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Democracy in the spotlight

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28

In a world beset by conflict and chaos, the role of democracy assumes even greater importance.

But what if our democracy doesn’t reflect the fundamental concept that everyone should have an equal say in how we are governed, and that every person’s vote must be of equal importance?

Synod Senior Social Justice Advocate Mark Zirnsak argues the fundamental problem of inequality, combined with our electoral laws, means those with the deepest pockets have the most sway at the ballot box.

In other words, it’s a case of democracy for sale to the highest bidder.

“The influence that a person’s wealth has over democracy should be limited,” Mark says.

It’s a system that can only change with significant reform driven by a groundswell of public opinion, and it’s people like Uniting Church members who can drive that change, says Mark.

The Justice and International Mission Cluster is seeking input on a proposal for the 2025 Synod meeting that calls for reforms to curb increasing inequality and the ability of the wealthy to skew the democratic system to their preferences.

A powerful discussion paper put together by the JIM Cluster says there is a strong case for dramatic change to restore the true meaning of democracy in Australia.

‘The Rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them: The Need for Democratic Reform’ is a discussion paper full of important information that asks us to consider the key questions of what we want democracy to look like in Australia, and how it should serve us best.

At the heart of the issue with our democracy is inequality, and how those with money have access to the highest levels of government, while those without struggle to be heard.

“Since the 1980s financial inequality has been growing in Australia and across the globe, undermining our sense of community and trust in each other and democracy,” the JIM discussion paper says.

“Currently, unlimited political donations allow wealthy people to participate politically, and the more significant a person’s wealth, the greater their ability to participate in the political system and have their preferences represented.”

The result, argues the discussion paper, is that millions of Australians are left feeling they have no voice in how the country is governed.

“The relationship between inequality and undue influence in politics through political financing is often overlooked,” the discussion paper argues.

“Socioeconomic inequality is only the tip of an iceberg of inequalities of different dimensions, including differences in influence, power, and voice.”

The discussion paper also addresses possible solutions to improving democracy, including a trial in the US city of Seattle which gives residents four US$25 publicly funded democracy vouchers that can be donated to the candidate of their choice in local council elections.

The system has been used successfully in the 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2023 elections, giving those on lower incomes a real say on who is elected.

Feedback on the discussion paper is sought by September 30, and any questions can be directed to the JIM cluster by email.

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