[W]e shouldn't forget that, in relative terms, Australia still has a gold standard democracy. I think we have certainly been the subject of some worrying drift in recent times, and we've heard data that I think proves that. But we still have an outstanding democracy, and we got that outstanding democracy because people, like the people in this room, cared enough to create a system which was a beacon for the world, and we can do that again if we're prepared and committed and brave enough to make some changes.
Mr Nicholas Reece, Director of Strategy Policy and Projects, University of Melbourne, Committee Hansard, 7 February 2020, p. 12.
How do Australians feel about our democracy? How do we feel about politics? Do we feel connected to the political process? Do we feel empowered or disempowered by it? Do we feel represented? Do we feel heard? Do Australians believe that democracy works for us? Do we think there's another system that could work better? Are there changes we would like to see made to the way our democracy functions?
How can politicians earn our trust? What is the role of the traditional media and social media? Of truth and 'fake news'? What integrity measures do Australians want to see?
Do all Australian have equal access when it comes to engaging with the political process? Do Australians want to be more engaged in making decisions about how the country is run? Or do we just want better decisions? What would this look like?
This chapter looks at trust, satisfaction and belief. It weighs up evidence on declining levels of trust and satisfaction with democracy in Australia, identifies causes for these declines, and explores possible remedies. Solutions explored in this chapter relate to:
the behaviour and integrity of politicians, political communication, accountability and transparency; and
building civic engagement through improving equity and access, utilising direct and deliberative democratic processes, and better engaging young people.
Discussion of political institutions, including political parties and the parliament, is in Chapter 6.
How Australians feel about our democracy
There is mixed evidence about how Australians feel about our democracy. The data is complex, and COVID-19 has complicated it further. There are major differences in research methods and survey methodologies employed in different studies, and these lead to differing results.
All studies and surveys looked at during the inquiry showed a decline in trust and satisfaction leading up to 2019, but the degree and nature of the decline varies. Some suggest a downward trend, others show satisfaction and trust going up and down over the course of the last 10 to 15 years, suggesting it is more cyclical. Surveys conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic show a sizable spike in trust and satisfaction with the performance of governments, but inquiry participants warned this may well be temporary.
This section contrasts different perspectives, some more optimistic, and some more pessimistic, and considers different research methodologies. It compares and analyses evidence from a number of sources on:
trust in politicians and governments;
satisfaction with the performance of governments; and
belief in democracy as a system of government.
During the inquiry, the committee brought together people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines at its roundtables and public hearing. Some of the participants expressed divergent views on what the available data and surveys indicate about the health of Australia's democracy and how Australians feel about government. Some questioned the methodology of certain surveys; some questioned the way in which data were being used and compared; and some interpreted the same data in more or less positive ways than other participants.
Some inquiry participants in the first roundtable felt that there were two distinct 'camps' of thought – the 'optimists' and the 'pessimists'. Dr Jonathan Cole from Charles Sturt University said:
We're in the optimists' camp, but it's a qualified optimism; it's not as bullish as some of the opinions here, but we're certainly not in the pessimistic camp. While, on the one hand, we certainly recognise and acknowledge the research that has been done that shows a growing sense among the Australian people that their democracy is under threat and growing dissatisfaction, the operative word here is 'sense'. It's not clear, in our view, to what extent we're dealing with perception here versus actuality. Perception doesn't always correlate to actuality, and there's plenty of research that shows this…
Dr Sarah Cameron from the ANU Australian Election Study said it is critical to look at how surveys are conducted. Dr Cameron argued that 'online opt-in surveys…aren't representative', and surveys that use landlines or mobile phone numbers make it 'very difficult to get a random sample of the population'. The Australian Election Study, by contrast is a 'scientific study of elections and voter opinion in Australia', with a long, continuous history, a 'representative public opinion survey'.
The Scanlon Foundation was critical of methodology employed in surveys by Democracy 2025, and cautioned overreliance on its data, saying these surveys were based on a 'non-probability sample of the population'. The Scanlon Foundation argued its surveys, and the Lowy Institute Poll, as 'probability-based random samples of the Australian population', constitute 'a better indication of Australian opinion on these questions'. Democracy 2025 describes its surveys as 'representative'.
Professor Greg Melleuish from the University of Wollongong was critical of what he saw as the 'pessimistic' views of other participants in the inquiry. He submitted his own analysis of data from the Australian Election Study, which is discussed after Figure 5.4, further on in this section.
Trust in politicians and 'the government'
A majority of Australians do not trust politicians. All data sources found low levels of trust in politicians and 'the government'. Democracy 2025 submitted that, in 2019 only 21.1 per cent of Australians trusted their politicians. The Scanlon Foundation's results were slightly better: 29 per cent in 2018 agreed 'the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing for the Australian people…almost always' or 'most of the time'. It was 27 per cent in 2013.
According to Democracy 2025, 48 per cent of Australians distrust government ministers. Trust for local members (31 per cent trust their member 'a little bit') and local councillors (29 per cent trust them 'a little bit') is marginally better. In comparison, respondents report high levels of trust in general practitioners (81 per cent) and judges (55 per cent), and trust in the public service is higher than it is for politicians, at 38 per cent. Only journalists and trade unionists are at levels of trust close to as low as for politicians, at 31 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. Only one in five respondents trust political parties. Those who support 'established political parties' tend to be more trusting of political institutions, but 'the size of this cohort is rapidly decreasing (from 72 per cent in 1987 to 36 per cent in 2019'.
