Brisbane, Australia. (Homepage here)
1 August 2009, p. 24
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DEMOCRACY
Simon and Schuster, $49.99
AUSTRALIA'S big gift to democracy was the secret ballot - conceived in Victoria after the Eureka uprising of 1854 but first used in the neighbouring colony of South Australia in 1858 when "voters dropped their marked and folded ballot paper into a large, oblong, padlocked box, under the watchful eye of the Returning Officer". The simple, democratic basis of this was to ensure "one man, one vote, no more", as academic John Keane says in this doorstop history of our most cherished freedom. It's a brilliant, exhaustively researched volume, running to almost 1000 pages which traces the real origins of democracy - not as we have been taught in the forums of Athens but in the consultative assemblies around Mesopotamia (now Iraq of all places) in 2000 BC. Keane divides democratic history into three phases, the first two of which, assembly democracy (typically seen in Rome and Athens) and representative democracy (the apotheosis of which is said to be the American republic), are familiar to us all. Keane's third, and preferred, style of democracy he calls "monitory", where "no body shall rule". This is a democracy in which citizens can scrutinise and criticise government through a variety of means outside parliament - the media, watchdogs, official and unofficial audits and, most recently, through technological advances with the internet. Keane says the best example of a monitory democracy is India which combines an almost obsessive election process and continually expanding technological oversight. That this produces a kind of managed chaos is proof for Keane that it works, just as the founding fathers in the US believed legislative gridlock was a welcome product of their checks and balances. Readers will learn something new every few pages in this brilliant history. Like the political theory it champions, it is a triumph.