J C Bannon Oration discusses the robustness of Australian democracy

One of Australia’s leading historians, Professor Frank Bongiorno AM, has given fascinating reflections on the robustness of Australian democracy in the 2023 J C Bannon Oration this week.

Frank Bongiorno is Professor of History at the Australian National University, and serves also as President of the Australian Historical Association and the Council of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

The J C Bannon Oration is given annually at St Mark’s College in honour of Dr John Bannon AO, a resident student at St Mark’s in 1962-63 who went on to be the second-longest serving Premier of South Australia (1982-92), and later served as Master (Head) of St Mark’s (2000-07).

Professor Bongiorno referred to John Bannon’s work both in politics and as a historian, especially as a historian of Australian federation, and author of significant studies of federation-era South Australian political leaders Charles Cameron Kingston and Sir John Downer.

Professor Bongiorno said that while Australia had a strong democratic system, “smugness” about its electoral fairness should be tempered by considering, for example, the long history of serious electoral malapportionment in several states.

Tolerating undemocratic arrangements for a long period of time when politicians were “delivering the goods” was an example of the strong “utilitarian” or (as the historian Sir Keith Hancock had put it) “Benthamite” tradition in Australian political culture. This tradition had been evident from the earliest years of British settlement, and again more recently in, for example, attitudes to the pandemic and the Voice referendum debate. This approach sometimes led to rights being dangerously compromised for apparent short-term practical advantage, and to insufficient protection of the marginalised and “those who lose out” (such as Indigenous Australians).

Professor Bongiorno quoted the late historian Professor John Hirst describing Australians as a kind of “obedient people”, despite our image as anti-authoritarian larrikins, but said that our obedience is considered, negotiated, and conditional.

Professor Bongiorno identified both Indigenous and colonial origins of deliberative democracy in Australia. He spoke of the risk of Australia drifting towards the kind of “illiberal democracy” now seen in several other countries, such as Hungary. This combined right-wing populism and authoritarianism with the appearance of democracy. Professor Bongiorno suggested that Prime Minister Scott Morrison came closest to “illiberal democracy” with his celebration of a disengaged citizenship, which was in stark contrast with the emphasis Sir Robert Menzies placed on “the forgotten people” doing their duty as citizens.

Professor Bongiorno also referred to the weakness of checks and balances in the Australian system shown in the “secret ministries” appointments of Prime Minister Morrison – appointments of the Prime Minister to administer departments, made with the consent of the Governor-General but without the knowledge of the Parliament or people.

While Australian democracy has imperfections, it has also proven itself adaptable. Flaws are evident in, for example, “draconian” anti-terror legislation, inadequate whistle-blower protections, and the precariousness of media freedom. Public trust in government has fluctuated. The gaps in civic knowledge of our democratic system have adverse effects, a number of which Professor Bongiorno identified; and education, civil society, and responsive institutions are all important to its sustained good health.

However, Professor Bongiorno said, the adaptability of Australian democracy had in recent times again been shown in the rise of “community independents”, and the rise of new forms of public leadership (for example, Grace Tame) outside of traditional politics.

These are other reflections formed part of a wide-ranging and lively historical and contemporary discussion, which was enthusiastically received by its audience in Downer House and viewed by many online, including by Old Collegians and several historians and political scientists, interstate and overseas.

A video of the 2023 J C Bannon Oration is below.

The text of Professor Bongiorno’s Oration will be published by St Mark’s College in coming months, and details will be placed here.

For the introduction to the Oration by the Head of College, Professor Don Markwell AM, click here.

Arrangements for the 2024 J C Bannon Oration are expected to be announced in the early months of 2024. The 2025 Oration will be given jointly by the College’s Centenary historians, Associate Professor Paul Sendziuk and Dr Carolyn Collins, on “St Mark’s and law, politics, and history”.

Professor Frank Bongiorno AM with Mrs Angela Bannon at the 2023 J C Bannon Oration

Photos by Carol Atkinson