Demographic factors play a role in levels of trust. The University of Western Australia (UWA) submitted 2017 analysis of Scanlon data by Professor Andrew Markus in which he observed that levels of trust are significantly different by socioeconomic status (See Figure 5.1). UWA concluded that 'the state of the economy and distribution of wealth is a significant factor is trust in government'. Mrs Daryl Karp, Director of the Museum of Australian Democracy, also noted that Australia has a 'particularly high' trust-gap between 'the informed public and the masses'.
Figure 5.1: Levels of trust in government by socioeconomic status
UWA, Submission 20, [p. 5], based on Professor Andrew Markus's analysis of Scanlon Foundation data, 2017.
Professor Markus noted that support for a 'major change or replacement of Australia's system of government' was 68 per cent for those with lower socioeconomic status, 46 per cent for those 'just getting along' (average), and 27 per cent for those who were 'prosperous' or 'very comfortable'.
Professor Markus compared political trust in Canada, which was 67 per cent in 2017, with Australia, which the Scanlon Foundation put at 48 per cent in the same year.
Democracy 2025 sourced its data for 1996 to 2013 from the Australian Election Study, conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) for elections from 1969 to 2019, and the data for 2016 and 2018 from its own research. Democracy 2025 maintained this data shows a downward trend in trust (see Figure 5.2). If this trend continues, by 2025 'fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions'.
Figure 5.2: Trust in politicians in Australia (per cent)
Democracy 2025, Submission 98, p. 3.
The committee notes that spikes of trust in 1996 and 2007, as shown in Figure 5.2, suggest that trust has fluctuated, and complicate the idea of a downward trend.
The Scanlon Foundation was critical about the methodology used by Democracy 2025 in relation to its 2016 and 2018 data, saying the Democracy 2025 report 'was based on a non-probability sample of the population and is an inferior methodology' [compared to the Scanlon and Lowy Poll's probability-based polling methods].
In contrast to the suggestion made by Democracy 2025 that trust was on a downward trend, the Scanlon Foundation submitted that, while survey data confirms low trust in government, 'the major decline in trust occurred between 2009 and 2010. Since 2013, there has been a period of relative stability'.
Dr Cameron reported the results of the Australian Election Study, saying trust in government reached its 'lowest level on record' in 2019, with records covering 50 years (Figure 5.4), and satisfaction with democracy was 'at its lowest level since the 1970s', during the Whitlam dismissal. Figure 5.5 shows that just under 60 per cent of voters reported being satisfied with democracy in 2019.
Dr Cameron observed that in 2007 (as shown in Figure 5.5), Australians were 'among the most satisfied democrats in the world', with 86 per cent of citizens surveyed expressing satisfaction with their democracy. This figure is comparable to 'countries in northern Europe like Norway and Switzerland' (see Figure 5.3). Analysis of the graph in Figure 5.5 shows that the 2007 result was historically high, with averages closer to 70 per cent.
Figure 5.3: Satisfaction with democracy in OECD countries
Source: Satisfaction with democracy in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister, Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987–2019, p. 15.
Figure 5.4: Trust in government, Australian Election Study, 1969 to 2019
Source: Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister, Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987–2019, p. 99.
Figure 5.5: Satisfied with democracy, Australian Election Study, 1969 to 2019
Source: Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister, Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987–2019, p. 98.
Dr Cameron maintained the data indicates 'a steep decline in these indicators of trust over a reasonably short period of time', and that this 'is a new development in Australian politics'.
Professor Melleuish submitted an alternative analysis of the graph in Figure 5.2. He noted there are large gaps in the data, which does not include what he called 'the crucial 1975 election'. While it includes the 1993 election, with trust at 34 per cent, no other elections during the Hawke/Keating era are included in the data. Professor Melleuish concluded:
There was a drop during the Howard years followed by an increase to 43 per cent in 2007 followed by a decline since that time. The current level of 25 per cent is not that much lower than the 29 per cent of 1979…Incumbency, in the case of John Howard appears to have led to decreased trust…There has been a decline in trust since 2007 and it can be speculated that this is related to the instability in political leadership…gaps in the data means that there is no clear pattern, primarily because we simply do not know the pattern regarding trust in government during the Hawke/Keating years.
The Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security & Governance reported on the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found Australia 'has an overall distrusting population'. The Edelman Barometer found only one in five Australians believes that 'the system is working for them', and 47 per cent of respondents distrust both government and the media. The barometer also found that 'trust inequality, or the gap between the informed public and the mass population, is at a record high'.
The Lowy Institute Poll findings for 2019 were as follows:
'confidence' in Prime Minister Scott Morrison was 58 per cent;
confidence in former Opposition leader Bill Shorten was 52 per cent;
support for democracy was 'stable', with 65 per cent of Australians saying 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government';
22 per cent said 'in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable'; and
12 per cent said 'for someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have'; and finally
a 'strong majority of Australians' (70 per cent) were 'very' or 'fairly' satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia.
The committee notes the difference between the results of the Australian election study, which found 59 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the way democracy is working (Figure 5.4), and the 2019 Lowy Poll, which found 70 per cent were satisfied (in the same year).
