We hear a lot from citizens about the failings of Australian democracy and the need for reform. But how do politicians view the growing trust divide?
We set out to answer this question in an attitudinal survey of federal politicians, which we co-designed with the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It was conducted in January and February 2019 and completed by 98 out of a possible 226 respondents (43.36%). Our sample (see Figure 1) is skewed towards women and Labor and crossbench respondents.
Given the higher proportion of opposition members, our respondents may be more critical of the status quo compared to those in government. Yet all respondents were free from party loyalties in submitting their replies, could select their preferences from a list of established reform options and also specify their own priorities.
We have a strong, if not perfect, expression of voice from elite-level politicians. And because of earlier research we can compare the responses of politicians to those of citizens.
Judging Australia’s democratic arrangements
Let’s start with a finding you might have guessed. Australia’s federal politicians are more satisfied (61%) with the way democracy works than their fellow citizens (41%).
Yet here is a perhaps more surprising finding: they are sufficiently concerned about evidence of a trust divide between citizens and politicians to favour a substantial program of reform.
As Figure 2 shows, parliamentarians share a sense of what they “like” about the nature of Australia’s democratic arrangements with the general public. In particular, both groups like “fair voting”, “stable government” and “freedom of speech”.
Citizens are more appreciative of Australia’s “good economy and lifestyle” and the quality of “public services”. Parliamentarians extol the virtue of the political system in providing access for citizens to exercise their right to political participation.
When asked to explain the loss of trust in politics (see Figure 3), parliamentarians focus on the lack of public understanding of how government works. They also point to the disproportionate power of minority representatives in decision-making.
Citizens focus on “not being able to hold politicians to account for broken promises”, politicians “not dealing with the issues that really matter”, and the disproportionate power of big business or trade unions in decision-making.
However, they have a shared concern with what they perceive as the conflict-driven nature of party politics and the media focusing too much on “personalities and not enough on policy”. Parliamentarians consider concerns related to media misrepresentation and the pressure of the media cycle to be the major weakness in Australian democratic practice.
Reforms politicians would like to see (and those they reject)
Unlike Australian citizens, the majority of parliamentarians are against:
- the right to recall an MP for a new election if they fail to provide effective representation during the parliamentary term (72%)
- performance reviews for politicians (72%)
- greater use of citizen juries based on the criminal jury system (64%).
Parliamentarians appear to have limited desire to open up the system to direct influence from the public. Instead, their preference is to make the representative system more outward-looking. This is reflected in strong support for:
- ordinary party members and voters having more say in choosing party leaders and election candidates (49%)
- provision for e-petitions to parliament (54%)
- dual citizens being able to stand for election without renouncing their overseas citizenship (47%)
- less voting on party lines based on manifesto promises and more free votes (46%).
When we asked parliamentarians what other reforms they would like to see, the responses highlighted a strong desire for improved publicly funded civics education and formal electorate forums for all parliamentarians.
The former idea is a reflection of the existence of different approaches to civics education across states and territories, and different patterns of funding. The general perception is that a national framework and funding commitment are needed to help foster the political literacy of the Australian electorate.
The latter idea is about improving public accountability through the establishment of public forums. These would have standing minutes and reporting requirements to ensure parliamentarians remain responsive to the interests of their constituents.
Linking to community is the key to saving representative democracy
Central to the thinking of politicians is their community linkage role. This involves expressing broad values and ideological positions to capture the wider concerns of citizens, and educating citizens about political issues. It also requires meeting and engaging with citizens.
The message from politicians is that reform is as much about improving existing democratic practices as designing new ways of doing democracy.
Our evidence suggests elected politicians are aware of concerns of citizens and interested in improving democratic processes. They are more satisfied than citizens about how democracy works and not inclined to jump to reforms that give more direct control or say to citizens.
But the politicians do accept the need to reform their community linkage role so they are better connected to citizens. They also think the political process and their role in it needs to be better understood, so strongly support better political education.
The reform agendas of citizens and politicians do not entirely match up, but there is a degree of alignment. If feasible and doable reforms are going to emerge, we might first look to common ground, starting with cementing the community linkage role.
Changes backed both by many citizens and politicians could lead the way to a wider and more radical reform process.
More detail on this research can be found in Mark Evans, Michelle Grattan and Brendan McCaffrie (eds), From Turnbull to Morrison: the Trust Divide published by Melbourne University Press and launched on Wednesday, October 16, at Parliament House.
Mark Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025 – bridging the trust divide at Old Parliament House, University of Canberra; Gerry Stoker, Fellow and Centenary Professor, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra; and Max Halupka, Research Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.