How do Australians Imagine their democracy?

How do Australians Imagine their democracy?

There is a great deal of work within IGPA on new forms of political participation and in that context we are very interested in how Australians understand democracy. In particular, Mark Evans and various collaborators have undertaken two surveys on Australians’ views of democracy and the story of these two surveys illustrates both the iterative nature of our research and how it informs public debate.

The first survey, conducted in February 2013, asked a representative sample of 1,377 Australians to consider various issues regarding Australian politics and their role in making democracy work. Some of our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. The findings showed that citizens are overwhelmingly observers of, rather than participants in, formal politics. Crucially, 9 out of 10 regard themselves as without influence over the federal level of government and 7 of 10 come to the same conclusion about other levels of government.

There is also widespread evidence of negative attitudes towards politics and politicians, comparable to those found in other contemporary democracies including Britain, the United States and Finland, but these negative attitudes have emerged in a relatively benign economic context. Over a quarter of Australians combine a specific set of negative attitudes towards politics and politicians. They are irritated with politicians talking rather than acting, annoyed about the compromises involved in politics and supportive of a greater role for non-political actors, including business people and experts, in public decision-making.

In contrast, other findings give reason for hope about the future of Australian democracy. There are elements of malaise in Australian political culture, but the core concern of citizen appears to be with the type of politics currently on offer. The research shows that most Australians do not hold the ideals of the democratic political process in contempt. There is strong support for the processes of representative democracy, such as consultation, compromise and democratic judgement, and citizens display a considerable understanding of its complex processes. Our findings also indicate that citizens could be up for a more extended role if a different politics was on offer that was more participatory, open and perhaps local.

Reflecting on the results from our survey in the round; the fundamental cause of democratic entropy in contemporary Australian politics is increasingly attributed to the role of politicians. 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. Secondly, the artificial separation of representative and participatory democracy has reinforced a culture of anti-politics at the heart of the Australian political system. It is evident from our findings that citizens have complex orientations towards democracy. The evidence presented here shows support for a more participatory form of politics, with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system.

This research provoked a great deal of interest and was instrumental in us developing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Museum of Australian Democracy (link to their website). This has resulted in a raft of initiatives, but the most important here is a continuing agreement to conduct more research which resulted first in a survey, funded by the MOAD.  This research resulted in an exhibition at the MOAD called the Power of 1, which has run since February 2015. The survey sample was 826, spread across 4 ‘generations’: ‘Builders’, born between 1925 and 1945; Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979; and Generation Y, born between 1980 and 1995. The main aim was to look at the differences between generations. There were clear differences between these ‘generations’, which are reflected in the Exhibition, which devotes a separate room to each ‘generation’. To give just a flavour of the differences: the young were more critical of the electoral system, felt less efficacious, less positive about the outputs, in terms of health, education and employment, of democracy; and more critical of the two-party system. As regards political participation, the young, who after all are the future of democracy, were much less likely to engage in formal political activity (party membership, contacting an MP or signing a petition, but much more likely to use new forms of participation, social media, e-campaigns, blogs etc.  In this way the research argues that young people may be showing the way forward for Australian democracy: they are the sail, not the anchor.

Again this research received a great deal of coverage, on television and in the press, as well as on social media. As a result, there will be another survey, conducted with the MOAD, later this year which will focus on trust; exploring in more detail Australians views of politicians and political institutions.

Our research is not merely interested in diagnosing the problem of Australian democracy; we are also interested in suggesting ways forward. In our view, a reform process would need to proceed on the basis of four fundamental principles: recognising politicians as the key agents of change; non-partisanship; institutional strengthening; and connecting-up the citizen with the Canberra-village. The first principle proceeds from the assumption that politicians should act as the bridge between representative and participatory democracy. The second principle follows the insight that anti-politics is about the health of Australian democracy and is a problem for all politicians,regardless of party politics. The third principle is based on the idea that it makes sense to use existing institutions which already have public legitimacy and trust to build the new politics. This would also be prudent from a financial perspective in an austerity climate. The fourth principle is rooted in the popular perception that the Canberra village (the Commonwealth) is disconnected from the everyday lives of Australian citizens and reforms are needed to bring Canberra closer to the people.