Democracy globally is at a tipping point. Nearly every key indicator of its health – in particular, public trust and engagement – has been falling over the past decade.
Citizens for Democratic Renewal, Submission 22, Attachment 2 (Australia's democracy, A strategic Roadmap for Renewal), p. 5.
Supporters of democracy have had cause for concern over recent decades. We have watched as surveys, studies and questionnaires conducted in mature democracies around the world have indicated a growing disenchantment with politics and democratic institutions. We have observed with trepidation a slow spread of 'authoritarian populism and the ''strong man'' leader, right wing nationalism, and real world and online activism pushing harmful ideologies'.
Overwhelmingly, participants in the inquiry described indicators of a healthy democracy, as being 'challenged', 'threatened' or 'in crisis'. Concepts that are fundamental to Western liberal democracies around the world, like trust, equality and freedom, have been the subject of qualitative and quantitative analysis over a number of decades, with the results often pointing toward democratic decline.
Yet the story is not a simple one, nor is it one of consistent, linear decline. In some countries and regions democracy has grown over the last four decades. Pew Research Centre reported that at the end of 2017, 96 out of 167 countries were 'democracies of some kind' and only 21 were autocracies. Importantly, the research identified that 'broadly speaking, the share of democracies among the world's governments has been on an upward trend since the mid 1970's'.
Along with these dual narratives, broad trends across Western liberal democracies were highlighted in evidence. They include declining trust in political institutions, the rising influence of populism, growing socioeconomic inequality and fraying social cohesion. These trends, explored in further detail throughout this chapter, were broadly described as both, indicating and contributing to, a decline in, or growing disenfranchisement with, democracy over recent decades. Citizens for Democratic Renewal described these indicators as 'now strongly evident across the democratic world, particularly in long-established, so-called "core" democracies'. While no two countries are the same, these trends provide context and shape the way we perceive what is happening in our democracies.
The relationships between different indicators are complex. Does growing economic inequality explain the rise of populism in Western liberal democracies? Or are populist leaders simply exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment exacerbated by rapid globalisation and immigration, using fear and division to grow their support base? Is declining trust in political institutions causing polarisation among communities? Or is growing disengagement with mainstream political parties causing political candidates on the extremist fringes to 'break out' from the political mainstream? Relationships and causal linkages between trends were hypothesised at length in evidence. They were rarely clear cut, and at times, contradictory.
The indicators identified below are far from exhaustive; we know that there are a number of salient factors shaping Western liberal democracies around the world. Technology, social media, and foreign interference are examples of disruptive forces impacting on our conceptions of nationhood and democracy. However, the trends below featured prominently and consistently throughout the inquiry. As such, they set a useful context for the Australian experience.
Indicators of democratic decline
Participants argued that recent decades have seen declining trust in liberal democracies, including the United States, United Kingdom and those within the European Union. This issue was articulated to mean the declining trust of citizens in 'political institutions', generally taken to include individual politicians, the parliament, the government and other democratic institutions such as the media, an independent judiciary and the public service. As trust between citizens and political institutions is integral to effective liberal democracies, trust levels are a useful indication of the health of a democracy.
In broad terms, declining trust in political institutions means that fewer and fewer people perceive that the 'system works for them'. It means that fewer people believe that governments will do the right thing by their citizens and that politicians are working for the prosperity of all, rather than looking out for themselves. Citizens for Democratic Renewal surmised:
Frustration with the failure of our political system to move with the times has morphed into growing lack of trust, cynicism and disengagement by citizens who increasingly believe the system is no longer geared to achieving the common interest.
Declining political trust 'is thought to erode civic engagement and conventional forms of political participation'. It makes solving complex problems more difficult for governments where they are unable to foster the public support necessary to address complex policy issues. Without support for long-term, evidence-based policy making with a clearly articulated rationale, politics becomes more partisan, reactive and short term.
