Are all democracies created equal?

When we talk about democracy, what exactly are we talking about? And can some forms of democracy be more or less democratic than others?

Democracy is not merely a system of government, but more accurately a set of values and principles of government. As with all principles and values, there is a degree of uncertainty and disagreement about how best to apply them. Different institutions are set up to embody the values of democracy in different ways and some are more democratic than others. To further complicate things there is a lot of disagreement about what the fundamental values of democracy are, and even whether too much democracy is always a good thing.

That being said, we would like to try and set out some of the basic principles of democracy.

Authority of the people: Governments are engaged in the exercise of power. Each system of government claims the legitimacy of its power from some authority. Some gain legitimacy from a god (monarchies), or military might and economic power (oligarchy), or some belief that the lineage of your birth makes you "destined to rule" (aristocracy).

Democracy claims that power is legitimate because it comes from the will and consent of the people. This comes from the belief that, unlike the systems of government mentioned above, all people are created equal.

Equality: The principle that all people have equal value.

Autonomy: If we believe that all people have equal value, it makes sense that everyone should have control over their lives and have a say in the decisions that are made about them. They should have a voice.

These principles are all connected and reinforce each other. Although they seem simple, when it comes putting them into practice, it becomes very complicated. Depending on your value system and your interpretation, these principles support each other but also compete against each other in different ways.

If you were designing a democracy you would have to make a series of decisions between these different values. Most democracies balance these in different ways to come up with their own unique design that is a mixture of all these choices. Let's look at a few of the different choices we could make to best follow these principles of democracy.

Individual Freedom, Equality for Minorities and the Will of the Majority

We have just looked at how our three principles authority of the people, equality and autonomy support each other, now let's look at how they compete against each other.

When the US constitution was being drafted, many of the founders debated about the danger of too much democracy. They thought that not only was it inefficient and led to bad results, that it would be a 'tyranny of the majority'. Because all you needed to win power was more than half of the vote, they worried that the majority would place its own interests first and the people who did not agree with the majority would be vulnerable and helpless to the will of the majority.

They had just experienced the tyranny of a king and didn't want to trade it for a different type of tyranny. They included many guaranteed rights for individuals and designed limits to democracy to protect minorities.

In Australia, we also see ourselves as a liberal democracy. This means that individuals have basic freedoms that governments should not interfere with. This means we have limited government to stop governments having too much power, separation of powers so that too much power cannot be concentrated in one arm of government and the courts, executive and parliament can balance each other's power. The Senate as a house of review is also a way of limiting the government's power and making sure it takes into account all outcomes of its lawmaking power.

This comes from a distrust of the majority's ability to protect minorities and belief in the importance of individual freedom. Depending on how you think the values of democracy should be applied, you my think this is more democratic, by protecting the autonomy of the individual, or less democratic because it puts limits on the ability for democratic governments to exercise the will of the people and gives power to unelected judges.

Unlike the United States, Australia has a system of responsible government where the executive is part of the elected Parliament and has to be held accountable to them. Australia also doesn't have a Bill of Rights. Unlike the founders of the United States, who feared that individuals needed to have their rights protected from democracy, Australian democracy usually relies on our rights being protected by democracy. In this way you could argue depending on your viewpoint that these two democracies are more or less democratic than each other.

Freedom of speech is a common topic of debate in democracies today precisely because of different opinions on how the principles of democracy should be applied.

It is very important if we want to protect the value that everyone has equal value and should have autonomy, that we find a balance between protecting vulnerable people from harmful opinions that make them feel unequal and not valued by the majority in a democracy, and the freedom of individuals to express ideas and have a voice, and feel free to introduce new and unpopular ideas.

Many people would agree that diversity helps democracies to make inclusive, accepting and rich societies and come up with the best solutions to problems. But they may disagree about how to achieve this.

Representation and Participation

In Australia, and indeed in most countries in the world, we have a system of representative democracy. Representatives are elected by voters to make decisions on their behalf.

This is seen as more efficient, and makes decision-making quicker and more responsive to word events. Consulting everyone on every issue is impractical in large groups. But we should notice that if the principle of democracy is to maximise autonomy and the voice of people, delegating your choices too much to representatives starts to look less democratic. Representative democracy by itself is a passive form of democracy and democracy should be more participative and engaging.

Direct democracy (voting directly on issues) is conducted in Australia through referendums to change the Constitution but these are rare. Other countries use direct democracy more regularly alongside representative democracy.

In Switzerland, citizens vote regularly on individual issues, and citizens can intimate a referendum. (Usually in referendums parliaments propose changes for the citizens to vote on, rather than citizens themselves proposing changes.). In some U.S states referendums occur regularly, as well as town hall meetings being used to make decisions in a community. The idea of citizen's juries are becoming more popular, where citizens are chosen at random to represent a cross-section of society and contribute their voice to decisions after being educated on issues.

