Satisfaction with democracy at its lowest since the Whitlam dismissal

By Tom Ravlic

Thursday January 27, 2022

coat of arms-australia
Fake websites are offering tax file numbers and ABNs for a fee. (TPG/Adobe)

How great a part will growing distrust in the major political parties, some public sector agencies and media outlets play in the upcoming federal election (whenever the poll is called)?

There are conversations going on in private and in public that give us some insight into that anti-government sentiment – the kind of vibe that leads to protests being held on a regular basis – might play in the election to come.

Key issues that have played out in the protests include the notion that the governments have sought to be oppressive and enforce mask and vaccine mandates, as well as the kookier elements of sovereign citizen propaganda that surface whenever there is an uptick in sentiment against any government seeking to enforce rules.

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The visceral hatred that had been expressed towards leaders across the entire political spectrum is worrying, and rhetoric urging a return of capital punishment is concerning.

Video footage of makeshift gallows used in protests designed to create further unrest and unsettle people watching at home heightens the tensions at a time when it is already difficult for some people to work their way through the inancial and medical consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

Protests and online forums feature government MPs, minor party leaders, and a rag-tag, finger-wagging mob of anti-government, anti-vaccination, anti-medical establishment, plus people who represent the diverse but extreme views that get digitally expectorated in online messaging platforms.

What well-clued-up observers who are experienced in directing campaigns are saying is that this anti-government sentiment is coming through in focus groups and polling, indicating people are flirting with the idea of ditching the major parties and running off with disruptors such as Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, One Nation and the independent candidates standing in various electorates across the country.

Factors that might lead people into thinking about voting for the Palmer party and other minor parties include the fact that political parties are perceived as self-interested rather than interested in the electorate, as well as the economic and social distress people have experienced during the pandemic.

RedBridge Group director Kosmos Samaras, a former campaign director for the Australian Labor Party, said that the research and focus group work his company has done in recent times indicates there are voters who are quite prepared to pitch their tent elsewhere because they feel disenfranchised and poorly served by the major parties.

There are, Samaras said, voters who are thinking of voting for the United Australia Party, given what they have gone through with the pandemic. His view is that the pandemic has accelerated people’s thinking about moving away from the major political players.

The keyword here is ‘accelerate’, because the phenomenon of growing distrust in electoral institutions, political parties and the media has been increasing incrementally over time so the organisers of protests and online recruitment campaigns know they hit a sweet spot when they target people who already feel alienated by the political class.

Work done by the Australian National University on the attitudes of voters over many years merits consideration in this context. The Australian Election Study for the 2019 Australian Federal Election pointed to continued growth in distrust and dissatisfaction with the democratic institutions in Australia.

That particular study of the 2019 election revealed Australians’ dissatisfaction with democracy had hit its lowest ebb since the dismissal of the Whitlam government. The researchers said that 59% of respondents indicated satisfaction with the way Australia’s institutions were working.

This was a significant drop from the 86% that was recorded at the time of the 2007 election, which saw the coalition, led at the time by John Howard, replaced by Kevin Rudd and the Australian Labor Party.

The researchers said the drop in the ‘satisfaction with democracy’ rating was steeper than in the cases of both the UK and the US in 2016 following the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, respectively.

A further point worth mentioning in the context of trust in democracy is what people thought about people in government. What did they think about the folks who are running the joint?

Just one in four Australians, according to the research, actually trusted the government to do the right thing. Pause for a moment. Take that statistic in. Only 25% of Australians – based on the research data collected by the ANU’s team – believe the government can be trusted to do the right thing.

Three-quarters of Australians believe people in government are looking after themselves, according to the research. Take your mind back to the auditor general’s reports on the infrastructure projects such as sports facilities and car parks that were essentially seen as being used to direct project funding to electorates that were being targeted by the parties currently in government.

Putting the attitudes revealed in the survey together with the performance audits published by the Australian National Audit Officer provides an interesting picture in the mosaic.

It is almost as if the ANAO’s assessments have been a substantiation, at least in those cases mentioned, of the general level of distrust in government the ANU researchers found when they went digging into what people thought about the election processes.

The research also finds that voters have generally disapproved of all leadership changes that have taken place while a party is in government since the removal of Kevin Rudd in 2010 and his replacement by Julia Gillard. In other words, voters tire of politicians and political parties that obsess about themselves rather than focus on matters of policy.

There is merit in highlighting that the research was published in December 2019 and that within months Australia would join the world in imposing health measures to try and curb the spread of the pandemic.

The ANU research confirms distrust of the political class, as well as distrust of government, generally has been growing over time.

Australians should, therefore, not be surprised that people are gravitating towards parties or movements that are anti-government in nature at a time of social and financial distress. While the outcome in individual electorates will only be clear closer to the time, the reality is that people who are grumpy with governments and institutions only have one chance to have a say with their vote on polling day.

It leaves one to wonder whether the elections research that points to the escalation of significant problems resulting from the pandemic is actually given any attention by those in government. Or do they just power on in the vain hope that nobody is going to pick it up, dust it off and point out the obvious?


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