The committee suggests that reasons for the difference may be related to both survey methods and the subject matter of the polls. The Lowy Poll is focussed on international relations, setting up a contrast between Australia and other countries. This may lead respondents to look more favourably upon Australia. The Australian Election Study, on the other hand, is focussed on the domestic political context, and as such, may encourage more critically-reflective responses in relation to questions about politics and democracy.
The impacts of the pandemic
I think the public has rewarded leadership that has taken this seriously…the public has everywhere rewarded collaboration by the government. They have rewarded transparency and openness in communication. I think we are moving from an era of strongman leaders to leadership of care and empathy…
Ms Leena Rikkila Tamang, International IDEA, Committee Hansard, 13 November 2020, p. 36.
Evidence indicates the pandemic has led to a significant increase in trust and satisfaction towards Australia's politicians and governments. But inquiry participants warned this may not be sustained once the pandemic moves from 'crisis mode' to 'recovery mode'.
The Director of Democracy 2025, Professor Mark Evans, said:
In the short term, we're experiencing the highest levels of trust in the Commonwealth government that we've experienced for 11 years. Political trust in federal government has literally doubled between the Australian Election Study in 2019 and this moment. So we are experiencing high levels of political trust in Australia and high levels of the belief that the Australian government has been very effective in addressing COVID-19. So there's big support in favour of Australia exercising effective governance. It is particularly strong in comparison with the other countries that we looked at: the US, Italy, and the UK. Interestingly enough—and this is probably the most interesting finding—Australia is a far less politically polarised society than those three countries.
Democracy 2025 surveyed 1059 Australians aged 18 to 75 between May and June 2020. The survey was also conducted in Italy, the UK and the United States so comparisons could be made. The results indicate trust in the federal government and the public service almost doubled compared with 2019, as shown in Figure 5.7.
Figure 5.6: Political trust during COVID-19 according to Democracy 2025
Source: Democracy 2025, Report No 7: Political trust and democracy in times of coronavirus: Is Australia still the lucky country? (tabled 13 November 2020), p. 4
The 2020 Lowy Institute Poll reported:
Six in ten Australians express confidence in Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (60%) and in Opposition leader Anthony Albanese (58%).
In April 2020, nine in ten Australians (93%) say Australia has handled the COVID-19 pandemic very or somewhat well so far. A third (31%) say China has handled the outbreak well, and only 10% say the United States has handled it well so far.
Many Australians are unimpressed with the UK's handling of COVID‑19, with only 30% of the respondents to COVID poll saying the UK has done very or fairly well so far.
The Department of Home Affairs submitted that Australians are reporting 'high levels of satisfaction' with the COVID-19 response. The department relied on the Lowy data, saying 93 per cent say 'Australia has handled the COVID-19 outbreak very or fairly well compared with other countries', and that a majority of Australians believe chief medical officers, state and territory governments and the Commonwealth government are 'doing a good job', with 92 per cent, 86 per cent and 82 per cent respectively agreeing.
The department suggested these results are due to Australia's 'open system of government, built on transparency and accountability', which has helped to build trust in our democratic 'institutions and processes' during the pandemic:
Government's transparency around COVID-19 data and information sharing has been critical to the success of Australia's response. Through regular press briefings, government websites, the COVID-19 app and WhatsApp channel, the Australian Government has enhanced the delivery of factual information to Australians, and countered misinformation and disinformation.
While agreeing that the Australian government has generally handled the pandemic well, International IDEA noted that there have been disproportionately negative impacts on women and young people, and that the crisis 'raised additional concerns regarding restrictions on parliamentary activity'.
Democracy 2025 observed that trust in social media has fallen very slightly during the pandemic from the already low level of 20 per cent to 19 per cent, while trust in television and newsprint has risen significantly – from 32 per cent to 39 per cent, and 29 per cent to 37 per cent respectively. Trust in radio remains the highest at 41 per cent.
Considering the impact austerity measures had on trust in countries including Greece, the UK, Portugal, Spain and the United States, Democracy 2025 suggested the Australian government should resist the temptation to introduce austerity measures too quickly in the recovery period post-COVID. Democracy 2025 concluded:
Building on the burst of covert political trust in the Australian system there is support in our survey for building a national post-COVID-19 consensus featured by more inclusive, clean, collaborative and evidence-based politics.
Belief in democracy
While participants had differing views on the nature and extent of the decline in political trust and satisfaction, there was general agreement that Australians believe in democracy. Dr Cameron stressed it is important to understand 'the distinction' between satisfaction with democracy and support for democracy:
Australians, on the whole, are supportive of a democratic political system but are dissatisfied with the performance of democracy—in it not meeting their expectations.
The Scanlon Foundation confirmed a majority of Australians believe in democracy, saying 'about 65 per cent believe that it's the best model for Australia', with recent migrants valuing democracy especially highly.
Professor Nicholas Evans, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Languages, said that his work with Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Australia suggests the Chinese diaspora in Australia is highly supportive of democracy and democratic values.
One way the Scanlon survey measures support for democracy is by asking about support for 'a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections'. First asked in 2014, sixty-six per cent of respondents to this question indicated that 'reliance on a "strong leader" would be "fairly bad" or "very bad"'. The result was the same in 2018.
The Scanlon Foundation submitted that the 2019 Lowy Institute Poll identified 'more support for democracy in 2019 than six years ago'. The Lowy Poll asked if 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'. Sixty‑five per cent of respondents agreed with the statement, 'up from 59 per cent in 2013'.
