31 October 2023

Opening remarks, ‘Strategies for Strengthening Democracy’ Panel, ANU Crawford Leadership Forum, Canberra


To strengthen democracy, we must build community

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people on whose lands we meet, and pay respects to all First Nations people present today.

It is a pleasure to be joining a distinguished panel, led by Professor Janine O’Flynn, and speaking alongside Dr Jeni Whalan and Ms Padma Raman.

It is only fitting that the organisers chose to hold this forum on Halloween, because the issues we face are ghoulish.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the world entered a ‘democratic recession’ in 2016, and is yet to recover. Russia, Peru, Turkey and Myanmar are among the nations whose democracy scores have slumped. Pollster Afrobarometer reports that the share of Africans who prefer democracy to any other form of government has fallen from 75 per cent in 2012 to 66 per cent.

Even in democracies, populism is at an all-time high. According to a recent study, more than 25 per cent of nations are governed by populists. Populists tend to erode democratic institutions, and undermine economic growth. Fifteen years after populists take power, income per person is 10 per cent lower than it would otherwise have been.

And since it’s Halloween, let’s not forget the biggest risk of populism, which is that populists make catastrophic risks more likely. As I argued in What’s the Worst that Can Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics, confronting dangers such as nuclear war, bioterrorism, climate change and rogue AI requires mobilising our intellectual powers, strengthening institutions, cooperating internationally and remaining irenic (calm). Yet by definition, populists are anti-intellectual, anti-institutional, anti-international and anti-irenic.

What is to be done? In On Tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder sets out twenty lessons from the twentieth century about how to defend democracy. They’re all good, but my favourite is his reminder about the value of civil society. Snyder reminds us that a strong democracy isn’t just about parliaments and elections, but about community.

Czech dissident, poet and ultimately president Vaclav Havel gave the example of citizens that join together in a beer-brewing club. By taking pride in their beer making, and coming to know others who do it well, they are creating civil society.

Australia today is suffering a crisis of disconnection. As we show in Reconnected, the past generation has seen Australians become less likely to play a team sport, less likely to join a community group, less likely to volunteer, and less likely to donate to charity. We have half as many close friends, and know only half as many of our neighbours.

Building community will make Australians healthier and happier, but it will also strengthen our democracy. To build a bulwark against the authoritarian populism that is infecting other nations, we need a stronger sense of civil society.

This isn’t just about giving back, it’s also about nurturing what’s best in ourselves. Humans are a fundamentally social species, but technology and anti-social working hours have sapped our natural tendency to connect.

So as we come into summer, consider whether you can do more to connect with those around you. Join a team sport. Attend a community meeting. Volunteer your skills. Donate to a worthy cause. Host a summer street party for your neighbours. Join a beer brewing club. Connecting isn’t just good for your neighbourhood, it’s also vital for our democracy.