Collective power is key to a fair democracy

Saffron Zomer, Lawyer, strategist and Executive Director, Australian Democracy Network, Fri, 17 Mar 2023

Saffron Zomer, a lawyer, strategist and Executive Director of the Australian Democracy Network, on why we are at a pivotal moment in time to create an inclusive political process. The ADN and The Myer Foundation are co-hosting a special screening next week of the documentary Big Deal, which examines Australia’s billion-dollar political lobbying industry.

I had been working on the issue of climate change for a decade when I started to wonder – why aren’t we winning? The environmental imperative for action was clear and strong public support was there – yet, successive governments failed to answer the call to deliver action.

All the big decisions on the most important issues for society – whether it’s the climate crisis, public health, poverty, human rights­ – are negotiated through our democratic process. If that’s not working well, we all get bad outcomes.

We can continue to fight individual problems as they arise, or we can come together to fix the system. This was the genesis of the Australian Democracy Network.

At ADN we want our democracy to work better for everyone, not just the powerful few, but we need the collective power of community and civil society to win reforms this big.

That’s why ADN works with a diverse group of social change organisations and NFPs, experts, government and the Australian public to build the culture and mechanisms necessary for systemic change. 

ADN is a founding partner of the Stronger Charities Alliance and the #OurDemocracy campaign. The campaign brings together a diverse group working on issues from public health to nature conservation, who all agree that dysfunctional democracy is preventing us from winning the progress we seek.

A key failing of our political system is the problem of state capture: when powerful private interests exert influence over policy-makers to get outcomes that put their profits ahead of the public interest. But we have solutions. #OurDemocracy has created our Frameworkfor a Fair Democracy, which outlines the key policy reforms needed to get our democracy back on track. We also need to shift the culture so that there are social and political consequences for those who seek to engage in state capture and undermine our democracy.

ADN has had a huge year. In the lead-up to the election, we worked tirelessly to engage all parties and candidates in policy dialogue, so that whatever the outcome of the election, we would have a parliament that understood our policy solutions and was ready to work with us to get them done.

Making democratic reform a Big Deal
We also reached people around the country with the documentary Big Deal providing accessible information about the problem. We invited everyone who watched the film to join our movement – 15,000 did.

One of the challenges we face in building support for democratic reform is the lack of literacy around crucial yet complex issues such as campaign finance and lobbying. This is where accessible storytelling tools such as the Big Deal are incredibly valuable.

What’s next?

The election was a turning point for our work. We now have a parliament with a clear mandate for action on integrity reforms and campaign finance. We’ve had some early wins on this front, including the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and a Federal Code of Conduct being introduced.

Soon, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will complete its inquiry and make recommendations on what democratic reforms the Government should pursue. After that, the Government will legislate changes – but we are concerned they won’t go far enough.

Nobody wants to see elections where our democracy can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. We have already built momentum – this is our chance to create a political opportunity for this parliament to enact the bold reforms we know we need. If we miss this moment to fix the system, we don’t know when or if it will come again.

Small but mighty – why The Myer Foundation supports ADN

“At The Myer Foundation, we see ADN as an important contributor and mobiliser around issues at the heart of democratic integrity and a strong and vibrant civil society. ADN is a small but mighty organisation.

“The Myer Foundation supports ADN and its highly skilled team with an operating grant of $275,000 over five years. It’s important to us that the grant is untied and supports ADN to progress its mission across a range of initiatives. ADN is funded under our theme of human, civil and legal rights, which incorporates work and organisations that defend democracy.

“It’s as important now as ever to bolster Australia’s democracy and civil society, because in so many places around the world these are being whittled away. The Myer Foundation is proud to support ADN and we would love to see others come on board.”

Kirsty Allen, Senior Program Manager Sidney Myer Fund & The Myer Foundation

If you want to further explore these issues, see here for details of the Big Deal screening in Melbourne on 28 March at 5.30pm.