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The Future of Democracy: Response to Samantha Power

Response to Inaugural Gareth Evans Oration 'The Future of Democracy' introduced by Vice-Chancellor Brian P. Schmidt and delivered by Ambassador Samantha Power, ANU, 26 November 2019

Thank you Samantha for a wonderful inaugural Oration, on which I will say more in a moment. And thank you Brian for setting tonight’s event in train, and for your very kind words in introducing it, which I am only too happy to reciprocate – you were a marvellous adornment to this university as our Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist, you have been a superb leader during your time as Vice-Chancellor, and it has been both a privilege and an absolute pleasure to work with you.

One of the roles I have most enjoyed in my decade as Chancellor has been the opportunity that I have had – encouraged by successive Vice-Chancellors, and especially Brian – to help give some new momentum and vitality to ANU’s public policy profile.

As I have constantly said, great universities – a company in which ANU unequivocally belongs – are great not only at research, and at teaching and learning and delivering a great student experience, but great in the quality of their engagement with the wider community: with ANU’s particular value-added in this respect being from the outset our contribution to the national public policy debate.

So I could not be more thrilled and honoured than to have this new annual showcase event – a major Oration devoted specifically to a major current policy issue, international or domestic – named after me.

I am deeply conscious that people usually only ever get significant things named after them after they have gone to their final resting place, so it’s a very great pleasure and privilege for me to be able to actually enjoy this occasion. It is the case that my infrastructure is rapidly and manifestly decaying on multiple fronts, but I don't propose to turn up my toes for quite a while yet, and hope I’ll be around to enjoy quite a few more of these annual Orations.

I doubt, however, that I could possibly enjoy any future Oration more than that which we’ve just heard from my dear friend and fellow idealist of two decades standing, Ambassador Samantha Power.

Without succumbing completely to that great American tradition on these occasions of an orgy of mutual admiration, I can say with absolute honesty and conviction that Samantha is someone whom I have totally admired, both professionally and as a person, throughout her successive roles as a freelance frontline journalist, Harvard Kennedy School professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for her fabulous 2003 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide), member of President Obama’s White House national security team in his first term, and US Ambassador to the United Nations in his second.

And now, of course, I have further cause to admire her, as do we all, as the author of one of the most engaging, compelling and honest memoirs you will ever read, The Education of an Idealist, which has been just published, has already been a New York Times bestseller and named this week as one of its books of the year, is available outside at an entirely reasonable price, and which Samantha will be happy to sign for you after we have concluded.

I enjoyed immensely tonight’s Oration, as I’m sure we all did, not just because Samantha is Samantha, but because she wrestled so comprehensively and impressively with a topic – whether democracy has a future – which has been increasingly agitating a great many of us, certainly including me, Incorrigible Optimist though I may be.

In her talk, as you have just heard, Samantha:

  • gave us a sober and comprehensive account of the disconcertingly fragile current state of play with respect to democracy worldwide;
  • gave us an even more sober account of the further challenge to democracy now being posed by an ever more authoritarian China under Xi Jinping: it’s not just a matter of his behaviour challenging the universal human rights values both of us certainly hold dear, but of his leading a China whose economic success, at least until now, seems to have made its governing style an attractive model for many in the developing world;
  • but finished with a rather more upbeat account of the particular things that can be done to restore democracy’s traction.

In that respect I agree with her:

  • about the need to better defend and articulate the rationale for democracy (essentially that it is the only form of government consonant with human dignity – and the desire of every individual, whatever the culture into which he or she may be born, to have some say in the making of the decisions which most affect their lives), and the need for countries who embrace those values to stand more closely together in pressing them;
  • about the immense power of ordinary individuals, when their collective patience with authoritarian and insensitive governments is exhausted, to mobilise for change – as we have recently seen in Sudan, are beginning to see in Turkey and Hungary, and are seeing right now in abundance with the momentum now achieved by the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

But even more I agree with her:

  • that the most critical step we can take is to strengthen our own riven democracies, to demonstrate by force of example, not just rhetoric, that we are on the right track.

Bottom-up commitment and momentum is a crucial ingredient in sustaining and restoring effective democracy. But to add just a quick gloss of my own to what she implied rather than said explicitly, so too is sensitive top-down leadership. Redemption has to come from both above and below.

If the leaders of the major parties of centre left and centre right -- whose primacy is essential if moderate, responsive, genuinely democratic government is to prevail – are to recapture ground from extremist fringe-dwellers both of the right and left – they have to change the way in which they listen, think and act.

  • As to new listening, they have to recognise that the votes for those fringe-dwellers are coming essentially from those who are consumed by anxiety – economic anxiety, security anxiety, cultural anxiety, and often a mix of all three – and who just don't believe they are being heard;
  • There has to be new thinking about the policy strategies necessary to respond credibly to those demands to be heart, not least responses to the core anxieties about being left behind, of the need for a sense of both economic and personal security
  • And there has to be a new way of acting, in political behaviour and governmental decision making, which doesn't feed into the hostility so many ordinary people do feel about what they see as distant, arrogant, unfeeling or hypocritical governing elites

This is not the occasion for diving any further into these weeds of these various issues that Samantha has opened up for us so superbly this evening. What she has done is set us thinking, making a major contribution to the debate all of us must have about the future of democracy – and how in particular to ensure the future of liberal democracy – one of the really defining public policy issues of our time.

In doing so she has admirably fulfilled the objective of this new annual Oration series. I am deeply grateful to her, and to Brian and the University, for making all this possible, and ask you to join with me once more in expressing our appreciation.