Democracy: essential for health and wellbeing

This article by DEA Member Peter Tait was published in Medical Observer 16th August 2013 and appears under a Creative Commons licence.

RECENT advances in our understanding of health show that a major determinant of whether or not people are healthy is how we arrange society.

Arrangements range from readily available clean water, sewerage collection, well designed roads, buildings and cities, through to the relative equity in incomes between people.

Income equity is a marker of several other societal factors including social cohesiveness and respect for the less fortunate.

Central to a person’s health is a sense of control over their lives. This happens at all levels from the family, the local community right through to participation in the political life of the nation.

Electoral Commission data show increasing rates of informal voting and lower enrolments in younger people. One factor operating here may be a sense of disenchantment with Australia’s political process.

A contributor to this is likely to be the perception that government is not working for the good of people and the environment, but is being influenced strongly by the vested interests of corporations.

People’s recent experience with the Resource Rent tax, the carbon price and coal seam gas developments feed this view.

This is not to say that the goods and services that business delivers are unnecessary or that running a profitable enterprise is a bad thing. I suggest that lack of effective government regulation of corporate behaviour within our current economic system is leading to adverse health and environmental outcomes.

Corporations are permitted to externalise the harmful costs of their operations.

These externalities include increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, binge drinking, substance misuse and depression as well as worsening environmental degradation, air pollution, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, and damage to the ecosystem on which we rely for a healthy society and a prosperous economy. We, the tax payers, are left to pick up the tab through the health budget and other government programs.

The solution is to regulate corporate behaviour better. The only institutions big enough to do that are governments. For governments to regulate corporations, they have to be under the control of and responsive to the needs of citizens, and to operate for the common good.

For this, governments need to be more democratic. Democracy in essence is a method of ensuring those being affected by decisions are making the decisions.

It rests on a set of principles: fair representation of all interests, including other species and future generations, informed decisions, political equality and no ‘mob rule’.

Democracy and its inherent sense of fairness and control is essential to wellbeing and health.

Given the reality of our current system, in deciding which candidates to vote for in the upcoming election, consider whose policies are best going to serve equity and fairness and thus drive better health, whose will best protect the environment on which we depend for our wealth and prosperity, and whose will make a more democratic and therefore healthy society.

Dr Peter Tait
GP, Member of Doctors for the Environment, ACT

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