Survey results indicate that Australia's school children are 'champions of democracy'. Eighty-seven per cent of the 88,500 school children per year who visit the Museum of Australian Democracy, and fill out a survey, report that they are 'satisfied with their democratic arrangements'. However, these young people do not feel as connected to Australian democracy as they could, with only 43 per cent reporting that they feel 'a part' of democracy, and only 33 per cent feeling that they 'have a say'.
The YMCA reported on a survey it conducted in 2018 on lowering the voting age to 16. One 17 year old told the YMCA, 'we don't have a say on how our own nation is governed or share opinions on federal matters, nor do we have the power to have our say on what happens with our future'. The political engagement of young people is discussed later in this chapter.
According to Democracy 2025, institutions associated with the democratic system attract significantly more public trust than government does, including the police (around 70 per cent), civil wellbeing organisations (69 per cent), the military (66 per cent), and universities (62 per cent).
The Scanlon Foundation cautioned against over-reacting to the data, saying its surveys 'do not support the claim of a drastic decline in political trust or democracy in Australia over the past five years'.
Dr Tony Ward from the University of Melbourne said 'there has been a long-term trend of people generally losing trust—but it's not in democracy'. Dr Ward said polls indicate people are still 'proud to be part of Australia', and 'happy with the social system in Australia'. He explained, '[w]hat people are not impressed with is what politicians have been doing over the last 15 to 20 years'.
Why do we feel this way?
Democracy 2025 observed that the dissatisfaction and distrust that Australians feel is 'distinctive', because it is unusual to see such low levels of political trust in a country where the economy 'is performing so well'. A number of factors appear to have contributed to rising dissatisfaction and distrust over the last 10 to 15 years, and to people turning away from traditional modes of political involvement. Some of these are discussed below.
Dissatisfaction with politics
We've seen in the last 10 years that both sides of the political spectrum have spent more time—apparently, and this is certainly reinforced by the media—fighting amongst themselves than they have in actually doing things for the public good.
Dr Tony Ward, University of Melbourne, Committee Hansard, 14 February 2020, p. 33.
Participants had different views about what is leading to lower levels of public trust, and dissatisfaction with politics and government.
Mr Sam Roggeveen from the Lowy institute argued that politics is going through 'a long and chaotic phase of realignment', characterised by a public withdrawal from traditional politics and traditional political institutions. This leaves politics 'operating in [a] void' caused by declining membership and increasing professionalisation of the major political parties.
Dr Cameron identified political 'scandals', changes of leadership between elections, and 'increasing levels of voter pessimism about the state of the economy in Australia' as key drivers of mistrust and dissatisfaction. The 'strongest factor', Dr Cameron said, is government performance, including both 'political performance and economic performance'. The leadership changes between 2010 and 2018 were a particular source of dissatisfaction:
We had six prime ministers in a period of just eight years, with only one change of Prime Minister coming about following an election, in 2013. A majority of voters have disapproved of how those changes were handled and that has been a major factor contributing to the decline in trust.
The Grattan Institute submitted that evidence from the Electoral Integrity Project shows 'campaign finance integrity in Australia is rated a lot lower than most democracies in the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]'. Grattan proposed that voters are 'concerned about the influence of big interests in politics through the process of political donations'.
The Grattan Institute also contended that Australians 'are concerned about corruption and misconduct by politicians', with most Australians believing 'politicians look after themselves and their mates, at the expense of the public interest'. Australian Strategic Policy Institute analysis of politicians' disclosures reveals:
Federal politicians have accepted at least 55 corporate-sponsored overseas trips since 2010…About 68 per cent of federal ministers and shadow ministers have declared corporate sponsored hospitality (events or travel) and 7 per cent have accepted overseas trips sponsored by a foreign government or agency…Since 1990, around a quarter of former federal ministers or assistant ministers have taken up roles with special interests after political life.'
Grattan suggested that accepting this kind of 'hospitality' creates 'an actual or perceived conflict of interest', with gifts and benefits making 'favoured treatment more likely'. With rules on lobbying in Australia currently 'weak', Grattan suggested they provide 'little comfort to anyone concerned about undue influence over policy'.
A number of participants raised concerns regarding that lobbying, which is otherwise a democratic right that can inform decision making and facilitate democratic participation, 'is increasingly associated with secrecy and unfair advantage'. Research undertaken by Transparency International Australia:
…noted that the inadequate regulation of political donations and lobbyists, the movement of staff between government and industry, and the culture of mateship are significant factors that could enable inappropriate and undue influence to occur.
Democracy 2025 also argued that integrity was a major cause of mistrust and dissatisfaction with politics. Reporting on how citizens view standards of honesty and integrity, Democracy 2025 said just 11 per cent of citizens rate political standards as 'high', while 36 per cent rate standards as 'somewhat low', and 25 per cent rate them as 'very low', with 27 per cent selecting neither 'high' nor 'low':
Given that honesty and integrity are qualities that most citizens would highly prize in politics then we can conclude that 90 per cent of citizens have a negative view of the standards of honesty and integrity held by politicians.
Mr Chek Ling observed that, since the 2008 release of the Rudd government's Electoral Reform Green Paper – Donations, Funding and Expenditure, nothing has been done to improve integrity issues associated with electoral donations:
That Green Paper was comprehensive and thorough: relevant statistics were provided in abundance; references to pertinent studies and commentaries by public institutions and individuals were made. Despite that serious intent, nothing significant seems to have been made of the submissions made to that Green Paper. In fact, things have got worse.
