Australian citizens are free; our parliament is a strong custodian of democratic values; our liberty is the envy of our region; and our system of justice is robust and fair. The guardians of our security—the police and defence service—are trusted and in the main, subject to democratic, legal control. We also have a
world-ranked public service that is an impartial steward of public trust; our cities are amongst the most liveable in the world; against all the odds Australia's Indigenous communities maintain a proud identity; and, our media is brave and honest.
These beliefs and practices, however, are increasingly threatened.
Democracy 2025, Submission 98, p. 2.
On 29 July 2019 a motion to refer an inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee was passed by the Senate. The motion was co-signed by the Chair and Deputy Chair of the committee, Senator the Hon Kim Carr, and Senator Amanda Stoker.
The referral tasked the committee with inquiring into:
Nationhood, national identity and democracy, with particular reference to:
the changing notions of nationhood, citizenship and modern notions of the nation state in the twenty first century;
rights and obligations of citizenship, including naturalisation and revocation, and the responsibility of the state to its citizens in both national and international law;
social cohesion and cultural identity in the nation state;
the role that globalisation and economic interdependence and economic development plays in forming or disrupting traditional notions of national identity;
contemporary notions of cultural identity, multiculturalism and regionalism;
the extent to which nation states balance domestic imperatives and sovereignty and international obligations;
comparison between Australian public debate and policy and international trends; and
any other related matters.
The referral was indicative of a bipartisan recognition that governments in strong liberal democracies such as Australia must not take that strength for granted. Historically low levels of public trust and satisfaction with government are a cause for concern. The challenges of 'fake news', misinformation and conspiracy theories must be faced head on. Governments and democratic institutions need to explore innovative ways to re-engage Australians in their democracy.
Discussions about constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians have reignited debates around Australia's past, present and future, and the notion of truth and healing. This has led to calls from many for a redefinition of official constructs of Australia's national identity, but not all Australians agree.
Changes in law allowing dual citizens to be stripped of their Australian citizenship for certain conduct, and recent cases, such as the Love and Thoms High Court cases, have led to discussions around citizenship, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. These, and broader issues of citizenship and nationhood, give context to the inquiry.
Australia has a great migrant tradition. We pride ourselves on being a peaceful, socially cohesive multicultural nation. But is this view shared by everyone? Are we as tolerant as we believe? Are our current policy approaches the right ones? The committee sought to explore these issues more deeply, seeking both empirical data and input from diverse perspectives.
The terms of reference asked submitters to consider the health of Australia's democracy, and the reasons for falling trust and satisfaction; as well as to provide suggestions for ways to turn the tide. Submitters addressed these issues with generosity and creativity.
The unforeseen occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the inquiry. Governments around the world have handled COVID-19 in differing ways, with contrasting results. The political fall-out from these decisions is only just beginning to become apparent.
In Australia, restrictive measures put in place by governments to slow the spread of the virus had implications for democracy. These measures tested the trust and faith of Australians in our governments, and put pressure on democratic institutions including parliaments and the federation. The committee sought evidence on COVID-19 as it relates to the terms of reference, and that evidence is reflected in this report.
Conduct of the inquiry
On 28 August 2019 the committee called for submissions from the public, and published a discussion paper to guide submitters in responding to the broad terms of reference. The initial discussion paper is available on the committee's website.
The committee also wrote to a wide range of organisations and individuals to invite them to make a submission, in response to the terms of reference and the initial discussion paper. The committee called for submissions to be received by 30 September 2019.
Accounting for the impact of COVID-19 upon the terms of reference and conduct of the inquiry, the committee extended the reporting deadline, and published a second discussion paper. The committee invited submissions and supplementary submissions in response to the second discussion paper by 30 August 2020. The COVID-19 discussion paper is available on the committee's website.
The committee accepted 210 submissions. It also received approximately 250 Uluru Statement from the Heart form letters and selected 30 that represent a cross-section of views and perspectives from across Australia for publication. Submissions are listed in Appendix 1.
Two roundtable hearings were held in Canberra featuring academics, representatives of organisations, and social commentators on 7 and 14 February 2020 (See Figure 1.1).
On 13 November 2020 the committee held a further public hearing in Canberra. A list of witnesses who appeared at the roundtables and public hearing is at Appendix 2.
Structure of the report
The report has six chapters.
Chapter 1. Introduction.
Provides background to the referral and outlines the conduct of the inquiry, then provides some brief introductory comments on the history of democracy in Australia.
Chapter 2. Nationhood and democracy: International trends.
