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One of the famous speeches on democracy was given by Pericles who was the leader of Athens in its war against Sparta. He gave it in a cemetery where Athenian soldiers killed in the war had been buried. So much of the speech sounds modern, though it was given 2,500 years ago. These ideals are our ideals.

‘We call our state a democracy’, said Pericles, ‘because power is not in the hands of a minority, but the whole people’. Yes, we agree.

‘Everyone is equal before the law.’ Yes.

‘It doesn’t matter what class you come from, it’s your ability that counts.’ Yes, a wonderful ideal, though hard to reach.

‘Everyone must be interested in politics.’ Eh? Say that again. Pericles said: ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.’

That we don’t agree with. We value our democracy because of the freedom it gives us. We can make our own life, and if we don’t want to be interested in boring and irrelevant politics, we don’t have to be. Imagine being made to go to meetings and sit on committees!
Community and individual rights

The Greek democrats did not have the idea of private individual rights. You had the duty to participate in government and that gave you rights – to vote in the assembly, to sit on a jury, to stand for office. The Greek city-states were small and citizens wanted to belong to the state. It was like belonging to a tribe or a club. You didn’t want to be finding ways to keep apart; being together was comforting and rewarding.

Our concern with rights began as a way of reducing the claims of kings and avoiding the teaching that they always had to be obeyed. We used rights to escape. We have claimed more and more rights; we are escaping further and further. But what are we running from? No longer from kings. Now in a democracy we are running away from ... ourselves. Why don’t we trust each other more and concentrate on building a strong community, not on securing our private space?

We have carried our concern with rights too far or it has not been balanced by an acceptance of our responsibilities. A society in which everyone demanded their rights and no one treated other people decently would be a most unpleasant place. A group of leading statesmen from around the world has now drawn up a Declaration of Human Responsibilities which it wants the UN to place alongside its Declaration of Human Rights. One of its key clauses is the old rule: act towards others as you would have them act towards you.
Rights and responsibilities

Still, we cannot give up our concern with rights. Democratic states can be heavy-handed. Our governments are more powerful and more remote than the government in Athens. We don’t have a weekly assembly where we can control what a government does. Our society is also larger and more diverse. We are all Australians and sometimes that gives us the feeling of belonging to a club or a tribe, but day to day we live in very different ways and have different values. We need our individual rights so that we can live as we like.

But if we were all concerned only with our rights and our lifestyle, our democracy would not work. Governments want us to vote for them and they will try to be popular enough to get re-elected, but day by day they are influenced by what they learn of our views and interests. Citizens with the same economic interests – farmers, workers, employers – form associations which regularly put their views to government. Citizens with similar concerns do the same – they may be concerned about the environment, or education, or overseas aid.
Active citizens

When governments don’t act as a particular group may want, there will be protests and demonstrations or letters to the newspapers and calls to talk-back radio. If all this were to stop, if governments governed and there was silence, they would not at first know what to do. Soon they would realise that nobody cared what they did, and then governments would govern for their close supporters, their families and themselves.

As reporters of protests and as critics of government themselves, the media play a crucial role. In a large-scale society the media is the only way we learn about the protests – and the proposals – of our fellow citizens. The media are the gatekeepers of democracy. If they narrow the range of what they will report or what they will investigate, they rob citizens of knowledge and with that, the capacity to act or exert influence. One way to ensure that the media remain open to a range of views is to ensure competition between media outlets and diversity of ownership. Another way is for the government itself to own, say, a broadcasting organisation which will not be concerned with profit and will be bipartisan in the political battle and not a barracker for any particular view. An independent, government-financed broadcaster is one of the miracles of a liberal democracy, like an officially recognised leader of the opposition and judges who may defy the government which appointed them.
Media and diversity of ownership

It is very easy to reach the view that citizens exert little influence over modern government. We commonly complain that governments ignore us or that the parties are too much alike or that politicians break promises. In fact our governments are still very responsive to citizens’ pressures. Think of some of the issues which concern governments today – the environment, heritage, equal opportunity, child care. Thirty years ago governments took little or no interest in these matters. They have been made important by citizens’ efforts. Conservation groups have been particularly effective in finding new ways to protest and to bring issues to our notice. In Tasmania in the 1980s the Wilderness Society stopped the damming of the Franklin River even though both political parties in the State were in favour of it.
Citizens’ influence

When we form associations, whether they are to influence government or not, we are being democratic citizens. Imagine a new club of bicycle riders is being formed. Their chief business will be to organise bike trips, but they may also lobby the government for more bike tracks. Who will run the club? The richest, the oldest, the best bike riders? No. No one group will be automatically leaders. There will be an election for a committee. The committee will then elect a president to be in charge, a secretary to keep the records, and a treasurer to control the funds.
Voluntary associations

Before democracy established a state of equal citizens, associations were run very differently. The local landowner would be in charge and his relations and hangers-on would assist and get the paid position of secretary. In the towns, when middle-class people formed associations, you got onto the committee if you paid more in subscriptions. The open public meeting and elections to committees were new ways of doing politics in Britain and Australia in the nineteenth century. They allowed ordinary people to exercise influence and become public persons.

Before they got the vote, women were beginning to be public persons, even at a time when women’s place was thought to be in the home. In the nineteenth century when there was no government welfare system, women’s organisations collected donations and distributed them to those in need. Women were prominent in the movement to limit the number of pubs and their opening hours. The women who claimed the right to vote claimed, quite properly, that they were already citizens.

Our associations, run democratically, support the larger democracy. We practise treating each other as equals, and voting, and accepting that the majority will rule, and not getting our own way, and thinking of the common good. We are associating with people whom otherwise we would not know. They are not relations or living close by. This helps us to build up trust in the honesty and decency of our fellow citizens. We also in our clubs and associations meet with people who may be of a different religion or a different social class. This helps to bind society together.

These associations of citizens are called civil society. You can have a democracy without a civil society. This is the situation in many countries which have overthrown communism and established democracy. Under communism the government was in full control of the society. Opposition was forbidden. Organisations of ordinary citizens were forbidden. There were chess clubs, but they were run by the government. People only trusted those they knew very well. Now the old governments have been replaced by governments elected by the people, but the societies are not working well. People are suspicious of each other and there is no longer a tyrannical government to keep order. If you send goods to market, you have to travel with them, otherwise the railway workers or the delivery men will steal them. Stand-over men frighten traders into paying protection money. Bribery is the way to get something done in the government.
Civil society

When trust and honest dealing break down, we see how important they are for the operation of a democracy. We have our freedoms and security because, consciously or unconsciously, we are citizens, watching and influencing governments, associating with each other, making society itself more democratic.

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