Quentin Grafton is Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy (CWEEP) at Crawford School of Public Policy. In April 2010 he was appointed the Chairholder, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.
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History shows that voting for the wrong person, or on the basis of a single issue, at a time of a crisis may spell disaster, Quentin Grafton writes.
Just before Christmas, the National Museum of Australia launched its ‘Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors, and Heroes’ display, with exhibits on loan from the British Museum.
Like many Australians today, the Ancient Greeks were obsessed with sports and competition. Greek scholars, at least, also actively sought to ‘discover’ the truth. The ‘father’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos (for whom the ethical Hippocratic Oath is named), highlighted the importance of careful observation, while Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the ‘first’ historian, sought out first-hand accounts and observations of events, and frequently gave two sides of the same story.
The flowering of Greek art and some of the world’s most influential treatises into nature and philosophy began more than 2,500 years ago. Greek cities, at least for their citizens, were prosperous and where democracy began.
At this time, perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of the total population – exclusively male citizens – had the right to vote and to speak at a People’s Assembly where matters of public importance were debated, and leaders were voted into office.
As today, Ancient Greeks wanted leaders who were competent and had integrity. The ideal citizen obeyed the city’s laws and placed public honour, rather than individual glorification, above personal interest.
Democracy in Ancient Athens showed that government was only as good as its elected leaders. One of Athens’ greatest was Pericles, who strengthened Athenian democracy and supported the flowering of arts and culture while successfully managing existential crises including military defeats and a plague.
Following Pericles’ death, his chief political rival, Cleon, became one of Athens’ key elected leaders. Cleon was instrumental in continuing a disastrous war against Athens’ rival, Sparta.
Within a decade of Cleon’s death, Alcibades, another democratically elected leader and also a general of Athens, betrayed his city and contributed to Athens’ total defeat to Sparta, which ended Periclean democracy.
So, what has Greek history to teach us about the perils of democracy? Be careful who you vote for!
Democracies which elect competent leaders who defend democracy and individual rights at times of existential crises, such as Abraham Lincoln, have often prospered. But democracies that elect leaders who lack competence or integrity, or both, suffer – especially during times of crisis.
The competence and integrity of political leaders is not a right or left wing issue – leaders with and without both qualities are found on all sides of politics. The challenge for voters is to discern competence from sophistry and to spot the difference between public honour, like that shown by Nelson Mandela, and personal privilege.
Unfortunately, competence and integrity are often overlooked or given second-order importance in elections in favour of single-issue contests centred on whether leaders deliver one particular religious or political outcome.
Truth also matters.
Leaders who consistently tell deliberate lies – something different to failing to deliver on a promise – practice a form of demagoguery. This is a widespread problem today. In recent months, the British prime minister has been described as a ‘serial liar’ and the Australian prime minister was accused directly of lying by the French president.
Indeed, many populist leaders are shameless liars. They lie to tell it how it ‘should be’, at least to their supporters, rather than how it is. This always comes against all evidence, and in 2020 became even more extreme, with lies extending to claims by leaders over the outcome of an election that had been fairly and verifiably lost.
In a global crisis, the consequences of electing either incompetent or unethical leaders are not just a matter of ancient history.
Throughout the pandemic, multiple factors have affected excess mortality, such as population density, geography, quality of public health services, cultural practices, demographics of the population, and COVID-19 vaccination rates.
Where there are large differences in excess mortality between countries of similar income, health care, geography and culture, policy differences – and failures of leadership – help to explain excess deaths.
The Economist compiled tables of excess mortality rate by country during the pandemic relative to each country’s 2015-19 baseline. It shows that, as of the end of 2021, the United States had roughly seven times higher excess mortality rate than Canada and the United Kingdom had roughly a 50 per cent higher excess mortality rate than either Germany or France.
These differences represent tens of thousands, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of additional lives lost over the past two years. These are people, not numbers.
Importantly, these differences come down to a failure of leadership at a time of crisis. Consider these examples from the United Kingdom.
This decision spread the virus to the most vulnerable, contributing to some 12,000 care home deaths in April 2020 alone.
According to Sir David King, the country’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, delays in imposing a lockdown in early 2020 also led to many excess COVID-19 fatalities.
Then, on 19 July 2021, dubbed the United Kingdom’s ‘freedom day’, virtually all public health measures to prevent community transmission were removed against the strong advice of many key public health professionals.
But why did leaders make these decisions?
One key justification for their approach has been to ‘support the economy’. But a cross-country analysis showed an overall negative relationship between COVID-19 fatality rates and economic performance in 2020.
Long story short, fewer cases and fewer deaths are ultimately what’s best for the economy. And even without lockdowns, when COVID-19 cases are high, many stay at home and shop less. Economic activity in January 2022 in Sydney was the lowest recorded since the start of the pandemic.
The United Kingdom has had the worst of both worlds; it has suffered both a high excess mortality rate and an almost 10 per cent economic decline in 2020.
Within Australia, public health and economic performance comparisons can also be made between state jurisdictions that have followed different policies.
Western Australia has pursued active suppression and elimination and still maintains strict border controls. Its COVID-19 fatality rate is one of the lowest in the world, and it has had the fastest economic growth – 31 per cent above its average level of output for this decade – of any Australian state or territory in 2021.
In contrast, New South Wales switched to a ‘living with the virus’ approach in August 2021 in Australia’s third (Delta) wave and had its own ‘freedom day’ on 15 December 2021 after the fourth (Omicron) wave had already begun, and contrary to expert advice given months in advance.
The state has had over 200 COVID-19 fatalities since its ‘freedom day’, which was revised on Christmas Eve, and hundreds of thousands of new cases.
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic experience, and that of Ancient Athens, shows that voters of all political persuasions must exercise due diligence. Voters would do well to learn the lessons of democracies past and present – that truth and leadership really do matter in a time of national and global crisis.