Some insights into political (dis)-engagement

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Some insights into political (dis)-engagement

Posted 22/08/2013 by Brenton Holmes

As Australian voters wrestle with their choice of parties and candidates in the 2013 Federal election campaign, the UK’s Hansard Society has released its annual audit of political engagement in Britain. Unlike Australia, voting in Britain is not compulsory.
Turnout at recent UK general elections was:
  • at the 1 May 1997 general election: 71.4% 
  • at the 7 June 2001 general election: 59.54%
  • at the 5 May 2005 general election: 61.4%
  • at the 6 May 2010 general election: 65.1%
The date of the next general election in the UK is set at 7 May 2015 after the Fixed Term Parliament Act was passed on 15 September 2011.
The 2013 UK Hansard Society Audit shows that the British public are so disillusioned about, disenchanted by, and disengaged from politics that:
  • just 41% of the public say they are certain to vote in the event of a general election, compared to 48% last year and 58% two years ago
  • the public’s propensity to vote is now the lowest ever recorded in the Audit series
  • only 12% of 18–24 year olds say they are absolutely certain to vote— compared to 22% last year and 30% two years ago
  • 20% of the public say they are ‘absolutely certain not to vote’— compared to 16% last year and double the number who said the same two years ago (10%)
  • only 42% of the public say they would vote in an election in the future ‘if they felt strongly enough about an issue’;
  • that 58% of people are still not prepared to vote even if they feel strongly, suggests serious disillusionment with the efficacy of voting.
However, there has been a recovery in the UK in the number of people who would like to be involved in ‘decision-making’:
  • 47% of the public say they would like to be involved in local decision-making (up 9 percentage points from 2012)
  • 42% say they would like to be involved in national decision-making (also up 9 percentage points compared to 2012)
But knowledge of and satisfaction with MPs are at their lowest levels in the Audit series:
  • only 22% of the public can correctly name their own MP— compared to 38% two years ago (the last time this question was asked)
  • 23% are satisfied with the way that MPs generally are doing their job —compared to 29% in 2010
  • 34% are satisfied with the way their own MP is doing his/her job— compared to 38% in 2010.
Responses to a series of political quiz questions in the Audit showed that:
  • 57% of the public are unable to correctly identify that British members of the European Parliament are directly elected by British voters.
  • a third of the public (33%) could not correctly identify that members of the House of Lords are not elected.
The British results warrant comparison with the state of electoral engagement in Australia. 
 A recent ANU survey showed that a majority of Australia's voters support compulsory voting, and there has been relatively little change in that view since the 1950s. If compulsory voting were to be replaced by voluntary voting there would probably be a 10 per cent decline in election turnout to 85 per cent The ANU survey also assessed people’s attitudes to the efficacy of democracy: 
Citizens’ satisfaction with democracy in Australia has consistently been one of the highest in the world, after a short decline following the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government. More recently, there was a decline of 13 percentage points in satisfaction between the 2007 and 2010 elections, caused by a sense of dissatisfaction with the operation of minority government. This lower level of satisfaction persisted in 2011. In the current survey, the level of satisfaction is consistent with the 2010 and 2011 estimates, with just under three in 10 of the respondents reporting that they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied with democracy in Australia.
There is a broad consensus across research in Australia, UK and the US that the clichéd image of bored, disengaged youth is false. Rather than ‘disengaged’ they appear to be ‘differently engaged’. A Democratic Audit report noted:
A pattern that emerges here is the disassociation of young people from formal political interest and participation. This is not the same as, and should not be confused with, disassociation or political apathy more generally. We have also found that many young Australians are active and engaged politically. Nevertheless their lack of faith and trust in the ballot box is an issue of concern.
There are conflicting views about the efficacy of political engagement via social media and online notwithstanding that it is a rapidly growing part of the political communication landscape. The Australian politics and media researcher Damien Spry contends that online political engagement as a way of exchanging ideas and debating political issues is probably more cacophonous and confusing than enlightening. And in 2011, UWA communications academic Taeul Harper wrote:
The increasing spread of information and communication technology has changed just about every aspect of Australian society – except democracy. The opportunities to engage citizens in the democratic process are yet to be harnessed by the Australian political system.


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