- Satisfaction with democracy in Australia is now at its’ lowest level since 1996 (79% to 41%) with the steepest decline occurring post 2007 (85% to 41%).
- Only 4.6% of Australian citizens have strong levels of trust in government and politicians. Remarkably this increases with age, with 'Grey Australians' exhibiting very low levels of trust (25%)
- Party loyalty is at its lowest level since 1967 (72% to 37%) but interest in politics across age groups is strong. This partly explains the success of the independents in the 2016 Federal election.
- Australians trust the police (72%), the military (63%), community-based organisations (68%) and universities (59%) but distrust political parties (20%) and most jurisdictions of government (local government fairs best).
- We trust judges (56%) and have some trust in public servants (39%) and our local MPs (33%) but clearly distrust politicians in general (26%).
- Australians are confident in the ability of government to address national security issues (59%) but no other policy issue attracts confidence levels of above 40%.
When those designated to govern are seen to be not doing their job, citizens perceive that important aspects of governance are left unaddressed, and “nothing happens”: the nation (and therefore their lives) stagnates and does not progress. In short, bad behaviour by politicians is seen to lead to instability in government. Together, government stagnation and instability cause electors ongoing, underlying unease with respect to how the nation, and therefore their lives/future, is being managed. This affects their peace of mind, they are concerned for the future of their children and grandchildren, and they feel some sense of personal responsibility for the outcome as if by voting for these particular politicians citizens are ‘complicit’ in the stagnation and instability”.
These findings make difficult reading for Australian political parties but provide strong clues as to how to respond. Our findings draw attention to two important dilemmas for Australia’s political class. Firstly, that citizens view politicians and democratic politics as one and the same – anti-politics equals anti-party politics. In a traditional culture of deference, the conflation of politics, democracy and politicians was viewed as an equation for social and political stability but in times of rapid social change it has become a source of ungovernability. It should also be of significant concern that this pattern of discontent has emerged in a period of relative affluence unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom. Secondly, we can identify a culture of anti-politics at the heart of the Australian political system. Paradoxically, the evidence also demonstrates that politicians and political parties need to be the solution to these two dilemmas.
The evidence presented here shows that a new political project based on different forms of trust building is likely to attract significant support. Hence reforms that (1) made decision-making more transparent and politicians more accountable for their actions; (2) where politicians became the key agents of change in a moral agenda aimed at cleaning-up the Canberra village; (3) all party commitment to moving away from adversarial politics and towards a collaborative governance approach; and (4) where all federal institutions would have a legislative responsibility to connect-up Australian citizens with the Canberra-village in policy-making, regulation and operational delivery. Fundamentally, however, there is the need for a national democratic audit in which we pose three questions to the Australian citizenry: How would you imagine your ideal democracy? What should we expect from our politicians within it? And, how is the present system failing you?