Discusses the international context for the inquiry; looks at evidence around populism, right-wing nationalism, democratic decline and increasing authoritarianism, and considers how COVID-19 has impacted upon global democracy. The chapter also considers the results of recent international elections, and other global events, and asks the question: Where does Australia fit into this world?
Figure 1.1: Nationhood roundtable, 14 February 2020, Main Committee Room, Parliament House, Canberra
Source: David Foote, Auspic,
Chapter 3. The Australian nation: Our history, our identities, our future.
Considers different constructions of Australia's 'national story', and how this has changed over time. Considers the issue of 'national identity' and characteristics of Australia as a nation. Looks at First Nations' perspectives on Australia's history, calls for constitutional change and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Acknowledges Australia's migrant history and preservation of migrant stories. Looks at history teaching, and the teaching of civics in Australia. This chapter finishes by considering whether the time may be right for an official change in the way Australian national identity is constructed.
Chapter 4: Citizenship, culture and religion, social cohesion.
Discusses the history and definition of Australian citizenship, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and the issue of revocation. Looks at the treatment of non-citizens and the notion of 'global citizenship'. Considers evidence around social cohesion, languages, and multiculturalism, as well as discussing racism, intolerance and 'identity politics'. Considers the impacts of the pandemic of social cohesion. The chapter includes discussion of proposals around defining and protecting citizenship, building social cohesion, and reviewing policy approaches to multiculturalism.
Chapter 5: Australia's democracy: Trust, satisfaction and belief.
Analyses a wide range of evidence around declining trust and satisfaction in politics and political institutions, and theories explaining the declines. Looks at the impacts of the pandemic on trust and satisfaction in government and democratic institutions. Considers evidence around the role of the media, social media, 'fake news' and conspiracy theories. The chapter finishes with discussion of proposals in two areas: implementing integrity measures to increase trust in politicians and officials; and increasing citizen engagement in decision-making. Reforms relating to Australia's democratic institutions are discussed in Chapter 6.
Chapter 6: Democratic institutions: Building strength and resilience.
The final chapter considers evidence regarding the health and vitality of some of Australia's most fundamental democratic institutions. It discusses the functionality and strength of the federal parliament, the independence, expertise and professionalism of the public service, and the perceived decline of Australia's major political parties. The performance of Australia's federal system is discussed in relation to COVID‑19 and the process of federation reform springing from the replacement of the Council of Australian Governments with the National Cabinet. Australia's cultural institutions, museums, libraries, galleries and universities are also discussed, as key institutions within the liberal democratic structure. The chapter includes discussion of proposals for reform.
Comments on Australia's democratic history
[I]f democracy were a sport, Australia would be Olympic champions. We are one of only a handful of democracies around the world that has had a seamless and peaceful transition between governments since Federation.
Mrs Daryl Karp, Director, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Committee Hansard, 7 February 2020, p. 6.
Australia has a long and diverse history, with at least 60,000 years of occupation by the oldest continuing culture on earth. At the point of colonisation there were more than 500 nations, with distinctive cultures and languages and deep spiritual connection to the lands and waters. First Nations had their own languages, laws and customs, as well as ancient songs and ceremonies connecting nations via kinship protocols.
Australia has a democratic history of which Australians can be proud. When Australia's colonial parliaments were established in the 1850s, they were among 'the most radical in the world'. White adult males in the colonies quickly gained the vote in lower house elections, regardless of their financial means or whether they owned property. Elections were held on Saturdays, increasing the ability of working citizens to participate, and by secret ballot.
In a democratic world-first, the colony of Victoria began paying representatives of parliament in 1856, meaning you no longer had to be 'a person of substantial means to participate and be a representative in our democracy'.
In the 1890s South Australia became the first jurisdiction in the world where women could vote and run for office. Then, in 1902, one year after federation, the new Australian parliament passed legislation providing white women Australia-wide with the right to both vote and to stand for federal office. Author, historian and television broadcaster, Dr Clare Wright submitted that the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 meant Australian women were now 'the most fully enfranchised in the world'. However, the same Act, Dr Wright wrote, 'disenfranchised' all First Nations Australians by excluding them from the body politic. This reflected, inter alia, a presumption that there had been no 'government' or 'systems of governance' on the Australian continent before Europeans arrived.
In the process of creating the nation of Australia and the federal government, the framers of the Australian Constitution 'were aware of the varied constitutions of Canada, Switzerland and the United States of America'. Taking elements from Europe and the US system, Mr Nicholas Reece from the University of Melbourne, described the design of Australia's system of government, with its relationship between the states and Commonwealth, as 'best in class'. Mr Reece said the framers:
…synthesised them, came up with some innovations of our own, and basically designed the best system in the world. We also have the quirk of compulsory voting—something which I think most Australians still support to this day. We established institutions like an independent electoral authority and institutions of government which still serve us well today.