Mr Geoffrey Robin proposed that citizen distrust is the logical end-result of the way members and senators treat each other in the public eye. Most members and senators, he said, work hard, sacrifice family time, and 'genuinely believe' that they are working to create a better a society. However, when they call each other 'untrustworthy, incompetent and self-seeking, citizens have difficulty in knowing where the truth lies'. The short-term gain achieved by attacking political opponents ultimately leads to 'a greater long-term cost to our democracy, our Parliamentarians and to our democratic institutions'.
The Melbourne School of Government and Democratic Decay & Renewal posited that the 'increasingly regular ousting and resignation of prime ministers (six prime ministers since 2007, compared to six prime ministers in the previous 36 years (1971-2007))', was a contribution factor in the 'dominant narrative that Australia's democratic system is one of crisis, paralysis and decline'.
The media, social media and media literacy
Participants talked about the contributions of traditional media, social media and political messaging to mistrust and dissatisfaction.
Democracy 2025 submitted that federal politicians are deeply concerned about 'the pressure of the media cycle', and being misrepresented. Evidence suggested these concerns are founded, with television networks preferring to show political adversarialism over political cooperation, which policy specialist, Dr Scott Prasser said damages people's perceptions of government and politics.
According to Democracy 2025, the traditional news media still plays a significant role in shaping 'public perceptions of government performance'. Negative news coverage of government, focusing on 'gotcha' moments, is linked to a 'lack of confidence in government':
These concerns have grown in an age of truth decay, social media bubbles, overseas meddling in domestic election campaigns, and suspicion of legacy journalism. Some argue…that the media simply informs citizens or signals to them to pay attention to certain issues but on balance a review of available research indicates that the way that news is framed is having a negative impact and encouraging public distrust.
Dr Prasser noted that television reports less these days on state politics, so the federal government tends to take the blame for issues that are out of its jurisdiction.
In order for democracy to function properly, citizens must have access to 'accurate information about what is happening' in their society, provided by a free and diverse media. In the view of ABC Friends, ensuring and protecting this access is a responsibility of the state. ABC Friends argued Australia is affected by 'a very high degree of concentration in its commercial media', with dominance by News Corporation, Channel 9 and Channel 7. ABC Friends also expressed concerns about media freedoms in relation to the raids by the Australian Federal Police in June 2019.
Transparency International Australia submitted that 'a robust and free media is a fundamental pillar of democracy and helps in keeping the public informed'. Concerns were raised over the raids of media organisations in recent years, which have been perceived as 'adverse consequences for news organisations who make life uncomfortable for policy makers and regulators by shining lights in dark corners and holding the powerful to account'.
ABC Friends argued funding cuts to the ABC in recent years have undermined its critical role in Australia's democracy as the 'major public broadcaster, charged with the responsibility of providing accurate and impartial news and information':
Our recommendation is that Australian governments commit 0.5% of Federal Government Expenditure to funding the ABC and that they establish longer term frameworks for this funding so that ABC funding is de-coupled from the electoral cycle. ABC Friends submit that properly funded, strong and independent public broadcasting plays a vital role in maintaining the health of Australian democracy.
Social media and online platforms
Inquiry participants talked about the impacts of social media and online platforms on political trust and satisfaction. ABC Friends observed that many commentators now believe 'the notion of truth has been undermined' in the public sphere, citing Donald Trump's 'disregard for facts', and his 'declared war on journalists'. ABC Friends said tech platforms, such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google are providing a platform for 'misinformation and the distortion of news'.
The Department of Home Affairs observed that social media and online platforms are creating opportunities for 'subversive and criminal behaviours', such as cyber-bullying, harassment, and the distribution of conspiracy theories:
[T]hese groups seek to divide and weaken our society by exploiting differences, promulgating violent extremism, promoting ethno-religious intolerance or facilitating foreign interference. All these activities can undermine Australia's national security, open system of government, effective democratic processes, electoral integrity and sovereignty.
The secretary of the department, Mr Michael Pezzullo, advised the committee's November hearing that the question of how best to moderate content on the internet – whether on child protection matters, fake news, propagation of racism, anti-Semitism and religious hatred, or incitement to political violence – could not ultimately be resolved in Australian jurisdictions. The relevant legislation is the US Communications Decency Act, which separates the provision and technology of social media platforms from editorial responsibility for their content. The US Congress is conducting hearings on the operation of the Act.
The Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security & Governance researches cyber warfare and 'cognitive warfare', which are 'attempts to influence the cognitive processes of online users'. A well-known example is online campaigns of interference in the 2016 United States election. The Jeff Bleich Centre submitted that the Australian government must be extremely cautious in how it responds to these kinds of threats, to ensure that it does not increase citizen distrust in government, by responding in a way that citizens perceive to be authoritarian:
When it comes to foreign and defence policy, [public] trust can be understood as a strategic resource. In this context, it is vital that that a state like Australia should not respond to authoritarian tactics by becoming more authoritarian. Illiberalism cannot defeat illiberalism. Any response must be steeped in democratic values. Limiting civic freedoms in the name of national security does not help build trust in government or national security agencies at a time when it is most important.
