Aus­tralians no longer trust their democ­racy, sur­vey finds

The Guardian Australia - - News - Gareth Hutchens

The pub­lic’s sat­is­fac­tion with the way democ­racy works in Aus­tralia has crashed, prompt­ing fears that fu­ture gov­ern­ments could be per­ceived as il­le­git­i­mate by most vot­ers.

A new sur­vey has cap­tured the dark mood of Aus­tralia’s elec­torate, with vot­ers fum­ing that politi­cians are rarely held to ac­count for break­ing prom­ises, barely one in three vot­ers say­ing they trust the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and the ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians say­ing they dislike the con­flict-driven pol­i­tics of fed­eral par­lia­ment and want a dif­fer­ent sys­tem.

The Mu­seum of Aus­tralian Democ­racy and the In­sti­tute for Gov­er­nance and Pol­icy Anal­y­sis at the Uni­ver­sity of Can­berra have re­leased find­ings from their joint re­search, Trust and Democ­racy in Aus­tralia, which shows a wor­ry­ing cul­tural shift has oc­curred in Aus­tralia.

The na­tional sur­vey of 1,021 peo­ple, taken in July be­fore the Lib­eral party’s lat­est lead­er­ship spill, found sat­is­fac­tion with the way democ­racy works in Aus­tralia has fallen pre­cip­i­tously over the last decade.

In 2007, 86% of vot­ers were sat­is­fied with Aus­tralia’s democ­racy, but that fig­ure dropped to 72% by 2010 (where it plateaued for three years) and then went into freefall from 2013, plum­met­ing from 72% to 41% be­tween 2013 and 2018.

It means voter sat­is­fac­tion with Aus­tralian democ­racy, as it is be­ing prac­tised, has more than halved in 10 years.

The Mu­seum of Aus­tralian Democ­racy says if noth­ing is done and cur­rent trends con­tinue, fewer than 10% of Aus­tralians will trust their politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions by 2025 – re­sult­ing in in­ef­fec­tive and il­le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment, and de­clin­ing so­cial and eco­nomic wellbeing.

The sur­vey – re­leased on Wed­nes­day – shows the ero­sion of trust in Aus­tralia’s demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions has be­gun to af­fect how we re­late to each other.

So­cial trust be­tween peo­ple has fallen be­low 50% for the first time, to 47%, although a ma­jor­ity still be­lieve that peo­ple in their neigh­bour­hood would help oth­ers out – ex­cept for the very rich (47%).

There is a sig­nif­i­cant ap­petite for

demo­cratic re­form, with nine out of 15 pro­posed re­forms re­ceiv­ing net agree­ment rates above 50% from sur­vey re­spon­dents.

The top five re­forms favoured in the sur­vey in­clude 1: lim­it­ing money do­nated to par­ties and spent in elec­tions; 2: the right for vot­ers to re­call in­ef­fec­tive lo­cal MPs; 3: giv­ing all MPs a free vote in par­lia­ment; 4: co-de­sign­ing poli­cies with or­di­nary Aus­tralians; and 5: cit­i­zen ju­ries to solve com­plex prob­lems that par­lia­ment can’t fix.

Re­forms aimed at im­prov­ing the prac­tice of rep­re­sen­ta­tive pol­i­tics were the most pop­u­lar, fol­lowed by re­forms aimed at giv­ing cit­i­zens a greater say. There were also strong lev­els of sup­port for re­forms aimed at cre­at­ing a stronger com­mu­nity or lo­cal focus to de­ci­sion­mak­ing.

The re­port warns a tip­ping point may have been reached due to a deep­en­ing trust di­vide be­tween vot­ers and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

In com­par­a­tive terms, Aus­tralia is now be­low the me­dian sat­is­fac­tion rat­ing in com­par­i­son with other ad­vanced in­dus­trial democ­ra­cies.

“Cit­i­zens still ap­pear to value the over­all sta­bil­ity of their po­lit­i­cal sys­tem even if lack of po­lit­i­cal trust means they lack con­fi­dence in its abil­ity to de­liver es­pe­cially on more chal­leng­ing pol­icy is­sues,” the re­port says.

“At present, sus­tained af­flu­ence matched with a de­cline in po­lit­i­cal trust has led not to the crit­i­cal cit­i­zens en­vis­aged by the as­sertive model [of demo­cratic the­ory] but rather to a cul­ture of cit­i­zen dis­en­gage­ment, cyn­i­cism and di­ver­gence from the po­lit­i­cal elite.

“Most Aus­tralian cit­i­zens are very clear that they do not like the char­ac­ter of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics on dis­play in fed­eral gov­ern­ment and demo­cratic re­newal is re­quired to ad­dress the demo­cratic pres­sures that are threat­en­ing to un­der­mine our core demo­cratic val­ues.”

The Mu­seum of Democ­racy says it is tak­ing ac­tion.

It is launch­ing a new ini­tia­tive, Democ­racy 2025, to bridge the trust di­vide and re-en­gage Aus­tralians with their democ­racy.

It wants to be­come Aus­tralia’s lead­ing go-to group for ap­plied re­search, anal­y­sis and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the chal­lenges fac­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy and its po­ten­tial for in­no­va­tion and re­newal.

It will reg­u­larly au­dit the qual­i­ties of Aus­tralian democ­racy, and in­ves­ti­gate and ex­per­i­ment with ways of re­new­ing Aus­tralia’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive sys­tem of gov­ern­ment.

Pho­to­graph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Voter sat­is­fac­tion with Aus­tralian democ­racy, as it is be­ing prac­tised, has more than halved in 10 years.

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