The Future of Electoral Democracy in India and Australia
Remarks delivered at the Workshop on The Future of Electoral Democracy in India and Australia delivered by Melbourne University's School of Government, Australia India Institute, and Ashoka University's Trivedi Centre for Political Data in Delhi on 20 August.
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Welcome to honourable guests, and thankyou to Melbourne University’s School of Government, the Australia India Institute and Ashoka University's Trivedi Centre for Political Data for organising this event.
As High Commissioner of Australia to India, the third week of May this year was a busy – but exciting – one.
On Saturday 18 May we were glued to our screens in the Australian High Commission watching as votes were tallied in the Australian federal election, and Prime Minister Morrison was returned to government
Five days later on the 23 May, votes were counted in the Indian General election and once again we were watching, fascinated, as Prime Minister Modi and the BJP won a resounding victory in the Lok Sabha.
We witnessed two important things that week:
First, in terms of bilateral relations, there is nothing better than almost simultaneously re-elected governments. Because you have existing personal connections between leaders in both governments, meaning we can get straight back to business. And because both the Indian and Australian Governments have come back into government with a renewed sense of vigour for the relationship
We saw that in the phone call between Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison on the 23rd May.
And again a few weeks ago when the two leaders met in the sidelines of the G20 and shared a genuinely warm and positive interaction – complete with viral selfies
Second, is that despite significant differences of scale and process between our electoral systems, the feat of democracy is truly celebrated by people in both our countries
In Australia, we have the tradition of a ‘democracy sausage sizzle’, which creates a carnival like atmosphere at the voting booth on election day.
And here in India the rallies and roadshows build a sense of excitement that cascades into election days across the country. I was lucky enough to visit polling booths in both Delhi and Mumbai, and witness firsthand the excitement of every single voter as they participated in what many rightly call ‘the Indian festival of democracy’.
It is easy to make light of these festivities. But what they show is the strength of democratic values in each of our political cultures.
Far across the Indo-Pacific, it is these values that tie us together and underlie our shared vision for the kind of world we want to see.
To quote Prime Minister Modi at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue, it is the ideals of democracy that define us as nations and shape the way we engage in the world.
As democracies, we want a world where the rule of law prevails over ‘might is right’ politics. A world free of coercion and intimidation.
We believe in the importance of maintaining and benefiting from diversity, and are committed to continuously promoting values of tolerance and pluralism.
Our commitment to democracy also underpins the value we place in global and regional multilateral institutions. We are, for example, strong supporters of a United Nations that is more effective, democratic, and representative. In the Indo-Pacific region, we are active supporters of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and other ASEAN led mechanisms.
These democratic values have become more important in an increasingly volatile world marked by the emergence major-power rivalries; deepening protectionism; challenges to international law and norms; and growing security threats such as terrorism, cyber-warfare and climate change.
Of course, democracy is not a faultless system.
It was Winston Churchill who said "No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise… Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
And there are many challenges which our democratic systems must address. From the increasing cost of political campaigns to the role of new technologies including the influence of actors on social media.
But our democracies are not static. In Australia, I know we are continuously making changes to our electoral system to be more inclusive, representative and transparent.
From extending the right to vote in federal elections to women in 1902, to introducing compulsory voting in the 1920s, all the way through to changes to our system of distributing preferences in the last few years.
Conversations like the ones you will be having today are crucial to understanding the challenges our electoral systems must deal with. There is a lot we can learn from India’s electoral system to continue to make advances in our own. And I hope there will be some things that the world’s biggest democracy can take from this discussion too.
I look forward to learning more from this discussion today and thank you all for attending.