Australians want more democracy, research shows

By David Donaldson

December 12, 2017

Australians have an appetite for democratic renewal and substantial policy reform, argues a paper released by the Centre for Policy Development on Tuesday.

Not only that, they broadly agree on the way forward, the progressive think tank believes.

Australians are keen to be involved in running the country — 71% agree that ordinary citizens should have a greater say in setting the policy priorities of the government.

And just as the parliament was behind the people on same sex marriage, politicians are holding back the tide on a federal anti-corruption commission, which has support from 77% of respondents.

The paper draws on a detailed survey of the attitudes to democracy and government of more than 1000 respondents, and was informed by the input of around 30 eminent Australians from diverse backgrounds who gathered in Melbourne last month for a special roundtable on democracy.

Some of the paper’s results were previewed in a speech by CPD chair Terry Moran in November.

What do Australians want? Active and effective government fit for the ages reveals almost three-quarters of Australians think politics is fixated on short-term gains and not addressing long-term challenges. It shows Australians strongly back reforms such as:

  • A tougher code of conduct for MPs (79%)
  • Putting citizens on parliamentary committees (68%)
  • Fixed four-year parliamentary terms (58%)
  • Giving public agencies more independence (55%)
  • A constitutional convention (57%)

Unlike Americans, who tend to be more sceptical of big government, 61% of respondents said they would be prepared to pay higher taxes in exchange for better services.

They are also highly sceptical of outsourced human services, with a large majority wanting government to retain the ability to directly deliver services.

“It’s time to respond to a clear community desire to reform our democratic system and for fresh policies driven by better ideas, not ideology”, said CPD CEO Travers McLeod. “Love won last week, as it should have, but the system lost. The painful and drawn out process of achieving marriage equality showed politicians underestimate Australians’ appetite for engaging in reform.”

“Our research shows Australians see democracy as a force for equality and would throw their support behind changes that get government and the economy working better for the community.”

“What’s clear from CPD’s research”, said CPD chair Terry Moran, “is that Australians think reinvigorating our democracy is a pressing and overdue task. This is about improving the way the system works and ensuring that the best contemporary policy ideas rise to the top.”

“Australians are hungry for democratic and political renewal, and are frustrated by the lack of an agreed vision and purpose for our country. The community can lead the way in finding agreement on new ideas to drive policies for Australia’s future. Our latest research points the way forward,” said McLeod.

“Australians want a rejuvenated public sector that plays an active and effective role in policy development and service delivery. They want business to invest in building shared, sustainable value. They care about the wealth of nature, not growth at all costs. They want stable democracy, but not a static one that refuses to change with the times. They want programs that work and are rigorously evaluated by government. Above all, Australians believe we can and must do better if democracy is to deliver for all.”

The intertwining of domestic and international issues — what former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa calls the growth of the “intermestic” — means Australia needs to improve its Asia literacy if it is to be responsive to changing needs, the think tank adds.

The discussion paper and attitudes research are the latest outcomes from a series of events and projects to mark CPD’s 10th anniversary. CPD partnered with Professor Glenn Withers from the Australian National University and Essential to replicate two previous studies on public attitudes to government. Professor Withers was the lead researcher on both these studies, and advised on the third study conducted for CPD by Essential in October 2017 (online survey based on 1025 respondents).

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