Monday, July 09, 2012

Winton Bates, kvd & monitory democracy

Before reading this post, please have a look at Michael Pascoe's opinion piece, Timid governments bow to populism. I actually disagree quite strongly with some aspects of the Pascoe argument, but it sets a context for this post.

In a comment on Saturday Morning Musings - things European via Higgs Boson, Indonesia & other matters, Winton Bates asked regular commenter kvd what he thought of monitory democracy. kvd responded:

Hi Winton - I would have to think long and hard about that.

I'm presently quite depressed by what I see being reported as to the crumbling of what I've always regarded as the bedrock of democracy: integrity, prudential management, a fine civil service, and an honourable judicial, press and banking system.

Now I see parliament foregoing its legislative responsibility, a press (the traditional press) being dishonoured by its current practitioners, our High Court decisions analysed as to personalities rather than judicial reasoning, etc. etc.

Possibly it was always a mixture of the good and not so good, but now our view is informed constantly by many new sources and opinion makers - some of them too loud, too partisan. The mechanics are more transparent but with that has gone a measure of our respect for the institutions and placeholders.

I think open monitoring and questioning is ok - except it can lead to always performing, never planning - but I dread the thought of our current democracy going down the path towards participatory democracy, for instance such as Getup! claims to be. Sometimes you need a government prepared to make and hold to tough decisions, and I don't think the constant daily questioning and second-guessing assists in that.

I hadn't heard of the concept of monitory democracy before.

Winton explains it in What implications does 'monitory democracy' have for the survival of democratic institutions?. The idea comes from Australian political scientist Professor John Keane. Keane argues that from the middle of the 20th Century representative democracy began to transform into monitory democracy – a new historical form described by ‘the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms’. He looks at the matter from its impact on public policy. He also discusses what me might call loosely the imperfections and imbalances in the scrutinising mechanisms. Monitory democracy is of itself imperfect.

Michael Pascoe does not use the same term as Professor Keane, but the examples he provides fit the Keane model. I said that I objected to aspects of the Pascoe piece. It's really his emphasis on the adverse effects of populism, his equation of it with mindless bending to public opinion, that annoyed me. I am a populist in political tradition, but that is not the same as blind majoritarianism.

Like Professor Keane, Michael Pascoe looks at it in terms of the relationship between state and people, at the impact on the way Government works. I have a similar focus, but come perhaps to a different position.

To my mind, the effect of monitory democracy is ever greater monitoring and control by the state over individual action in the name of risk avoidance. The state becomes the monitor over individual and collective behaviour setting controls dictated by the ever shifting perception of majority popular opinion. It doesn't matter whether those controls work or not, it doesn't matter what the costs might be, the key thing is to be seen to be doing something.

I am not a libertarian. Total freedom doesn't work. Yet the end result of what we do now is a mess. 

I really like the phrase monitory democracy because it captures what is happening, monitoring by the state in response to our monitoring of the state.      


I always acknowledge when I have been trumped! In this case, both Winton and I in fact! Our long standing blogging colleague Neil Whitfield drew my attention to two posts he wrote over two years ago on Professor Keane's views. They are:


Rod said...

I thought this post was very enlightening. In particular I note the quote: ‘the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms’. I feel here is the heart of the 'problem'. Governments, Local, State and Federal have created or forced unpopular decision making away from themselves so that they can focus on what is more important (their own desire to be seen as important and popular in their own crowd).

I've course I do generalize (though local government is close to being exactly as above). There are many politicians who do actually want to make a positive and definite change but the now built-in populist mechanism has made that hard. It seems only an emergency will create lasting action these days.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for posting on this topic. Having asked kvd for his view I was wondering how best to give it the attention it deserves. You have made this easy.

You have nearly persuaded me that ‘monitory’ might be a good term to use to describe modern democracy, but kvd had almost persuaded me to the opposite viewpoint. I’m not sure that monitory captures the asinine aspect of modern politics – particularly use of focus groups to find meaningless words that have an appealing ring to them and using those words as a substitute for policies. For example: ‘moving forward with plans to build a sustainable Australia’.

I liked Michael Pascoe’s piece. If you were upset by Michael’s use of the word populism you would probably be enraged by something I wrote on the topic a few years ago. If I had read a relevant post on your blog, I would probably have taken a different tack.

Unfortunately, the dictionary definition of populism as 'seeking to represent all the people' has been lost in common usage. I have been trying to think up a better word to describe politicians who seek popularity by appealing to ignorance, confusion or prejudice. ‘Demagoguery’ is not always the appropriate word. I think ‘dog whistle’ politician comes close, but it doesn’t quite capture the asininity referred to above.

Neil W said...

I think Winton is right about "populism" so being subject to pejoration now as perhaps to be beyond rescue. It happens: "The downgrading or depreciation of a word's meaning, as when a word with a positive sense develops a negative one." See also What is Populism? and Understanding populism.

Anonymous said...

Jim perhaps the other thing you might have included is my later comment to Winton that I disliked the term as being confusingly close to 'monetary'.

It seems these days impossible to discuss anything without first assigning a label - but there is a flow on effect in that, having labelled a concept, sometimes the concept then assumes a greater significance than necessarily deserved. (This is a rehash of a comment I made on Winton's piece)

So, if I find the term confusing, do I have an alternative? From two different cultures, I'd suggest either 'pinata democracy' or 'aunt sally democracy' as being closest to my thought that we are in danger of electing governments for a term of some years, then subjecting them to continual critique, with the result that the elected basically spend their elected terms responding to minute by minute 'crises' rather than executing their programs.



Anonymous said...

Winton - I meant to add thanks for the link to your April 2008 piece. I found that very clear.


Winton Bates said...

Thanks Neil and kvd.
In his NYT article(referred to by Michael Pascoe) Thomas Friedman uses the word popularism. Please note the spelling!

Jim Belshaw said...

Always good to see conversation proceed in my absence! Seriously, we all seem to be agreement!

kvd, I laughed. You have inspired today's post.

Jim Belshaw said...

Actually, a correction. Winton, Winton, not kvd.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, I do think the state is increasingly monitoring us. A related term is 'the security state'.

My concern with post-WW2 representative democracy is the declining party membership (ie. the participation in democracy is declining - so a more participatory democracy would be good).

Democracy is increasingly becoming a choice of elite clubs. The decline in party membership meaning that people are largely removed from policy making. So I think we need new mechanisms - sometimes called deliberative democracy, citizen juries and such.