It’s no secret that trust in our political system is dwindling. A quick Google search on the topic invites a torrent of articles lamenting a steep, steady decline of public trust in the Australian government. There has been a lot of finger pointing around the issue with politicians copping most of the blame. It’s an issue that parliamentarians have had trouble avoiding. In fact, in 2015 Dr Simon Longstaff spoke on Democracy, Trust and Legitimacy within the walls of Parliament House. Longstaff's position on the role pollies have played in this breakdown was softer than many of the hard-hitting media headlines around the issue.
I don’t think that in this there is any particular villain. I know that we like to find the person in the black hat, the single individual that can be blamed for all of this. Maybe some people become the apotheosis of a particular trend, but we need to think much more broadly. This is not about any political party or any political individual, it is rather about a larger set or questions that we need to address.
As part of my job, I plough through the daily media coverage around politics, government and democracy. Not surprisingly, my excavating continues to unearth articles, blogs and social media posts that reaffirm this is still very relevant. Some echo the rhetoric of Longstaff’s 2015 lecture and others identify new culprits as breakers of the trust. An essay written by two former Rudd staffers placed the blame on a villain much closer to home.
Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton write,
The problem is not just them. It’s us.
Harris and Charlton have broken down data from the recent Australian Election Study (AES) to find out why there has been a breakdown in Australia’s political operating model.
As they explore the dramatic polarisation of Australian politics of the last couple of decades, Harris and Charlton highlight a shift in political identity amongst politicians.
In 1996 more than one in three Australian politicians (37 per cent) rated themselves as “moderate” – that is, centre-left Liberal and centre-right Labor politicians. This share has shrunk dramatically. At the most recent federal election in 2016 only one in 10 politicians described themselves as moderate.
What may have seemed like sensationalist news headlines around lack of voter confidence in the system have been given merit in the AES data.
More than half of all voters think that politicians are out of touch – a record high in the survey’s history. Only a quarter of them believe our elected leaders are doing the right thing – another all – time low.
Harris and Charlton are quick to draw parallels between the polarisation of the political class and the polarisation seen in our communities, acknowledging that we cannot understand one without reflecting on the other.
Votes for minor parties were once called “protest votes”. That’s not the case anymore, or at least not nearly so much. As the electorate becomes more ideological, those votes are being cast as firm votes for minor parties, not against the major ones.
Disillusion towards the political system is something that has typically been associated with the attitudes of minority groups and lower income earners. The AES data shows that disillusion towards the system is becoming mainstream.
37 per cent of unskilled men are dissatisfied with politics (a record high), but dissatisfaction among the rest of the population is even higher, at 40 per cent. It’s true that minor parties are now attracting one in four lower-income voters, but they are also winning almost exactly the same share of higher-income voters.
Social media dances a fine line between friend and foe to our politicians. Most voters now live out a decent chunk of their lives online in an environment that is constantly shifting. Harris and Charlton describe the internet as “the new political battleground.”
Rather than prosecuting a single public manifesto, political warfare now involves personalised messages directed at the known fears and prejudices of individual voters with unprecedented precision.
Shifts in the way politicians target voters is of course symptomatic of a greater change. Here, Harris and Charlton point to the breakdown of the operating model upon which Australian politics in built. Focus on the median voter has now shifted and single issue parties have seen a rise in popularity. Palmer United, One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team are all hallmarks of this shift in focus.
These individual parties tend to scale up fast, and then combust just as quickly, but the long-term trend of a rising minor party vote outlives them all.
Longstaff’s 2015 lecture asked voters to think more broadly around the breakdown of democracy, trust and legitimacy rather than narrowing down the blame to one culprit. Harris and Charlton remind us of our own responsibility in this issue. It is not enough to point fingers at politicians, the media or big business in a desperate effort to hold someone accountable for this breakdown. We live in a democracy, which means we, the people, are part of the problem. If we really want to understand why things feel so broken the first place to start is with ourselves.