgrads are worried about the quality of your degrees as class sizes increase, who would you like to voice that concern? Perhaps you’re a research student with supervisor woes and no office space? In more dire circumstances, maybe your supervisor is wrongfully trying to claim your IP?

Student representatives canvass a plethora of issues at committees regularly and relentlessly, leading to significant improvements in policy and practice. Advocates working for student associations identify themes in their casework and alert representatives to issues that are not unique, so that they may lobby for change across the system. Where they are not well resourced and not able to work together, it’s difficult to notice themes, let alone take them to central committees. On far too many of Australia’s university campuses five years into life with VSU, there are student organisations barely surviving and unable to maintain a strong voice as their funding has disappeared.

Most of those campuses without independent postgraduate representation have lost their link to CAPA, the peak body, meaning their voices are disappearing at the federal level. Those who have lost their postgrad associations include members of the Go8 – it’s not just small and regional universities who are suffering. (For those interested, you can read all of our submissions to Government on the VSU and current SSAF bill.)

CAPA is aware of instances of postgrad associations being overtly threatened with a withdrawal of funding and/or disbanded by universities because they didn’t like what the student reps were saying about their institution. A return of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), with a proviso that some of the fee be used to directly support independent representation and advocacy on a per head distribution between undergrads and postgrads, would ensure that such unethical and undemocratic behaviour could not occur.

Again, to quote Aung San Suu Kyi on the day after her release, “Accepting that there can be a difference of opinion is a democratic principle.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

2 thoughts on “Democracy Matters”

  1. This is really good Tam; so few people actually think about democracy any more, like it’s a static object that we got right once, years ago, and is now some sort of sacred cow.

    By comparing the different ways democracy works (or doesn’t) in various applications, it’s easier to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches. No arguments from me that the US system is badly damaged, but Australia has some problems of her own, which have been somewhat addressed with a finely balanced Lower House. Party solidarity be damned.

    EB

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