Australia’s faith in democracy has plummeted, with voter satisfaction cut in half in the past decade

  • The Museum of Australian Democracy says if current trends continue, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians by 2025
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 3:57pm

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

A new survey has captured the dark mood of the 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 most 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.

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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 has fallen precipitously over the last decade.

In 2007, 86 per cent of voters were satisfied with Australia’s democracy, but that figure dropped to 72 per cent by 2010 – where it plateaued for three years before going into free fall, plummeting to 41 per cent 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 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions by 2025 – resulting in ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic well-being.

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

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

There is a significant appetite for democratic reform, with nine out of 15 proposed reforms receiving net agreement rates above 50 per cent from survey respondents.

Most Australian citizens are very clear that they do not like the character of contemporary politics
Trust and Democracy in Australia report

The top five reforms favoured in the survey are: limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections; the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs; giving all MPs a free vote in parliament; co-designing policies with ordinary Australians; and citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament cannot 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 decision-making.

The report warns a tipping point may have been reached because of 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.

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“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 said it will regularly audit the qualities of Australian democracy, and investigate and experiment with ways of renewing the country’s representative system of government.

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