The temptation to become mired in pessimism about the state of Australian democracy might be strong: the evidence points to creeping disillusionment among Australians about their elected representatives and the institutions they serve. Most voters just want to kick the democracy tin can down the street.
Professor Mark Evans’ research supports that view – satisfaction in democracy has more than halved during the past decade, symptomatic of a political environment that has engendered a corrosive loss of trust among its constituents, a media cycle that pedals conflict and discord and a revolving door of prime ministers that has seen five prime ministers in nine years.
And yet Professor Evans, the director of Democracy 2025 at Canberra’s Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD), believes there is an adaptive gene at the heart of Australian democracy that augurs well for the nation’s long-term political future.
Professor Evans will be a special guest at Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit in Canberra on 18-19 September. His research, among voters and most recently, among Federal MPs, reveals a complex and intriguing picture of the nation’s body politic. It also underlines his faith in Australian democracy.
“In a sense, the idea of Australian democracy is very old-fashioned. It’s still caught up in the old ways,” Professor Evans explains. “The idea that our democracy should be wedded to nineteenth century principles is problematic. And its connections to a Westminster model, which really doesn’t even exist in England any more, is also flawed. It’s a projection of a lack of national confidence.”
What Professor Evans discerns now is a period of change, one that has previously occurred during the past 200 years and is proof of what he calls Australia’s adaptive political culture.
But there is nonetheless an urgency to address what is occurring in Australian democracy, to ensure that what does change, changes for the better. According to the MoAD’s recent research, Trust and Democracy in Australia, if nothing is done to arrest this erosion of trust, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions by 2025. The consequence will be severe - ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic wellbeing.
MoAD and its foundation partner, the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra (UC-IGPA), are uniting on the Democracy 2025 initiative to help strengthen Australian democracy and build a bridge across the trust divide. It has two foundation reports – one that identifies the problems from the voters’ perspective, the second – to be released this month – on Federal MPs response to the situation.
The trigger for this widespread political despair is not just the revolving door at the prime minister’s office during the past decade, although there is clearly a view among voters that policy failure is also linked to a failure of leadership. “A lot of people would say this is really about courageous leadership, and the inability of the nation’s leaders since former Prime Minister John Howard to communicate a vision for the country,” Professor Evans says. “The last four Prime Ministers haven’t got their big-ticket issues up. But that’s arguably a failure of political communication and leadership. Business in Australia seems to see it as a failure of leadership.”
The emergence of the business lobby as a leading agitator for change - “I’m surprised by the level of discontent amongst business leaders”, Professor Evans says – suggests there may be a coalition of broad interest groups, including some from the social sector, who are emerging and united in their desire for change. But what are the core problems they are trying to address?
Voters have identified three key areas in Professor Evans’ research: integrity (or honesty), delivery (“If you’re going to do it, do it”) and empathy (“Politicians don’t seem to care about the issues we care about”). “These areas are actually part of the social contract MPs have with their community,” Professor Evans says. But if this community linkage is a problem for voters, MPs are also keen to do something about it.
The Democracy 2025 attitudinal survey of Federal MPs from the last Parliament found that politicians wanted to focus on improving the way democracy works, and that could mean giving voters more say in choosing election candidates and party leaders while also increasing an MP’s capacity to vote freely in Parliament, outside rigid party lines.
The priority reform for MPs, supported by 75.67 per cent of those who took part in the survey, is for candidates and parties to have a limit on election campaign spending and a limit on how much they can accept from donors.
“Both Australian citizens and politicians think that participatory reforms can be used to bolster the legitimacy of representative democracy and enhance trust between government and citizen,” the report concluded. But how that plays out and what initiatives flow from that are what is important.
“The process of democratic renewal in Australia is actually about rebuilding the national confidence,” Professor Evans says. “And there is a genuine need for evidence-based and applied thinking to ensure our democracy evolves and matures.”
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