This federal election may be remembered as the climate change election or the battle of the tax cuts. It may even be remembered as the election where the parties learned they need to actually read their candidates’ social media feeds before endorsing them.
But its real significance is being overlooked. Without a major overhaul of our democratic institutions, this Saturday’s poll could have been Australia’s last-ever, ‘legitimate’ national election.
Our nation faces the real prospect, in a few short years, of morphing into a ‘zombie democracy’.
A trust freefall
Consider this: public trust and engagement in Australia’s democracy has been in free fall for the past 10 years.
According to research by the Museum of Australian Democracy, in conjunction with the University of Canberra, citizen trust in politicians and political institutions has fallen from 86 per cent in 2007 to around 40 per cent in 2018.
The passing of Bob Hawke places this paucity of our political system to engage and inspire voters in even starker relief.
Our democratic system in the 80s and 90s was still robust and functional enough to allow a leader like Hawke to articulate a long-term national vision, corral fractious forces and lead them toward major economic and social reforms that have stood the test of time.
Now, with the system geared ever increasingly to stunts and short-term politics, and with visionary leadership, as a whole, debased as political currency, Hawke – if he were running for PM in 2019 – would be consigned to gotcha politics with meaningless stunts and slogans.
More than likely, with his larrikinism and very public personal demons, the current system wouldn’t allow him to rise to leadership in the first place, but instead consign him to the fringes of politics.
Now, if the rate of decline in trust and engagement is left unchecked, research extrapolates that by 2025, less than 10 per cent of Australians will trust our democratic system. Put another way, by the next federal election four years away, only one out of every 10 Australian voters will engage with, or invest belief in, the democracy that governs us.
In short, the next poll won’t be touted as the ‘renewable energy referendum’ or the ‘tax reform poll’, but the ‘nobody cares’ election.
The implications of this deepening seismic disengagement, not just for Australia’s politics, but Australia period, are immense.
Democracy relies intrinsically on the people’s trust to maintain its legitimacy. Without an engaged and active citizenry – without the demos – democracy inevitably withers and dies.
How this seismic disconnect between the people and democracy plays out remains largely uncharted territory for democracy watchers.
Past existential threats to Western democracies have come from without – from rival ideologies like communism or fascism. As we are now seeing across many liberal democracies around the globe, the challenge to democracy‘s legitimacy is coming from within.
Compulsory voting masks our crisis
The growing fault-lines of democratic disconnect are more tangible and head-line grabbing in other countries. Trumpism, Brexit and the mainstreaming of extremism in Europe provide clear pointers to how long-established democracies are spiralling into a crisis of legitimacy.
In Australia, the full impacts of similar levels distrust and disengagement are partially masked by our system of compulsory voting.
On the surface all looks relatively business as usual.
Australians (motivated by the prospect of a fine if they do not) continue to cast their ballots at election time. Winners at elections are duly decided by voters’ majority preferences. And a government is formed amid the usual claims by winners that their poll victory gives them a mandate to introduce change.
Yet obliged as they are to turn up, increasingly voters are doing so without any real sense of engagement and trust in the outcome. It is the political equivalent of workplace ‘presenteeism’.
As a result, the political authority they appear to bestow upon the winning government is in reality a hollow crown. It becomes more legitimate for the public to resist, rather than support, the changes governments seek to implement.
Australia’s democratic problems, like leadership spills, the unprecedented numbers of pre-poll voters at this election, and declining support for the major parties, may appear benign compared to the toxic dysfunctions in other democracies.
This gives the impression that Australian democracy’s moving parts, while under strain, appear to still be ticking over. It also lends itself to a sense of complacency that the system will somehow automatically right itself.
But without its heart and soul – with the public trust and voter engagement that gives democracy its authority and legitimacy – it is surely morphing into a ‘zombified’ version of its former self.
‘Move on, nothing to see here…’
The major parties have gone some way to show they are alive to our growing democratic disconnect.
Both claim they have adopted new processes that make it more difficult to topple their leaders between elections, addressing what many see as the main driver behind plummeting faith in Australia’s democracy over the last decade.
But while these changes are welcome, they overlook the true depth and scope of the problem.
Our recent leadership travails are a symptom, not a cause, of the major systemic problems that Australia, as well as democracies around the world, are now confronting.
Australia’s political system and institutions remain largely in the same configuration that was bequeathed by our founding fathers in 1901.
It remains organised around a major party system that divides the world into 19th century, class-based ideologies, a system of combative and highly-contrived communication with voters, while largely relying on a mass head-counting exercise every few years for citizen’s to have some input.
Our political class, which makes and preserves the laws of our democratic governance system, is in a unique position to resist the same renewal that other parts of our society – business, telecommunication and transport as examples – have been forced to make in response to the unprecedented social and economic disruption over the past two decades.
In effect by not adapting to our new, globalised, digital world, Australia’s democracy is being left stranded on a sand bank as the 21st century flows on past it.
The mask that covers Australia’s slow-burn legitimacy crisis will inevitably slip, and our benign-looking disconnects and dysfunctions will quickly snowball and morph into ones that are as toxic as those now emerging in Britain, Europe and America.
Reform challenge of our time
This national poll has been called the ‘climate change election’.
But the formed government after 18 May needs to recognise that democratic renewal is the other crucial reform challenge of our time, and is arguably a pre-condition for all other reforms.
Climate change, along with the myriad of other complex policy problems Australia now faces, won’t be resolved unless our democratic system can regenerate public engagement, and deliver the legitimacy and consensus needed to underwrite the long-term and difficult decisions that need to be made.
A program of multi-level and sequenced democratic renewal is urgently needed to start restoring public trust in democracy and, by extension, its functionality.
Some reforms can be adopted relatively quickly, like real-time disclosure of political donations and aggressively capping campaign spending.
These initial shoots of reform will not only help to reverse the free fall in trust, but will provide a platform for more ambitious action like reforming our constitution and creating citizen juries to shadow and advise our existing parliaments.
However politicians tackle it, strategic democratic renewal must start happening soon. Otherwise our political system will join the ranks of the walking dead, and the consequences may be hardly worth contemplating.