Consolidating Democracy in Pluralistic Societies

Remarks to Bali Democracy Forum

Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)

7 November 2013

His excellency Dr Marty Natalegawa, Excellences, Ministers, Delegates.

I am delighted to be here in Bali, representing Australia at this sixth Bali Democracy Forum.

Under his excellency President Yudhoyono's leadership, the Forum has emerged as the premier meeting of leaders and ministers to specifically discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by democratic government.

It is only fitting that Indonesia, one of the world's largest and most vibrant democracies, is the home of this Forum.

Australia is pleased to have been a co chair of the inaugural Forum in 2008, just as we are proud to support its work through the Institute for Peace and Democracy - which I had the pleasure of visiting yesterday upon my arrival in Bali. I was deeply impressed with its body of work, both achieved and proposed.

It is a credit to Indonesia and to President Yudhoyono that we have representatives here today from such a broad cross section of nations.

Clearly, this year's theme of 'consolidating democracy in pluralistic societies' is one that resonates far beyond Indonesia, or indeed, Australia.

It reminds us never to take our democratic cultures for granted. The work of building a democracy is never-ending, which only reinforces the value of sharing our knowledge and experiences.

What, then, has the Australian experience been and what can I share with you about what we believe is a strong, sustainable democracy in Australia?

Our Former Prime Minister John Howard characterised Australia's democracy as being built on three pillars:

  • "our parliament with its tradition of robust debate;
  • the rule of law upheld by an independent and incorruptible judiciary; and
  • a free and sceptical press".

These institutions are the foundations of our democratic culture.

Our history records that the modern nation of Australia was formed after six colonies resolved by consensus to form a federation - the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 - not by battle or bloodshed, but at the ballot box by a vote of the people.

But I should say that the development of Australia's democracy hasn't always been smooth sailing. Democracy is a work in progress, constantly delivering challenges.

In 1975, a constitutional standoff occurred when the Governor-General dismissed the serving Prime Minister –events which remain controversial even to this day.

And more recently, in 2010, a general election resulted in the first hung parliament – or no clear majority – in 70 years.

Events such as these have tested our democratic credentials or parliamentary process. But with each one I believe our system has emerged stronger and more credible, as ultimately the people at an election determine the government of the day.

As President Yudhoyono said in 2010, democracy is never easy, never smooth and never linear. It always involves painful processes of trial and error with many ups and downs.

Australians recognise the value of democracy and they, through their government, support democracy in our region:

  • in Cambodia from the late 1980s;
  • in Timor Leste's post-independence period;
  • through the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands since 2003; and
  • through our support for democracy in Myanmar.

These efforts are varied in character, but not in purpose.

Serving on the United Nations Security Council this year, and next, gives Australia an opportunity to look more broadly at the conditions needed for democracies to flourish.

Specifically, the need for adequate security, to allow people to exercise their democratic rights, to vote without intimidation, to campaign without fear.

The Security Council often focuses on these issues when looking at the work of the United Nations in conflict and post-conflict situations.

An example we have observed in recent times is the successful Presidential election held in Mali, only months after the country was on the brink of collapse from the threat of extremists. This election is just one step in the reconciliation process in that country, with legislative elections expected before the end of the year.

Over the next two days, we will discuss core aspects of democracy; free and fair elections, and building and strengthening democratic institutions.

Australia is supporting democracy, both in the region and beyond providing practical support throughout electoral cycles, because there's more to democracy than just what happens on election day. We are working with governments and electoral officials in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Fiji, and Pakistan.

Our programs are designed to help increase voter participation, train election officials, make elections accessible for those with a disability, and raise civic awareness.

Australia believes that people should be able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. But the institutions that allow that to happen don't create themselves. Building democracy takes commitment from political leaders as well as the nation's citizens.

Australia's aid program across the region is also playing a part by:

  • Strengthening the functions of regional parliaments;
  • combating corruption to improve transparency;
  • supporting women's participation in local and national politics; and
  • helping to build an independent media.

Even in established democracies, the existence and continuation of these institutions cannot be assumed. Australia as a long standing and continuous democracy, for 112 years, is no exception.

Of course, our hosts Indonesia will experience democracy on a massive scale next year – when around 190 million people will visit polling booths to cast their votes for their national Parliament and local assemblies, as well as the nation's next President and I take this opportunity to acknowledge the enormous contribution that President Yudhoyono has made to consolidate democracy in Indonesia.

Australia is pleased to be playing a small role in that enormous undertaking in Indonesia, through the longstanding relationship between the Australian Electoral Commission and Indonesia's Electoral Commission, the KPU. This is another example of regional partners working together and learning from one another.

Conclusion

This forum, hosted by President Yudhoyono, is an excellent opportunity for us to share experiences and I look forward to hearing a range of views; for there is great diversity between the models of democracy that have evolved around the region, and the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "the spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms; it requires a change of heart".

Ladies and gentlemen, long may democracy be the heartbeat of nations in the universal pursuit of peace, happiness and prosperity.

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