We have seen that declining trust encourages polarisation. As citizens become frustrated with the political class, democracy is transformed 'into an arena for immoderate, polarised if not in extremist views'. In democracies around the world polarisation was observed in two ways; candidates appealing to extremes, 'as there is no electoral benefit from being a moderate voice', and secondly, voters venting their frustration through voting for political extremes. Mistrust fosters fertile ground for authoritarian, populist forces and creates an environment in which 'certain dominant groups can capture the state, and try to exclude other groups from the national identity'.
Ultimately, declining trust in political institutions may erode the core tenets of democracy, resulting in 'democratic backsliding'. Democracy 2025 submitted:
…liberal democratic regimes are thought most durable when built upon popular legitimacy...The risks of democratic backsliding are regarded as particularly serious if public scepticism spreads upwards from core institutions of governance to corrode citizen perspectives about the performance of liberal democracy and even its core ideals.
Acknowledging that declining trust in politics is evident, including in mature democracies like the United Kingdom and the United States, Dr Sarah Cameron argued that it is not a universal trend. For example, satisfaction with democracy has remained stable in Canada and New Zealand. Dr Cameron argued that while trends in voter demographics, and the disruptive influence of social media, are contributing factors in declining trust, it is largely driven by government performance. Others echoed this sentiment, arguing that the 'zeal of incompetent government is one of the main drivers of the public loss of confidence in our institutions and our ability to govern ourselves'.
The Embassy of Switzerland in Australia submitted that trust in government in that country is very high, having been measured at 80 per cent in 2017, giving Switzerland the highest ranking among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (the OECD average in 2017 was 42 per cent). According to the Embassy, Switzerland has 'a strong and unique democratic tradition'. The Swiss political system allows for citizens to elect parliaments at 'communal, cantonal and federal levels', as well as to participate in activities of 'direct democracy' (such as through referenda), to refuse or accept new laws passed by parliament, and to propose modifications to the Constitution. Swiss government is as localised as possible, with each of the 26 Cantons able to 'levy their own taxes and spend it according to their autonomous democratic decisions'.
The rise of populism
Populists therefore tend to 'speak and behave as if democracy meant the power of the people and only the power of the people'…In this way, we might say that populists exploit the gap between what the ideal of democracy promises…'government of the people, by the people, for the people'…and what contemporary liberal democracies actually deliver (which is, in fact, limited and restrained majority rule in the name of the people).
Dr Glenn Kefford and Professor Duncan McDonnell, Submission 73, p. 2.
The rising tide of right-wing populism and populist leaders, often displaying authoritarian tendencies, was explored at length. While countries have varying levels of historical populist influence, there was broad agreement that populism, particularly right-wing populism, has grown over recent decades:
Populism is on the rise internationally in the twenty-first century. In some areas of the globe, this growth has been sudden, however, this is not the case in Western Europe…Indeed, countries like France, Italy, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland have had radical right populist parties since the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, countries previously thought immune to radical right populism for historical reasons of association with Fascism such as Germany and Spain, have proven scholars wrong over the last decade.
Hungary and Poland also have stridently populist, increasingly authoritarian right-wing governments.
Populism is not only restricted to the right, or to Europe. India and the Philippines have populist leaders, and in South America populism has been mostly associated with left-wing or left leaning personalities, parties, and governments (for example Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Evo Morales in Bolivia). In Europe, left-wing populist parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain surged as a reaction to the European Debt Crisis.
Simultaneously, as observed in the context of declining trust, voters in some countries are increasingly moving further towards the ideological extremes. Citizens for Democratic Renewal described this issue as voters disengaging from democracy, thereby creating space for the election of those representing increasingly narrow interests:
First, as more of the public becomes more distrustful and invests less interest in, or commitment to democracy – thereby literally 'exiting' the system – our democratic systems become increasingly dominated by those with narrow if not unrepresentative world-views and life-experiences.