Mr Bill Rowlings from Civil Liberties Australia observed that traditional media failed to embrace social media platforms, which are used successfully by populist leaders. Populist leaders simply bypass traditional media and speak straight to their audiences:
So the media is playing a vastly different role from what it used to. It's now more the policeman on the block, whereas it was actually a setter of standards and a marker of what was going on in public life.
Political scientist, Professor Jim Walter noted that, while 'the legacy media of the past' was not perfect, 'the increasing fragmentation' of social media makes it harder to facilitate 'rational, sensible discussion'. Economist, Mr Henry Ergas commented that all historical media transitions have impacted upon politics:
The rise of radio had a fundamental effect on politics, not merely in democracies, but it helped in many respects the rise of autocracies around the world. The rise of television was transformational in terms of the nature of politics and the way politics works. It would be entirely surprising if as fundamental a change as the rise of the internet did not in the long run alter the kind of politics we have.
Education specialist, Dr Karena Menzie-Ballantyne confirmed that today's generations do not 'engage' with traditional television and radio, but have 'a podcast society', and 'rely on Facebook' and other online sources. This will not change, she said, but educators 'can change', and focus on teaching young people to think critically:
We actually overtly teach, from primary school up, things like what is a fact and what is an opinion. We overtly teach children to have a look at whether it is a '.com', '.edu' or '.gov' website that they are looking at.
Associate Professor Don Garden, President of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, talked about the critical importance of media literacy for young people.
Ms Sue McKerracher from the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) agreed that 'people are being fooled by fake news, they are being sucked in by misinformation'. Ms McKerracher argued media literacy education programs should be directed to adults as well as young people 'to make sure we are actually addressing those issues'.
The Australian Academy of Science submitted that science has a role to play in helping citizens learn to distinguish between truth and 'fake news':
In a post-truth world of many 'truths' and 'alternative facts', science and scientific knowledge should be held in high esteem as the most reliable source of information that is closest to an objective truth, alongside other forms of knowledge and rationality such as that embedded in the social sciences and humanities. Scientific knowledge is grounded in empirical inquiry…Because it must have regard to established evidence, scientific knowledge is sceptical, considered and careful in its claims.
Ms McKerracher said the library sector is recommending the federal government work with the Australian Media Literacy Alliance to develop 'a national policy, a framework, a call to action for media literacy'. A national framework would replace the current piecemeal approach, which sees duplication of programs and effort, and allow for a nationally coordinated program to reach more people.
ALIA submitted that it would like to work with the federal government, 'through a co-design process, to develop a national strategy to tackle fake news and misinformation'.
ALIA observed that the issue of media literacy– as it relates to fake news and misinformation – crosses multiple government departments, including the Departments of Home Affairs, Communications, Education, and Social Services, and government agencies, including the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and the National Indigenous Australians Agency:
We believe that, as for Open Data and other issues of great importance to all Australians, media literacy should be elevated to a special focus within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The malicious dissemination of disinformation, dangerous conspiracy theories, and fake news are a threat to democracy, stir up conflict and division, and cause very real harms.
Those who spread disinformation and fake news do so in insidious ways. They use decentralised and unregulated media, targeting specific segments of the population to cause confusion, or to achieve specific political or ideological aims. Their messages are often violent, racist, anti-democratic or extremist.
Australian government approaches to dealing with fake news and disinformation are currently fragmented, spread across a number of agencies and departments.
The committee notes that parliament is moving to establish a code which would require online platforms to pay for Australian news content that is displayed on their sites. The proposed legislation is aimed at supporting high‑quality, original Australian journalism.
Citizens have varying levels of skill and capability in identifying fake news and disinformation, and have had varying access to media literacy education.
The committee supports the suggestion made by the Australian Library and Information Association that the government work with the Australian Media Alliance to develop a national strategy to tackle fake news and misinformation.
The committee recommends that the Australian government works with the Australian Media Alliance, through a co-design process, to develop a national strategy to tackle fake news and misinformation. This process should be facilitated through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The committee recommends that the Australian government communicates its support for amendments to the United States Communications Decency Act to ensure that hate speech, violent and extremist content, and dangerous and malicious misinformation, are not permitted to flourish on the internet.
A common theme among participants was concern around a dearth of strong political leadership. Whether it be fear of telling the truth, fear of losing one's position, or fear of upsetting special interests, participants argued that politicians are failing to make hard policy decisions and progress complex reforms. Professor Ian Chubb from the Academy of Science said:
…one of the things we as a people should want is leadership—straight, honest, open, persuasive, insightful, smart and intelligent, particularly in our polity—and values and principles of a high order. We should applaud it when we see it and act decisively when we don't…
Asked if good political leadership makes a difference, Ms Nicole Hunter from MosaicLab said:
I think the answer is yes. I think the behaviour of politicians does make a difference to how people engage in civic affairs. We have seen this time and again in local, state and federal government levels in terms of the way in which that leadership sets up the parameters, the frame and, in fact, the questions that people get involved in.
Democracy 2025 said focus groups show Australian citizens don't think 'any real progressive change has been achieved [on] major public policy challenges of our time'. Citizens feel public policy has stagnated and governments lack 'confidence': 'Risk aversion and low political trust is leading to a vicious cycle of apathy and of stagnation in government'.
