Winston Churchill is reported to have said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
If that was indeed the old statesman’s view, it was probably formed by incidents similar to the Australian Liberal Party’s recent annual conference.
As Ministers from the ruling party looked on in horror, grassroots delegates merrily passed a resolution from the youth wing favouring privatisation of the country’s public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
Also endorsed by the conference was a call to follow United States President Donald Trump in moving the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ministers rushed to assure Australians that conference resolutions are only “advisory” and that the Government has no intention of acting on either.
This is true, but so is the fact that the young bucks behind the motions do have the power back in their branches to choose candidates to represent their views at future General Elections.
In what may well be a taste of what is to come, a moderate party vice president was voted out and replaced by a conservative.
What was even more disturbing was the way experienced conference delegates who should have known better surrendered to the artless youngsters in the debate over privatisation of the ABC with not a single dissenting voice from the floor.
Commentators said it was a clear indication that the party was moving further to the right, abandoning the middle ground it had been so careful to cultivate over decades.
Or is this simply that more rational minds are deserting politics, disgusted with the freeloading, hype and self-interest that infects public life today?
This may be the reaction to what is generally seen as a wave of populism sweeping the Western democracies, highlighted by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s America and the growth of anti-migration sentiment in Europe.
One can imagine Young Liberals in their Make Australia Great Again baseball caps, gleefully plotting their disruptions in the full knowledge their resolutions will hijack the conference and make them instant media stars.
Populism has achieved so much in the few years since it made its appearance – savage divisions, people at each other’s throats, escalating trade wars, soaring inequality, children in cages — so why not try some of it in stable, multicultural Australia?
Churchill lived in a world when the electorate decided who would govern every three to five years, with the professionals getting on with the job in between.
He is also on record as saying that democracy is a poor form of government, even if others are far worse.
Maybe he realised from bitter experience how easily democracy could be subverted by ruthless leaders with a message the people wanted to hear; that the line between it and mob rule was paper thin.
He would have recoiled at the resort to the referenda, tweets, focus groups, opinion polls, endless electioneering, stunts, political point scoring, posturing and grandstanding that passes for democracy today.
Mass communication is the platform from which demagogues can present their simplistic answers to the world’s most complicated questions and get away with it. The genie is escaping from the bottle and the question is whether the stopper can ever be replaced.