Attention has been drawn to candidates representing extreme or conspiratorial views as demonstrating signs of the populist influence on mainstream political parties. An example is provided by the recent success of United States Republican candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won her Georgia seat in the US House of Representatives at the 2020 election. The New Yorker described her as 'an entrepreneur who…expressed a belief in QAnon, a sprawling set of delusional notions centered on the idea that President Trump is leading a fight against a "deep state" engaged in child sex trafficking, cannibalism, and Satan worship'. Greene campaigned that Americans have a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping [paedophiles] out'.
The United Kingdom's exit from the European Unit (Brexit), the 2016 election of President Donald Trump in the United States of America, and growing support for populist leaders globally, were singled out as connected events demonstrative of a broader pattern of disillusionment with 'the mainstream' or 'the status quo':
The rise of populist parties in continental Europe, Britain's Brexit referendum result and the political quagmire it has created, and the largely unforeseen election of Donald Trump to the United States Presidency, are three recent events that have persuaded many observers that Western democracies are in crisis…In mainland Europe, the centre-left and centre-right parties that dominated politics in their countries since World War Two have seen their vote erode, sometimes collapse, as disillusioned voters move further right and left.
Disillusionment was often linked back to declining trust, or declining faith in the ability of politicians and government to solve complex problems. It was linked to perceived economic inequality between citizens and fraying social cohesion. The emergence of populism was attributed to 'a loss of confidence in the ability of nation-states to achieve this balance for their citizens', or a 'rational response' to complex problems at home and abroad such as protracted armed conflict or inequality.
Distinctions were drawn between populist parties and populist sentiment. Mr Sam Roggeveen argued that the rise of populism has been overstated in Western democracies, and is symptomatic of political disengagement. As mainstream political party membership has declined, parties of the centre right and the centre left have all gone into slow and steady decline, and radical elements are 'breaking out':
…in Europe, for instance, where you see the rise of a lot of populist parties on the right, is not so much that populist ideas are becoming more popular; it's just the right-wingers used to be contained and somewhat suppressed within these big centre Right parties. Those parties are becoming weaker and those radical elements that used to sit inside are now breaking out and moving out towards new populist parties.
Rather than a 'radical element' of the right wing, growing right wing populism has also been described as bearing little resemblance to traditional conservatism. In countries with two-party systems that have seen the election of right wing populist leaders in recent times, 'the right is in power, but only by jettisoning the values that used to define it'. Where conservatism has traditionally been associated with pragmatism and a shared sense of belonging through religion, family or community, the populist right has been described as 'zealous, ideological and cavalier with the truth' and 'revolutionary'.
Mr Roggeveen argued that while we have seen rising support for populist parties and leaders, populist ideas have not necessarily taken hold at the global level. Accordingly, populist parties do not 'suddenly have a lock on this vote; they too will suffer from the increasing volatility of voter behaviour'.
Recent election results in the United States of America (US) confirm this volatility. Despite fervent support from a loyal base of voters for populist President Donald Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden won the November 2020 US election and took office in January this year, in accordance with the US constitution. Both the Republicans and the Democrats increased their vote in the election, and President Trump's refusal to concede defeat is regarded as having fuelled a belief among his supporters – despite lack of evidence – that the election result was fraudulent. The anger of Trump supporters spilled over into a riot in Washington DC on 6 January 2021, in which the US Capitol building was stormed and members of the Senate and House of Representatives were threatened. The rioters had previously been addressed by President Trump, who urged them to go to the Capitol and 'fight like hell'. His remark is widely regarded, by many Republicans as well as Democrats, as having been an incitement to insurrection, and the events of 6 January resulted in President Trump being impeached for a second time. Whether most US voters will welcome the return of a 'mainstream' candidate or swing back towards a populist leader at the next remains to be seen. The question may well be determined by the extent to which the new President can rebuild trust between citizens and political institutions and ensure that the system is 'working for them'.
