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Australia Day: We just need to get our values straight

By Justin Bassi

As Australia Day approaches, there will be passionate debates about the suitability of the day and the historical context for First Australians in particular.

But within those debates we should all agree to unite around the importance of preserving, defending and nurturing our country’s democratic values.

We enjoy the rights to speak freely, protest against beliefs with which we disagree, practise any or no religion, hold a range of ideological positions, and enjoy a reasonable degree of privacy.

We also have a collective security that safeguards these freedoms, either through laws or social norms by which society protects us – provided we are not hurting others – while carefully avoiding the centralisation of power in a way that could lead to its arbitrary abuse. Ideally, we leave each other alone while also looking out for each other.

The question worth pondering on Australia Day – and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is whether we are preserving the proper appreciation of these freedoms and rights, which were hard won during and after World War II, but are still enjoyed by only a minority – and democracy-watchers suggest a shrinking minority – of people around the world.

Two worrying trends should galvanise us to invest as a society in our core democratic values. First, authoritarianism and illiberalism are on the march globally. From Beijing to Moscow to Tehran, powerful autocrats are flexing, demonstrating their aggression in places such as Ukraine, the South China Sea and Yemen, to carve out geopolitical spheres of influence in flagrant violation of international rules.

This is a security threat but not itself fatal to democracies. As history has shown, authoritarianism can be confronted and countered. If we destroy ourselves as a democracy, it will be from within, perhaps catalysed by external pressure but necessarily self-inflicted.

This is the second worrying trend: the declining self-confidence about the rightness of democratic values. The two trends are connected; self-doubt about our values is exactly what authoritarians want and the propaganda for which their useful idiots – from elements of the US MAGA right to far-left Western activists – become a conduit.

Think about the sorts of messages these strange bedfellows promote. International rules are naive and ineffectual, while collective strength to bolster freedom is a suspect notion. Democracies are so imperfect as to be indistinguishable from other political systems, with values a kind of sanctimony; short-term interests, achieved through transactionalism, are what we should go for.

In practice, it means the MAGA right and the far left can coalesce on foreign policy falsehoods such as NATO being to blame for Russia’s illegal war on democratic Ukraine. And elements of both extremes just want to put economic gain ahead of long-term security, and could abandon Taiwan to a unilateral takeover by the Chinese Communist Party because its precious worth as a democracy means less than the quick hit of trade and investment.

It is our values that provide a foundation for consistent policymaking and a bulwark against short-term caprice. Supporting Ukraine against Russia’s appalling aggression is no less right in 2024 than it was in 2022. Indeed, adherence to principles sends the message that dictators can’t just wait us out, as Vladimir Putin is trying, believing we lack the fortitude for the long game.

Values help us resist the transactionalism at which dictators tend to excel. Beijing would love nothing more than to split up the region and deal with each country individually so it can use its size to its advantage. Australia, following its values, must support democracies against the kind of bullying The Philippines is experiencing in the South China Sea and Taiwan constantly suffers from military aggression and political interference.

Consistency in defending international rules and friends abroad is inseparable from, and directly reflects, the strength of our domestic values and national resilience, including the promotion of free speech, the ability to disagree respectfully and never shying away from being a proud democracy.

There are elements in the federal bureaucracy that counsel downplaying our democratic values, out of fear it comes across as hectoring to non-democracies, especially in our Indo-Pacific region. This is a woeful misjudgment. If we lose self-respect, other countries will only respect us less.

The mistake is conflating the imposition of our values with having pride in them. We can champion them and, through our actions at home and abroad, demonstrate that they make us a more prosperous country and a better international partner. It’s not propaganda to say the world is safer for everyone when there is more democracy.

Why else do we expect higher standards from democracies – such as Israel – than authoritarian regimes such as Iran or terrorist groups such as Hamas? Because they have democratic values.

We need to make sure that as our society evolves through changes in demographics, economics and technology, we are bringing these enduring values with us.

We have faced these worrying trends and challenges to democracy before. It is a bipartisan view in Australia – from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy – that we are in a period comparable to the 1930s.

In September 1936, Winston Churchill made an impassioned plea for democracy. Leading democratic nations, he said, were “very much aware of the shortcomings of our civilisation, and the need of continual social betterment”.

However, he continued: “We believe fervently that our institutions are such as to enable us to improve conditions and correct abuses steadily, and to march every year and every decade forward upon a broader front into a better age.”

He concluded by imploring democratic societies to ask: “Are we taking every measure within our power to defend that cause?”

With war in Europe and the Middle East, and increased tension in our region, it is again time to ask this question and ensure that our protection and promotion of democracy, and the freedoms that come with it, are backed by the capability to deter and to make a meaningful contribution where the rule of law is challenged by authoritarians and terrorists.

This Australia Day, we should be proud to say it is our democratic values we live by and want to preserve for future generations.