Participation through public debate, community consultation, citizen's forums or citizen's juries are all attempts to create a more participative democracy. You can participate more by signing petitions, forming community groups, or writing to your local MP. Thinking of democracy as bigger than government and thinking of yourself as a participant in your community rather than just a voter can help bring democracy alive in your community.

Aggregation and Deliberation

The most common way citizens participate in a democracy is through voting.

Whether people vote directly on issues or vote for representatives to make decisions for them, it gives everyone an equal say and gives them a voice and power over the decisions made about them. It gives people a voice, autonomy over the decisions made about them, gives a government legitimacy because they are supported by the will of the people, and since everyone gets one vote, ensures equality between everyone. It is a very clear way of giving people power and is vital to every democracy.

But it is not the only way of giving power over decisions to people, and voting by itself has its problems.

If you've done one of our Curious Citizen's courses you will probably see that the method of counting votes often determines the outcome of a vote. Voting is an aggregative form of democratic decision making. This means that it takes all the separate opinions of people and aggregates or adds them together to find the most popular result.

But our decisions are more complicated than ticking a box. People have complex opinions and reasons for their choices and voting is insufficient for the following reasons;

- It is hard to figure out the reason people chose an option so voting doesn't send a clear message about someone's actual opinion. Eg. we might think that people voted for someone because of their policy on public transport, but we actually liked their policy on education. It is hard to see what issues they agree with or how much they care about them.

- Someone's preferred option might not be presented as one of the available options.

- People may have more than one preferred option.

- People's preferences might depend on a variety of complex factors that are more complicated than simply choosing from the options presented for voting.

- People vote with different levels of information.

- People vote emotionally and logically

- People's votes can be manipulated easily by misinformation

- In representative democracy, politicians are only accountable once every few years, and often break their promises or don't reveal their policies before an election.

- Voting is less about people having a say in what they want, and more about people being told what someone thinks they want and being asked to choose.

Many democratic thinkers talk about active democracy and participative democracy, meaning a citizen is actively involved rather than passive until it comes time to vote. Democracy is something that happens among us, rather than 'over there' in Canberra.

Deliberation is becoming a popular idea for how decisions could be made democratically. Rather than seeing decisions as an aggregation - the adding up of individual decisions, it sees decision-making as a collaboration - a public discussion arriving at a decision together. This means moving away from voting (a private choice) as the only form of decision making. This may occur through public debates, town hall meetings or citizens juries as discussed earlier. You deliberate privately on choices in your own life, but when it comes to democracy and choices that are about the community, deliberation should be made in the community. Public decisions require public reasons and public communication.

Public deliberation is designed to lead to greater knowledge and information as reasons are shared, encourages empathy for opposing views, cooperation and compromise and is aimed at arriving at decisions that satisfy a greater number of people. It also allows people to feel greater autonomy and be able to feel heard and have their specific opinions considered in all their detail.

There is some concern that some people cannot participate equally in a public discussion and that the loudest voice wins out, or that people can be manipulated in public discussion. The way these conversations are set up will determine whether these problems can be dealt with. Also, if deliberation can't arrive at a consensus, a voting mechanism would need to be used to arrive at a final decision.


Hopefully, it's now clear that democracy as an idea is constantly evolving, and that the principles of democracy interact in a complex way. Democratic design is never a fixed thing, and is always up for debate. Through deliberation and participation, as well as through formal institutions and elections, democracy derives its power from the people and active participation at all levels. Democracy is not merely a system of government, but a set of values and principles. Democracy is more than the formal power of government, but something that can be alive in every community, through processes of 'thinking through things together'.

And it is by no means settled. We want you to take the principles of democracy into your own hands. We welcome your comments and discussions on the Citizen's Forum, in your classrooms and your communities, to keep democracy thriving at all levels.


Autonomy is the ability to 'self-govern'. Autonomous individuals or groups have access to different options and the power to access information, weigh up different options, to make decisions, and act upon those decisions to pursue their own interests, free from external influence or manipulation.

Liberal democracy is an approach to political arrangements that takes the view that the ideal political system should combine majority rule by the people with the protection of the political, legal and social rights of individuals and groups.

Responsible government is the principle that the power of the executive government (ministers and government departments) derives from the legislature (Parliament). In Australia, the executive is part of the legislature and is accountable to it. The legislature has the power to review all decisions of the executive and hold them accountable. This is the purpose of Question Time, where the Parliament can ask the executive government questions and keep it accountable.

Representative democracy occurs where people elect others to represent them in the decision-making process. Representative democracy occurs in parliament where people elect representatives, or members of parliament, to make laws on their behalf.

Separation of powers means that the three arms of power; judicial (the judges and law courts), the executive (ministers and government departments) and legislature (parliament) are kept separate to avoid any one of them from having too much power.

Direct democracy is a system of directly participating and voting on decisions without delegating power to representatives.

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©2019  Curious Citizens

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.  We support them in seeking recognition so a properly constituted nation of Australia can celebrate in the traditions of the longest surviving culture on the planet.