When asked to list democratic countries, most people would include Australia amongst their choices. Indeed, it is a democracy in almost every measurable way; it operates under the rule of law, it has a parliament which is accountable to the people and all citizens over the age of 18 are entitled to vote. Yet the development of the familiar style of democracy that we see in Australia today has a darker side.

Before the arrival of European settlers in the late 18th Century, Australia – or the land which would eventually become known as Australia – was populated by Aboriginal tribes, each with their own system of laws and beliefs. These laws governed all aspects of life, from the areas we now consider to be in the legal domain to ones we do not such as what could be eaten. They were, and still are, closely linked to Aboriginal belief systems and the land itself. British settlers, by contrast, were to be ruled by a British-style system of common law. When the area now known as New South Wales was initially claimed in the name of the Crown, it came under the domain of British law and by 1829 the entire continent was subject to the British legal system. Indigenous Australians who had, for thousands of years, lived by their own laws were now subject to those of a foreign power. Initially, the settlers were unable to make their own laws and were ruled by Governors who executed the will of the British Crown. However, one by one the colonies established parliaments and began to operate under a restricted form of democracy. As more colonies were established and began to consolidate, it was clear that common law and Aboriginal law would be on a collision course. From the start it was clear that Aboriginal people and customs would be on the losing side of this clash; for the British, who saw Aboriginal society as highly primitive, this was a victory for democracy over tribal law. Yet what the British missed then, and what many Australians still miss today, is the fact that Aboriginal society featured many of the aspects of democracy that we now consider necessary.

The development of democracy in Australia is often simplified and whitewashed

Although it is difficult to source information due to the oral nature of Aboriginal tradition, there is evidence of a fairly advanced system of law which was, in many respects, democratic. For instance, Victorian clergymen noted in the 1880s that amongst the Aboriginal people there was no sense that one person was higher than another. At the time, this would have been a concept alien to European settlers, most of whom travelled from countries in which a strict social and political hierarchy remained in place. Aboriginal societies may not have been democratic in the sense of electing legislatures but it seems as though they lived by the premise that people were fundamentally equal; a factor we now consider to be crucial in democratic society.

It is easy to slip into the common narrative that European settlers spread democracy around the world, modernising primitive societies. However, digging a little deeper into the history of Australia shows that democratic ideas existed long before European settlers first arrived on the shores of Australia. In order to make room for the new system of European democracy, a social system stretching back many thousands of years was side-lined. This is an uncomfortable truth with which Australia seems to still be coming to terms, made all the more difficult by the long history of discrimination faced by Aboriginal people. For many years Indigenous Australians faced formal restrictions on their voting rights; it was not until 1965 that Queensland became the final state to remove all formal restrictions. Even today with all formal restrictions abolished, Indigenous Australians remain underrepresented; it was not until 1971 that Australians elected Neville Bonner – the first Aboriginal person to be elected to Australia’s parliament. Currently there are only four politicians of Indigenous descent in the Australian federal parliament; to put that in perspective that is the same number as the far-right One Nation party.

To label Australia as undemocratic would be wrong, obviously in many ways it falls amongst the most democratic countries on earth. Yet the development of democracy in Australia is often simplified, whitewashed and presented as a European import. In actual fact, the complex society existing before white settlers reached the shores of this continent had many of the features of modern democracies. In order for Australia’s current system of law and government to be put in place, these traditional systems were pushed out, and the people who lived under them marginalised by a foreign system. To this day, Indigenous Australians struggle to be granted the right, in both a legal and de facto sense, to have their culture and way of life recognised. So yes, Australia is a democracy, but for many the arrival of European settlers did not hail the start of a bright, democratic future. When talking about Australia’s democratic development, it is vital to remember this fact, however uncomfortable it may be.

Democracy in North Korea: What’s illegal there?

Drinking alcohol:  A North Korean officer was executed for disrespecting late Kim Jong-il by drinking alcohol during the mourning period.

Watching TV: Last year North Korea reportedly publicly executed 80 people for watching South Korean TV.

Driving: Only state officials are allowed to own a car.

Watching porn: Viewing or selling porn is punishable by death.

Political dissatisfaction: Those who criticise the regime are sent to political prison camps.

International Democratic Rankings: The Top Three

Data found in World Democracy Index 2016

1. Norway is ranked first in the World Democratic Index,  scoring 9.93/10.
2. Iceland is currently ranked second, rising one place from 2015.
3. Sweden is ranked third, scoring fully on a supportive democratic political culture.

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