What could growing populism mean for democracy? Dr Glenn Kefford and Professor Duncan McDonnell maintained that populism is not necessarily anti-democratic, and that, 'populists present themselves as the sole true democrats and the sole true defenders of "the real people"', against the 'corrupt elite'. However, populism has proven to encourage distrust of the institutions that are integral to Western liberal democracies, particularly institutions that act as a check on executive power:
…populists often do claim that the checks and balances of liberal democracy - such as independent media and judges, or minority rights – get in the way of the democratic will of the people. Populism therefore proposes what has been termed a type of 'illiberal democracy'.
This has been described as a 'hollowing out of the democratic system from within', evidenced in a number of states, including Poland and Hungary, where elected governments sought to diminish the judiciary, public service and media to entrench their power and reduce accountability.
Civil Liberties Australia described the way in which populist leaders encourage tribalism and, more dangerous still, erode a shared truth or shared reality upon which liberal democracies rely for legitimacy:
Populists reduce governing to rewarding, and pandering to the fears of, their tribe at the expense of the rights of others. But, when everybody says 'trust no one but me', then there can be no trust in political institutions. Parliament cannot check Executive government when Parliament and the Executive no longer agree on a single set of external values or, in many cases, a single set of facts, on which the performance of each can be judged.
Civil Liberties Australia further described the ways in which populist leaders avoid accountability and scrutiny, and erode 'the traditional balanced equivalency between the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary'. Under populist influence, the public service becomes simply a mechanism for implementing partisan policy and judicial flexibility is 'overridden by statute and regulation'.
This is not to say that popular representation or popular engagement with issues is always problematic. The National Museum of Australia reminded the committee that political movements in democratic societies always have a 'popular element' and 'populist forces at play', and this does not have to be to negative effect. For example, the movements for civil and land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the later part of the twentieth century 'were ultimately joined by broadly-based political engagement from across a wide cross-section of Australian society'. With that said, there is broad consensus that Brexit, Trump and growing populism have, in part, contributed to the perception that Western democracies are in crisis.
While populism has increased over the past decades, so too has authoritarianism. Broadly speaking, it may no longer be taken for granted that liberal democratic principles are 'the standard banner for modern nation states'.
Some argued that the perceived competency of authoritarian regimes to act decisively and lift large sections of society out of poverty has contributed to increasing legitimacy. Using China as an example, the New South Wales Law Society suggested that some authoritarian regimes have become 'emboldened under strong economic and rising political success':
With the rise of China and their growing middle class under an authoritarian regime this strikes a contrasting image compared to the sluggish economic growth and development amongst democratic country…Particularly after the 2008 Crisis, the Beijing Consensus and authoritarianism has become a new platform to aspire to.
Meanwhile, declining trust in democracy, and a perception of dysfunctionality has fortified groups that are 'hostile to democratic institutions and practices'. Submitters contrasted the perceived inability of Western liberal democracies to effectively serve the needs of their citizens, with the perceived ability of authoritarian regimes to deliver. The link between declining trust in political institutions in Western liberal democracies and the rise of authoritarian 'strongmen' was articulated thus:
Strong-man authoritarian regimes are increasingly viewed as favourable in democracies because they are seen as more 'effective' in addressing real-world problems, regardless of whether they damage or destroy long established democratic practices and values. The election of Donald Trump as United States President may appear an outlier. But in reality, it can be seen as a mainstreaming of trends which have been developing and coalescing in core democracies over the past two decades.
Rising authoritarianism has long been described as a threat to democracy, and at the international level, we continue to see competition to the global
rules-based order and authoritarian governance. The Department of Home Affairs acknowledged that authoritarian regimes are a real threat to liberal democratic nations, observing that 'some states are refusing to act in ways consistent with international laws and norms, and asserting authoritarian models in opposition to open, democratic governance'.
However, growing authoritarianism and democratic decline do not paint a full picture. In 2020 alone we have seen pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong challenging the Chinese government's move to implement sweeping national security legislation, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully. 2020-2021 has also seen an emboldened pro-democracy movement in Thailand campaigning for constitutional reform, greater protections for rights activists and state critics and curbing of the power of the monarchy. In some countries, citizens continually risk severe criminal penalties in pursuit of democratic reform.