Inquiry participants including the Australian Historical Association and Professor Walter pointed to failure to act decisively on climate change as an example of a failure in leadership. The Australian Historical Association maintained that the concerns of everyday citizens about climate change 'have not been adequately addressed by policy makers in any country, least of all in Australia'. The association added that political leaders have 'a moral duty to attend to the concerns of citizens'.
Professor Walter identified a 'growing disconnect' between political parties and voters:
…the closer you get to the centre, the more unrepresentative the people who are in the parties are. So we have leaders who are caught between a majority opinion and what they rightly see as their base…The bases are asking for something different to what the majority opinion is. It's the same for both parties…It's because of this problem of having to deal with small groups of unrepresentative people in the party base who are holding them hostage.
Adjunct Professor Eric Sidoti from Western Sydney University said many no longer believe change is possible:
It seems to me that there's a growing risk in the way that our democracy operates—that a number of issues are pre-emptively taken off the table on the presumption that they will not succeed, or they will not be capable of being handled politically in an appropriate way. We're continually narrowing the scope of debate and the capacity for innovation because we don't even allow it to get to the table.
Declining civic participation
Mr Ergas argued that society has become 'more atomised and fragmented' because the state no longer demands 'active signs of loyalty to the polity', such as military service. Legal academic, Professor Helen Irving criticised this view, saying:
[This] description of citizenship, and the responsibilities of citizenship, is an extremely masculine notion of citizenship built around the idea of serving in the military forces, and conscription. Mr Ergas talked about citizenship being traditionally associated with the obligation to perform military service and to be conscripted. Women, of course, were not conscripted. Women were citizens but they were conditional citizens up until 1948.
A number of participants cautioned against reading the decline in political party involvement as a decline in civic engagement. Mr Roggeveen said he believes Australians 'are still interested in civil society and are still interested in politics; they're just not interested in the two major parties'. Dr Cole agreed, saying people have not 'deserted' Australia's 'democratic life', they have just moved on to other organisations, such as 'GetUp on the Left and the Australian Christian Lobby on the Right': 'Their membership has been growing exponentially during the same period in which that of the two major parties has been declining'. Mr Walker suggested that the high rates of membership in these organisations may also be a reflection of the relatively low commitment it takes to be involved.
The Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University said it is important to recognise the many alternative ways people 'operate in civil society' outside of political institutions. Census data from 2011 to 2016 indicated a rise in volunteering from 17.8 per cent of people to 19.2 per cent among those aged 15 and over. Many others are also engaged in paid work that has a caring or 'social welfare' element.
Others still argued that the move away from participation in formal politics does not necessarily mean that the civic or political sphere 'has been diminished'. Professor Irving observed that a significant amount of civic engagement operates outside of traditional political spheres, especially environmental activism. Dr Ward cited the same-sex marriage campaign as a 'fantastic example' of civic engagement, where there was 'huge involvement by the general population'.
Professor Irving also drew attention to the high level of volunteer work in Australia 'amongst older Australians, retired Australians', saying it 'is very significant and shouldn't be underrated'.
The 2019–20 Australian bushfire season, known as Australia's 'Black Summer', saw around 7,373 firefighters deployed across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia. The vast majority were volunteers.
Those who assisted with the firefighting efforts in New South Wales received a citation, certificate of recognition, commemorative cap and letter from the Premier and then NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, acknowledging their contribution and thanking them for their service. The letter said, '[y]our selflessness, courage and resilience caused all of us to pause and think about the true meaning of family and community'.
In the year 2018-2019 there were a total of 152,798 volunteer firefighters registered in Australia. Nine firefighters lost their lives battling the Black Summer fires. Yet following the fires, record numbers of volunteers signed up to join state and territory rural firefighting services.
Dr Ward suggested that the generous response of Australians to bushfire appeals demonstrates that, even while people are disillusioned with politics, they still care about Australian society and want to be involved: 'I think there's something difficult in politics, not in democracy'.
Rebuilding trust and satisfaction
Australia has a long history of ingenious political innovation, from the secret ballot and compulsory voting to the design of our federal system. Over the past 100 years, however, innovation in our political system has stagnated. Despite enormous structural changes in global politics and the way politics is conducted, we appear to have lost our appetite for democratic and parliamentary reform.
Australia has the chance to once again lead the way on democratic reform, and we are excited that this Inquiry looks to make a meaningful step in that direction.
University of Melbourne, Submission 59, p. 2.
Inquiry participants warned that the decline in trust and satisfaction with politics, and engagement with Australia's democratic institutions, may not be able to be reversed without radical changes to the way in which politics functions.
Submitters offered a number of possible solutions:
UWA called for 'visionary leadership' and a focus on time frames longer than 'the 3 year election cycle'.
Democracy 2025 called for a constitutional convention, mixing citizens and politicians, which would 'evaluate the state of democracy in Australia' and 'build public support for a period of renewal'.
The Federation of Chinese Associations of Australian Capital Territory called for elected representatives to hold 'clear and meaningful communications' between elective representatives and the Chinese community, designed to heal a rift created by divisive rhetoric.
However, the majority of suggestions for improving trust in politicians and 'the government' fell into two categories:
measures to improve integrity and increase transparency; and
measures to facilitate greater involvement of citizens in decision-making.
These measures are detailed in this section.