First Nations Australians were to be given equal voting rights in Australia much later. The first step was the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949. This Act gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in Commonwealth elections if they were either enfranchised under a state law, or had served as member of the defence forces. At that stage, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania allowed Aboriginal people to enrol and vote; Queensland did not; and Western Australia and the Northern Territory provided voting rights on a conditional basis to some Aboriginal people.
Following the publication of the report of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines in 1961, the Parliament passed the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962, which gave all Aboriginal Australians the option of enrolling to vote at Commonwealth elections, without making enrolment compulsory. First Nations voters received 'formal equality' in relation to Commonwealth elections in 1983 with the passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983, which made voting in Commonwealth elections compulsory for First Nations Australians, in the same way as for other Australians.
The first women elected to the federal parliament were Dame Dorothy Tangney, elected to the Senate in 1943, who served until 1968, and Dame Enid Lyons, elected to the House of Representatives in 1943, who served until 1951.
The first First Nations Australian elected to the federal parliament was Neville Bonner AO. Elected to the Senate in 1971, Senator Bonner served until 1983. The first First Nations Australian elected to the House of Representatives was the Hon Ken Wyatt MP, elected in 2010. Mr Wyatt made history as the first First Nations member of the federal executive and the first Minister for Indigenous Australians who is Indigenous.
Linda Burney MP is the first First Nations female member of the House of Representatives, elected in 2016. Nova Peris OAM was the first female First Nations senator, serving from 2013 to 2016.
Since these 'firsts', a number of other members and senators who are, or are descended from First Nations Peoples have served in the Parliament of Australia, including Mr David Kennedy, Ms Joanna Lindgren, and Mr Aden Ridgeway.
Notable examples include Senator Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru man from Broome in Western Australia. Senator Dodson has previously served as inaugural chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, co-chair of the Expert Panel for Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, and co-chair of the National Referendum Council. Since entering the parliament in 2016, Senator Dodson has served in the position of Shadow Assistant Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
The number of members of Parliament who are, or are descended from, First Nations Peoples has continued to increase in recent elections. As well as Senator Dodson, Mr Wyatt and Ms Burney, other members of the 46th Parliament include Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator Lidia Thorpe and Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Myths and realities of Australian democracy
A vigorous democracy requires more than voting in periodic elections. There must also be a shared understanding among those who vote that no one is excluded from the opportunities the nation has to offer.
When the six Australian colonies federated in 1901, this country was widely seen as a great progressive social laboratory in which the inequalities of the old world were being overcome. That view ignored all those who had no place in the new Commonwealth: the First Nations peoples who had been dispossessed and anyone shut out by the race-based immigration law.
Nonetheless, many features of Australian life in the Federation period, such as an adjudicated 'living wage', did conform to the image of Australia as an egalitarian society. Australians thought of themselves as living in the land of 'the fair go', and that belief is still strongly entrenched. The social reality underpinning it, however, has frayed.
As the Australian Council of Social Service points out in its report Inequality in Australia 2020, there is a stark gap 'between the few who have a great deal and the many who are struggling to get by with very little'.
In Australia today, the report notes, 'someone in the highest 20 per cent of the income scale lives in a household with almost six times as much income in the lowest 20 per cent of the income scale'.
The causes of inequality are complex, but two stand out: long-term low wages growth, and a decline in the availability of secure work. Increasingly, many Australians depend on precarious casual work to survive. This trend has been clearly apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic but was already present beforehand, and has been associated with technological changes in the workplace and shifts in global trade.
In Australia as in other democracies, many people now believe that 'the system' no longer works for them. The result has been a social fragmentation in which people feel increasingly isolated from traditional associations that once anchored them to the wider society: political parties, faith communities, and clubs and organisations of all kinds.
That in turn has made them vulnerable, especially in an age of social media, to manipulation by extremists of the right and the left. This has fuelled the rise of populist movements and, in some countries, populist governments.
In Australia, some of those who were excluded from the benefits of being Australian in 1901 are still denied a full share in the opportunities their fellow citizens take for granted. Every Closing the Gap report presented to the federal parliament testifies to the continuing effects of the dispossession of First Nations Australians.
This report acknowledges the enduring successes of Australian democracy. It is equally important, however, to understanding the social changes that have posed new challenges to democratic participation and stability.