Growing socioeconomic inequality is considered to be a threat to democracy across the globe. Citizens perceive that wealth and opportunity are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, while the majority enjoy little benefit from economic growth. This perceived or actual inequality affects democracy in a number of ways. Citizens who do not feel they are benefitting from economic growth can become mistrustful of political institutions. They are less convinced that the government can solve complex and systemic societal problems. The idea that citizens have equal opportunities to develop and improve their lot, the 'fair go' in Australia or 'the American dream', dissipates, and social cohesion begins to fray:
Most particularly concepts such as the Australian and American Dream, developed to sustain a sense of nationhood and unique identity, have become more difficult to sustain. For the first time in the history of democratic nation states like the USA have begun to see children be less successful than their parents in terms of income.
Dr Tony Ward pointed to research undertaken by the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development that articulated the link between socioeconomic inequality and declining trust in political institutions:
In recent decades, as much as 40% of the population at the lower end of the distribution has benefited little from economic growth in many countries. In some cases, low earners have even seen their incomes fall in real terms. When such a large group in the population gains so little from economic growth, the social fabric frays and trust in institutions is weakened.
The Uniting Church in Australia Assembly and Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Victoria and Tasmania (Uniting Church) drew attention to research findings that those who are deeply distrustful of government and politicians are disproportionately Australians who have 'been left behind economically or are feeling very economically insecure'. The Uniting Church pointed out that a significant proportion of this cohort is on welfare or low incomes, and drew parallels with voters in other Western liberal democracies, arguing that they are 'are increasingly politically alienated and angry just like Trump and Brexit voters'.
Submitters argued socioeconomic inequality has led many to believe that the government does not have the capacity to resolve systemic issues:
More generally, while the winding back of the protective state and elevation of markets might have delivered efficiencies, it has also contributed to eroding public faith in the capacity of government to grapple with serious systemic issues. Economic inequality, low productivity, stagnant wages, housing unaffordability, educational underperformance and anthropogenic climate change come to mind.
In addition to inequality within states at the national level, some submitters highlighted the inequality between states at the international level. The Group of Eight argued that, ‘in a context of rising inequality within nations, economic integration between them has become a terrain of conflict’. The Group of Eight argued that trade liberalisation and lower trade barriers, advanced by the World Trade Organisation, have failed to gain consensus in recent years, with rhetoric of trade wars playing out increasingly on the worlds stage.
Some highlighted Australia’s unique position in the world, with decades of economic growth. Associate Professor Salvatore Babones argued that the Australian experience provides little evidence to support the assertion that socioeconomic equality affects satisfaction with democracy:
Is there a connection between satisfaction with democracy and economic conditions, such as living standards or wages growth? This is often asserted, but there is little empirical evidence of such an association…There is little evidence that economic inequality has any impact on social cohesion or national identity in open societies like Australia.
Inequality has the potential to threaten social cohesion. In order to meaningfully participate in the democratic process, citizens require their basic needs to be met. Socioeconomic inequality is at risk of translating to political inequality, where citizens are unable to meaningfully participate in democracy due to their socioeconomic status. Excluding some people from democratic participation undermines the legitimacy of any regime. People are less likely to be satisfied with the system and less likely to reinforce its legitimacy through participation.
Fraying social cohesion
Social cohesion is integral to nationhood and national identity, 'strength and belief in democracy and the wellbeing and prosperity of our communities'. It goes to the heart of trust between citizens, 'the quality of relationships and connections individuals have within their communities'. One of the many benefits of social cohesion is the provision of a society 'in which individuals are prepared to compromise what they see as their self-interest for continued participation in the larger community'. These compromises are integral to functioning Western liberal democracies. The Australian National University Social Cohesion Team argued that social cohesion is 'threatened by complex national and global events and long run changes in the composition of our societies and economies'. As a result of increasingly diverse societies, social cohesion is fragile in a number of countries around the world.
