Over all last year, I said, 71 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties while 35 registered gains, according to Freedom House’s annual index. It was 12th year in a row of losses outpacing gains.
Pretty depressing, right?
Well, so it goes in the world today.
And yet, our public discussion (which followed a chat, a day earlier, with Clive Hamilton about China’s influence in Australia) ranged widely from the causes to possible solutions to signs of both despair and hope.
A few of the highlights and themes worthy of further examination:
• The Talent Deficit:
Both Professor Grayling and Mr. Megalogenis lamented the way that politics now struggles to draw in the best and brightest minds. For those who are ambitious and want to change the world, I also noted, there’s more interest in tech start-ups than in government.
What can or should our leaders do to make representative democracy feel more dynamic and relevant?
Professor Grayling suggested that strict term limits would be one way to help, by making politics a temporary service rather than a career. Another idea that came up: recruiting a more diverse pool of candidates, tapping into the optimism of immigrant communities and their children, who tend not to be underrepresented in Australian politics.
• Tech, Foe and Friend:
Social media and big data: Good or bad? How about both.
They allow for niche targeting of voters, which usually means the undecided, but in the case of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, Professor Grayling noted, it also meant encouraging complacency with social media posts telling anti-Brexit voters that there was no way they’d lose, making them less likely to turn out to vote.
At the same time, social media is also now being used by young people to demand change — whether it’s around the issue of guns in the United States, or in Britain with those who are calling for a second Brexit vote through a group called Our Future, Our Voice.
• Transparency vs. Secrecy:
An Australia Letter reader in Canberra, Brett Kennedy, emailed last week with a smart question for our discussion: “How can democracy be sustained and furthered in a world where Western governments are taking every opportunity to increase secrecy around their functions and reduce transparency of their actions and decisions?”
I’m zealot for transparency, as some of you know, so I paraphrased the inquiry.
Mr. Megalogenis agreed that it was a problem, noting that Australian politicians were continually trying to to avoid transparency and questions — except from friendly journalists.
What he and Professor Grayling concluded was that most of today’s leaders have simply not come to grips with the current moment of existential challenge for democracies: Politicians are still waltzing in a world where the stakes are small and intimately tied to their own party loyalty, their donors and re-election.
What might it take for them to wake up, mature and reinvigorate government?
What needs to happen for the public to be better informed and to demand more from their elected representatives?
These questions came up, too, from me and from the audience. And besides the answer I felt compelled to toss out there (subscribe to The Times!) a consensus emerged around the simplest possible idea: People just have to do it.
I’m not sure that’s as satisfying as one would hope. We seem to be in a moment where much of the world is just trying to keep up with the volatility of shifting politics — very little feels settled, and our discussion did little to banish that uncertainty.
But perhaps it was a start. And the discussions will continue, in this newsletter, in The New York Times and beyond.
What do you think? Are you a Pinker or a Grayling?
Email email@example.com and join us in our Facebook group for more discussion.
Now here are some other New York Times articles, all related to representation and our changing geopolitical world, followed by a recommendation for what to watch as an escape, if you need it!
Coverage of China and its impact worldwide is a major priority for The New York Times this year, and this week, our business reporters have been exploring how the United States-China rivalry is also increasingly a fight over technology.
They’ve also examined President Trump’s steel tariffs and their impact on China and the world — while our colleagues in Europe have been looking at China’s role there as well.
Inside China, we’ve added more analysis of Xi Jinping, and a close look at one city’s all-women subway cars, where men rush in.
Women Today (ICYMI)
This week I stumbled onto a feature from a few months ago that rounded up comments from women all over the world, including Australia, about the challenges they face.
It was part of a special section called Women Today that I figured was worth highlighting since today is International Women’s Day. The reader roundup is wide-ranging, and so are the profiles of strong and fascinating women all over the globe, from a sex trafficking activist in India to a physicist with a passion for music.
Also, on a related note, if you didn’t get to The Wheeler Centre for this week’s discussion of gender and journalism with Sophie Black, Matilda Dixon-Smith and Francesca Donner, director of The New York Times Gender Initiative, here’s video from the event.
Australia, Urban and Rural
This week’s reads from Oz … Oh, and Parwana really is amazing if you’re looking for a place to eat in Adelaide!
• A Farming Town Divided: Do We Want a Nuclear Site that Brings Jobs? Wheat farming has been the economic mainstay of Kimba, South Australia. Now, the town is bitterly split over a plan to host a medical nuclear waste site. (International)
• How Trump’s Tariffs Would Affect Australia: A trade war could slam an economy that relies heavily on exports, while limits on Australian products could test a century-old political relationship. (International)
• Back in My Day: Tales of boomers versus millennials, for those who have been frustrated, tickled, annoyed or delighted by someone older or younger. (Australia Diary)
• Parwana Afghan Kitchen Cooks Rice Worth Swooning Over: The small storefront restaurant, run by a family that fled Afghanistan, is one of the most in-demand reservations in Adelaide. (Food)
• After 131 Years, Message in a Bottle Found on Australian Beach: The message was tossed from a German ship in June 1886. This year, an Australian woman noticed the thick green glass poking through the sand. (International)
• Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different: Susan Wu, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has opened a school in Australia. (International)
• Cardinal George Pell Appears in Court Over ‘Historical’ Sexual Abuse: Cardinal Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be so charged. Here’s what we know about the case and how it will be shaped by Australia’s courts. (International)
… And We Recommend
Welcome to March.
Here’s what to watch on Netflix in Australia this month. Spruiking for a friend: “Flint Town, Season 1” promises to be really interesting and beautifully shot by Zack Canepari.
And if you’d rather read, don’t miss our critics’ selection of 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.
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