In a speech on the eve of the New Year, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese warned that “Some of the oldest, most stable democracies have come under attack from a whole range of corrosive, insidious forces. No one is immune” continuing, “I urge anyone who thinks our democracy is unassailable to have a look around the world,”. These statements are no doubt true and certainly substantial investments are needed to restore public faith in governments. But are the governments of these democracies ready to tackle the incompetence, fraud and corruption built into decades of policy making which have driven these countries to the edge?
A Zoe Williams’ article for The Guardian, How Britain Got A Furious New Attitude, details how 13 years of unjust policies, “hitting hard the most vulnerable and marginalised first”, is creating change, because people believe they have nothing to lose. The fear of living conditions getting worse is now greater than the fear of taking action to fight these unjust policies. And this fear is valid, given the growing number of countries enacting anti-protest and anti-strike laws.
As Williams’ articles says, the fake stoicism of “We’re all in this together” espoused by the wealthy, while at the same time they did “absolutely fine under the UK’s austerity measures” is grating on the broader public. The visible inequality which has happened in UK society, created under the story of “fiscal reality means tough choices had to be made” has resulted in people withdrawing their labour to redress the balance; lack of government care of their plight means “there is no alternative”. The UK’s “new attitude” means so many people are now on rolling strikes that the BBC has a day-by-day planner to show who’s on strike. Undoubtedly, the COVID pandemic was the tipping point, the dodgy PPE contracts and the lies of Partygate. And the UK government response? They announced new anti-strike laws, reinforcing why decades of government incompetence and ideology has undermined democracy.
When governments decay into an Idiocracy, then no country is immune to the democratic instability Albanese point towards. But the whole range of corrosive, insidious forces he alludes to must include the ones eating away at governments from the inside; they opened the door and invited in the self-interested and, in turn, Ministers, Senators and MPs became useful idiots, acting on behalf of corporate interests to further their own.
But people aren’t only developing a new attitude because they have lost trust in their governments to deal with social injustice, they have no confidence that their governments will tackle environmental injustice driving climate change and biodiversity collapse. It seems that some political representatives are sensing this change.
Why else would a group of Democratic senators write to the head of the United Nations warning that public trust in global negotiations on climate action is at risk because of the scale of corporate lobbying, given 630 fossil fuel lobbyists attended the 27th annual climate summit, Cop27. In their joint letter they stated, “We urge you to take steps to ensure that the CoP itself can avoid direct interference from corporate actors with a vested financial interest in undermining climate action,” continuing that the UN must “help restore public faith that the CoP process is not being abused by companies as an opportunity to greenwash.”. This is a bit rich coming from the representatives of the US senate, be they Democrats or Republicans, as the US political process is dominated by lobbyists and corporate campaign contributions.
The influence of the fossil fuel industry on politics and the resulting policies is well documented. One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts as President was to remove the solar panels installed on The White House roof by Jimmy Carter, setting back the renewables industry by decades. This may seem a symbolic gesture, but it sent the signal that the fossil fuel industry was looking for to protect its own interests.
Similarly, the fossil fuel supporting press enabled consecutive governments in Australia to push the line that they will solve climate change through investment in innovation. If this had really been the Australian government’s strategy, then the country would have been a leading global manufacturer of solar heating and solar energy systems decades ago.
The first report of an Australian domestic solar water heater was an article in the Cane Growers Bulletin in 1941. The article stated, “the system would provide hot water for the household for 300 days a year in the North Queensland climate”. Research into solar energy was ramped up in the 1950s; and in 1953, CSIRIO identified solar energy as an area of significant, strategic importance to Australia, by virtue of the country’s climate and natural resources. By 1954, a prototype solar water heater had been built, tested and a report on its design and construction published; this work was presented at a symposium in 1955. This provided the base for the new solar water heating industry in Australia, which exported both products and technology to a number of countries. During the period 1954 – 1964, CSIRO published a series of reports outlining the design for systems and the results of field tests. Government investment was inconsistent and early promise was not realised. The fossil fuel industry won out.
But lobbying and corporate capture is not isolated to the fossil fuel industry; banking and finance, agriculture and many more have lobbied hard for deregulation, tax breaks and subsidies over decades. Business got what they asked for, society and the environment consistently lost out. The “whole range of corrosive, insidious forces” Prime Minister Albanese discussed in his New Year’s Eve speech include the ones inside governments where business has unbalanced access to Ministers and MPs and government are spending billions on consulting companies to do its job.
For decades, governments worldwide have not regulated or legislated to keep these corrosive forces in check. Now businesses and industries believe they are untouchable, so that in many cases they don’t even try to hide their self-serving behaviour anymore. The corruption of the democratic process has become endemic and the people (who the government supposedly represents) are now challenging this.
We are seeing more instances of people around the world publicly venting their furious new attitude towards government inaction on social and environmental injustice. Protests are getting more frequent, larger and last longer, and not just in Western countries. If all governments can do in response is enact anti-protest and anti-strike laws, still believing that they can “carrying on” with business-as-usual, no doubt this hypothesis will be tested.
Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years. In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.