Social cohesion was described as the antidote to many of the threats to democracy, including declining trust and inequality:
Where based on inclusiveness and respect for diversity, social cohesion can help to promote national identity and trust in government and other institutions, enable economic and social stability and sustainable growth, reduce inequalities, discrimination and conflict between groups (including violent extremism and hate crimes) and reduce the economic costs of crime, security, business transactions and the provision of community, health and welfare services.
Conversely, fraying social cohesion leads to polarisation and division that has the capacity to undermine democracy. Participants linked social cohesion with other indicators of democratic decline, arguing that declining levels of trust between citizens, socioeconomic inequality and exclusive populist rhetoric are all real threats to social cohesion.
Globalisation and immigration
Trust between citizens and institutions is integral to a functioning democracy, as is trust among citizens. Changing patterns of migration accelerated by globalisation, have undoubtedly shaped democracies around the world. While acknowledging the benefits of globalisation, the Institute of Public Affairs described the impact of the global market and immigration on social cohesion:
The creative destruction of the global market can seem, at the local level, like a cyclone beating a path across the suburbs and towns of the West, leaving once settled lives in pieces. And rapid population growth driven by immigration can have an unsettling impact on our cities by increasing competition for work, overburdening infrastructure, and destabilising widespread customs.
The rapid integration of global markets has been described as undermining social cohesion within states, and particularly destabilising in the presence of existing inequality:
In combination with new information and communication technologies, the automation of work, high levels of immigrations and government' laissez-faire attitudes towards social integration, [globalisation] eroded the ties that bind people of a nation to one another.
Others drew attention to the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, particularly where citizens perceive that the benefits of immigration are not shared by all, or certain cohorts in a host country are disadvantaged by immigrants. Some participants made links between anti-immigration sentiment and the rise of right-wing populism. Professor James Curran argued:
Although the reasons behind the emergence of populist movements in these countries need to be understood and explained on their own terms, their figureheads are giving voice to a common set of grievances: most particularly over the unevenly shared spoils of globalisation and fears that immigration and multiculturalism are diluting a national 'essence'.
In the absence of long term strategies aimed at carefully managing the impacts of immigration, resentment between citizens may flourish, and risk being fuelled or exploited. The Australian Historical Association highlighted the importance of managing the challenges of diversity and demographic and social change, explaining that:
…historical scholarship shows that the challenges of nationhood have shifted in the context of globalisation and mass migration. Rather than projecting an ideal of cultural homogeneity, nations have increasingly been called on to manage the diversity within their societies and to articulate plural interests in civic and international domains defined by the rule of law and the recognition of human rights. There have been many recent examples of the ways in which a nationalistic populism has gained traction when the dynamics of globalisation are not well managed by national policy responses.
Dr Robert Walters and Dr Matt Harvey argued that 'migration-related social cohesion must indeed rely on a coherent policy framework' with comprehensive practical measures related to employment, education and housing. Intentional efforts are needed to foster positive perceptions between immigrants and those in the host country. Telling a positive story about migration and reinforcing the benefits for 'host states' may go some ways to ensuring trust between citizens. As one submitter articulated, accepting and accommodating diversity is the key to social cohesion:
To the contrary, we see understanding and acceptance of difference, diversity and multiple identities as reinforcing of social cohesion. The key to social cohesion and national identity is the acceptance and accommodation of difference and diversity, as opposed to their denial or suppression.
COVID-19 and democracy
The COVID-19 crisis has affected the whole globe, and it is too early to gauge the longer-term impact of the pandemic. However, early observations include that the virus has necessitated a willingness to sacrifice personal liberties to ensure public health and safety. COVID-19 has required citizens to put a great deal of trust in politicians, governments and experts. The pandemic has provided insights about nationhood and democracy, against a backdrop of international trends such as declining political trust and fraying social cohesion.
