Australia no longer trusts what passes for democracy here

By Joe Montero

The Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy analysis at the University of Canberra have just released their findings from joint research. It tells us what everybody knows already, that Australia does not trust politicians and the existing political institutions.

Central to the research, is a national survey called Trust and Democracy in Australia. Its importance is that it provides evidence that there has been a major shift in opinion. A high 86 percent of respondents in 2007 said that they were satisfied with “Australia’s Democracy,” and this dropped to 72 percent by 2010 and now stands at a low 43 percent. If the trend continues, it is projected that trust in politicians and political institutions will fall below 10 percent by 2025.

A strength of this survey is that it examines the shift over a decade, and eliminates short term distortions. Because it does this, it provides a fairly accurate pointer, towards where Australia is going. This is mitigated to an extent, by the fact that it relies on a fairly small sample of 1021 respondents. A much bigger sample would likely shift the figures, a little, but not enough to shift the numbers by much, or deny the revealed trend.

It is about an alienation form what is currently being called democracy in Australia.

Contrasting the falling trust in politicians and political institutions is the level of support for democratic reform, boiling down to cutting the connection between big donators and the political process and raising the power of citizens to make decisions.

Also revealed in the survey, is the existence of considerable fear of political instability, which would lower the economic wellbeing of the respondent. Because of this fear, the report suggests, the disillusionment has not led widespread engagement in bringing about change, but to the rise of cynicism and disengagement.

Despite this, the report says: “Most Australians are clear that they do not like the character of contemporary politics on display in the federal government and democratic renewal is required to address the democratic pressures that are threatening to undermine our democratic values.”

In response to the findings, the Museum of Democracy, says it is launching an initiative to rebuild trust. It is called Democracy 2025.

The response is flawed, because it starts and ends with the assumption that democratic values are tied up with what is, and that the voters must be drawn back into the fold. The implication is that the fault does not really lie with politicians behaving badly and a political system that is not working as its supposed to. This leads to a second assumption. The problem is mostly about the mistaken perceptions  of Australian citizens.

There is another interpretation. Many of our politicians do break promises with clockwork regularity, big money buys favours, corruption in Australia is widespread, our rights are being wound back one step at a time and people feel they have little no real voice.  None of this is imaginary.

Rising insecurity is real, when work is increasingly precarious,  gets harder to pay the bills, and the future promises even worse, fear of instability makes sense in these circumstances.

Engaging Australians in the political process must address all of these problems, by means of a collective working out of where we want to get to as a society, and then chartering a path to get there. It means working together to bring about change. Unless this is done, matters will remain the same and continue to fester, until a critical proportion of the population come to see that it must act in it.

This survey was not meant to deal with any of this. It doesn’t mean that the rest of us shouldn’t.

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