Democratic Conversations Uncensored

Rebuilding democratic advances in dark times: How can Australia, the UK and other secure democracies help renewal?

Tue 21 April 2015Professor Patrick Dunleavy

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Venue: House of Representatives Chamber

Date: Tuesday 21 April 2015
Time: 5,30pm
Followed by light dinner

Rebuilding democratic advances in dark times: 
How can Australia, the UK and other secure democracies help renewal?



The world situation for liberal democracies now looks very bleak indeed. Five particularly threatening developments include:

  1. An unprecedented and growing challenge to all the core values of liberal democracy, human rights and civil liberties by Islamic jihadism in many countries with Muslim populations, stretching across an arc from Nigeria in west Africa to Pakistan in north west Asia.
  2. A revival of naked ‘power politics’ by Russia in the Crimea and Ukraine, that may extend ethnic unrest in time to other countries forming the EU’s eastern border.
  3. The collapse of over-arching American global super-power ambitions and postures in many fields, creating something of a ‘power vacuum’ in world politics.
  4. A turning away from liberal democratic practices and values in many industrializing countries for which democratic futures once seemed secure, such as Venezuela and Thailand.
  5. Continued public support for ‘semi-democracies’ and authoritarian regimes in countries affected by turmoil, as with the failure of the Arab spring and the apparent stabilization of authoritarian rule in China.

In addition, some established liberal democracies have revealed huge institutional deviations from rule of law practices, and a stagnation of efforts to expand the vitality and efficacy of electoral politics. For instance, the USA’s external reputation has transitioned away from the ‘city on the hill’ ideals to a country mired in allegations of prisoner torture and industrial-scale spying, while failures of cross-party co-operation have multiplied. In the UK, many different ‘establishment’ institutions have been corroded by evidence of large-scale and long-lived malpractices and ‘two party politics’ has long since disappeared. Meeting the threat of diffuse jihadi or Islamic diaspora violence (and other forms of nationalist or anti-state extremism), without compromising essential freedoms will also severely tax liberal democracies’ institutions; it has already created a serious risk of populist backlashes against human rights provisions and meeting international obligations.

To counteract these very adverse trends, it has never been more important for established democratic countries like Australia and Britain to show the clearest possible commitment to the defence of human rights, civil liberties, and respect for international law, alongside majority rule in fair elections and the widest popular control of policymaking. If democracy is to maintain its status as a key goal of human development, it must continuously advance -by being improved, deepened and re-energized.

About the Speaker

Patrick Dunleavy is Centenary Research Professor in the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, and also Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. He co-wrote Theories of the Democratic State (2009) and The Impact of the Social Sciences (2014).

Professor Dunleavy is also the co-director of the Democratic Audit, one of the UK’s leading NGOs advocating for democratic improvement (see A recent DA innovation is, which offers UK voters unprecedented information about electoral competition in their local area for the May 2015 general election. 

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