Participants proposed that COVID-19 has exposed truths about democracy. Authoritarian regimes perceived as more effective at 'getting the job done' and delivering outcomes for the citizens have not necessarily fared well:
The biggest lesson from the pandemic is that it has destroyed growing claims that authoritarian regimes are better positioned to address crisis and govern more broadly – due to their ability to act swiftly and decisively. The pandemic has revealed the weakness and ineptitude of many authoritarian regimes, from Tajikistan to Tanzania to Turkey.
However, some leading democratic states, which have until recent years been considered the great world powers, have not necessarily fared much better. While COVID-19 has not necessarily caused the demise of political parties and leaders, it appears, at least, to have exposed and accelerated the decline of some:
The failures of many of global democracy's perceived 'leading lights' – particularly the USA and UK, but also countries like Sweden – has further tarnished their democratic reputations, which have been damaged for years now by the rise of authoritarian populist governance and political forces.
World leaders have been tested and subjected to the same measures of success – the ability to provide adequate healthcare and services, stem the spread of the virus, and prevent the deaths of their citizens. Some argued that the pandemic 'laid bare the global failure of populism'. Populist leaders have not avoided scrutiny and judgement in their handling the pandemic. Indeed, there has been speculation that President Donald Trump's 2020 election loss was due, in large part, to his poor handling of the pandemic and the hundreds of thousands of deaths and recorded cases of COVID-19 in the US.
Some authoritarian regimes have used COVID-19 to further cement their grip on power. Participants cautioned that populist governments may seek 'to take advantage of the crisis to suppress the opposition or increase their powers, especially as the world is focused on other things'. While incompetence has been exposed, some opportunistic governments have 'pounced on the crisis to further expand, and dismantle any remaining checks on, their power – accelerating an existing pattern of serious democratic decay'. Hungary was singled out as a prime example, with the head of state 'empowered to rule by decree, aided by unconstitutional extension of the emergency'.
The importance of political leadership is undeniable. This crisis, however, has arguably exposed underlying weaknesses within states that existed long before COVID-19. For example, the Australian Human Rights Council suggested that Singapore has experienced a second wave that may have been avoided but for the nation's policies of excluding migrant workers:
After bringing the spread of COVID-19 under control early in the pandemic, Singapore experienced a second wave that originated within its population of temporary migrant workers. This can be clearly attributed to the Singapore Government’s failure to include them in the initial COVID response and to long-standing policies that exclude migrant workers from the labour rights protections available to citizen workers.
International IDEA proposed that fault lines emerging as a result of the pandemic are less to do with democratic versus authoritarian governance and more closely related to state capacity. Access to quality healthcare, transparency, and existing levels of institutional trust may explain why some 'authoritarian regimes that have come out well with high trust, like Vietnam, but then on the other hand are the examples mentioned to the contrary'.
Democracy 2025 argued that the existing level of economic inequality was the key factor impacting how communities responded to COVID-19-related lockdowns, a factor which will also determine how well countries fare in the recovery process:
We know that all of those countries that are experiencing very significant civil disobedience problems are economies that were really badly hit by the global financial crisis, where the gap between rich and poor has increased very significantly and where there has been a reluctance to engage in public investment and there were very clear winners and losers…In my view, one of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 is the importance of giving every citizen human dignity. But the key bunfight now is going to be in the recovery process, because that's when the politics hits: who gets what, where and when?
The story for Australia has been positive in many respects. Witnesses suggested that, in particular, the pandemic highlighted the importance of transparency in relation to decision making. Some were hopeful that lessons could be learned from COVID-19 for the purpose of addressing issues like declining trust. Civil Liberties Australia suggested that the Australian response could serve as 'a case study for rebuilding the public trust that has been reduced by the rise of populism in Australian politics and that continues to damage our political institutions':
[T]he public health response to the pandemic's first wave in Australia demonstrated the value of agreeing to a common context for decisions and making sure that the political conversation is mediated by third party experts. The response showed that, at that moment, our democracy was committed, and accountable, to us. Australians responded with trust.
While the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on democracy will take years to crystallise, the narratives emerging are that domestic context matters and state capacity is significant. Countries with adequate existing levels of trust, equality and social cohesion appear to have fared better than those without. Similarly, governments and leaders have been judged on their ability to ensure citizens' access to quality healthcare and to slow the spread of the virus. Existing domestic states of play mattered and the ability of governments to protect the health of their citizens was a key determinant of their perceived success. COVID-19, to some, has provided an 'opportunity for democratic renewal and innovation'.
The question remains whether enhanced trust in government during the pandemic will endure beyond it. According to a study published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration, and reported in January 2021 in The Mandarin, 80 per cent of respondents believed government was 'generally trustworthy', compared with only 49 per cent in a similar study a decade ago. But, as Professor Shaun Goldfinch, of Curtin University, who conducted the survey, noted:
Because the research was conducted during a global pandemic, the findings may not signal a long-term change in trust in government, which may return to previous levels when, and if, the crisis passes.
Australia's place in the world
The Scanlon Foundation research shows that Australians think differently from citizens in other countries about the challenges set out in the terms of reference. Any national response to these challenges, while not ignoring global trends, should be built, above all, on how Australians perceive their lives, the state of their country, and its place in the world.
Scanlon Foundation, Submission 115, p. 1.
Global trends are instructive, but to what extent are they reflected in the Australian experience? Some argued that the Australian experience aligns with the international trends, highlighting declining trust in political institutions, rising economic inequality, and fraying social cohesion. Others posited that unique conditions in Australia have meant we have been largely resilient to the worrying indicators of democratic decline that characterise the experiences of comparable Western liberal democracies.
The University of Western Australian emphasised that Australia 'has so far been less touched by the emergence of populist politics than many other Western democracies', arguing that steady economic growth, strong electoral institutions and state funded services distinguish Australia from our Western liberal democratic comparators. Others hypothesised we have seen a limited rise in support for populism because, 'our elites haven't failed on the scale that they have in the United States or in Europe' rather than any special feature of the Australian system.
Regardless of the extent to which Australia has been impacted by these indicators of democratic decline, messages of caution and reflection were common. The Scanlon Foundation warned:
Australia cannot consider itself immune from these tectonic shifts, since its history, structures of government and defining political ideas all emerge from the same Western tradition…Nevertheless, it is wise to be cautious. Australia is not the United States or Britain, let alone mainland Europe. Despite Prime Ministerial churn, the Scanlon Foundation surveys do not support the claim of a drastic decline in political trust or democracy in Australia over the past five years, as is said to be occurring in Europe and other high-income countries.
Committee members are united in our shared concern regarding threats to democratic systems and norms around the world. Indicators of healthy democracies, including trust and social cohesion have steadily declined in many countries over recent decades. At the same time, the global rules-based order continues to face significant challenges.
Populists and autocrats seek to take advantage of existing dissatisfaction and disillusionment of citizens who are looking for solutions to the very real problems they face in their lives. Populists offer simple solutions such as, ban immigration, wage war on drugs, and raise trade tariffs. However, simple solutions will not solve complex problems.
COVID-19 has exposed great weaknesses in populist administrations. Wealthy nations run by populist leaders who ignored public health advice and evidence-based approaches have had many more deaths than some poorer nations with less robust health infrastructure.
There is reason to hope that ultimately leaders in democracies will be judged by long-established standards. How healthy and safe are citizens? Do they perceive their lives are getting better or worse? Are benefits enjoyed by many or few? In the long term, populism offers little but cynicism and polarisation.
However, the committee wishes to heed the warning that democratic values, institutions and norms can no longer be taken for granted as the model for modern nation states. Advancing democracy at the international level and within states requires concerted effort and strategy. There is a role for governments and parliaments in rebuilding trust in political institutions, and enacting policies to ensure that all people feel enriched rather than threatened by globalisation and immigration.
This chapter has provided the international context for the chapters that follow, which concentrate on Australia–our nation, our people, our democracy and our democratic institutions.