Integrity and transparency measures
Dr Kris Klugman, President of Civil Liberties Australia said the government's 'best chance' of rebuilding trust is to become more accountable through improving Australia's 'ethical architecture'. Civil Liberties Australia encouraged the committee to take advantage of a 'unique opportunity' to make bipartisan recommendations to improve the image of Australian politicians, including through introducing an independent commission against corruption 'with teeth'. The Science Party similarly called for a federal integrity commission with 'broad and coercive powers'. Many other submitters made similar calls.
Research conducted in 2018 published by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia regarding 'public attitudes about the types of corruption that impact on trust in government decision-making' sought to illicit what citizens 'meant when they saw corruption as a problem. Responses indicated that a relatively small proportion of people surveyed nominated issues of 'dissatisfaction with government', and 'issues of nongovernment corruption, such as banking misconduct'. Rather, respondents were much more concerned about undue influence over government (for example, through lobbyists), self-interest by public officials, and political deceit, dishonesty, lack of transparency or accountability. For this reason, it was argued that significant reforms are needed to strengthen open, trustworthy decision making at 'both the political (parliamentarians) and bureaucratic levels (public servants)'.
The University of New South Wales Law Society said transparency reforms would also lead to better decision-making.
Democracy 2025 argued that, as well as an integrity commission, there is a need for 'a parliamentary integrity pledge for our politicians'. Mr Nicholas Reece from the University of Melbourne suggested 'comprehensive and continual professional training in policy, ethics and procedures for…ministers, members of parliament and ministerial staff'.
A code of professional conduct was recommended by Citizens for Democratic Renewal, based on the standards set down for the banking industry by the Hayne inquiry:
Obey the law; do not mislead or deceive; be fair; provide services that are fit for purpose; deliver services with reasonable care and skill; when acting for another, act in the best interests of that other.
The Grattan Institute also supported introducing a code of conduct for parliamentarians, as well as appointing an ethics adviser, 'and ensuring all codes of conduct are independently administered'.
The University of Melbourne proposed professional training for members, senators and their staff, saying current orientation programs are insufficient in the areas of 'management, financial analysis, governance and behaviour…':
An Australian politician, who has responsibility for matters affecting the interests of millions of his or her fellow citizens, should be assisted by receiving a comprehensive level of training about their duties, responsibilities and the technical knowledge required for the role. This can be achieved through the introduction of comprehensive, professional training for members of parliament and ministers. Given their influence in the political process, ministerial staff would also receive this sort of training.
The Grattan Institute called for a public register of lobbyists who have unescorted access to Parliament House, and the publication of ministerial diaries, 'so people know who ministers meet with'. Grattan and others, including Mr Reece, called for much 'stronger regulation of lobbyists'.
Another suggestion, related to improving the integrity of government decisions and executive action, was that Australia adopt a bill of rights or legislate a human rights act.
Some participants argued that the reason for democratic discontent is the failure of those in power to conduct political decision-making in fair, transparent, engaging, and consultative ways. Mr Roggeveen said 'cynicism and despair' characterise the feelings of many towards Australian politics, but the 'abiding condition' of most of the Australians public 'is just disengagement': 'The connection with the system…has simply been lost'.
Citizens for Democratic Renewal said citizens see politicians as 'reactive, risk averse and partisan' in the way they develop policy, rather than consultative and deliberative. Deliberative approaches, such as 'citizen juries', Mr Roggeveen proposed, can be useful in helping 'reconnect the Australian public to politics, where that connection…has almost totally broken down'.
Some argued for more innovative engagement with citizens, and some argued for direct participation of citizens in decision-making. Proponents of 'new democracy' argued for 'evidence-based and openly consultative government policy making', and 'refreshing and rebooting' democracy through engaging citizens directly in policy decision-making processes.
Mr Ray Bricknell submitted that governments have failed to take advantage of communication technology to engage citizens, and use it to simply 'push out' information. The public service should make better use of technology by, for instance, using citizen surveys, as recommended by Terry Moran in 2010, and should 'utilise organisations with expertise in direct and deliberative democracy to facilitate decision-making exercises'.
Professor Julian Thomas from the Australian Academy of the Humanities cautioned that digital inclusion and digital citizenship 'are still very unevenly distributed', and suggested this must be improved in order to facilitate truly democratic citizen engagement: 'Without broader digital inclusion, we don't really have effective democratic deliberation here'.
Ms McKerracher described the role of libraries in the:
…digital space…We bridge that gap for the population that is not learning to use the internet at school, at work or through study-that 20 per cent of the population that still is not really online in the way that we would understand it. We are trying to articulate digital access as an essential element of Australian infrastructure-in the same way that we see electricity, gas or whatever. Having access to the internet is absolutely essential…
Ms Nicole Hunter, Managing Director of MosaicLab, a consultancy that works with government to facilitate deliberative democratic processes, said deliberative democracy is 'about placing people, be they citizens, residents, affected individuals or communities, closer to the affairs of government'. Deliberative democratic processes do not 'replace' the decision-making role of elected representatives, but there is an expectation that they will influence the final decision 'to the greatest extent possible'.
Participants in deliberative exercises should have access to the information and the time required to consider an issue in depth. In general participants are selected 'randomly' and are 'representative of the broader community and inclusive of all voices'.
MosaicLab research indicates that involvement in an exercise of deliberative democracy changes a person's attitude to government:
Before each process commenced, 25% of respondents had never been involved in a government decision before, and only 11% had been 'very involved' in civic affairs in the past. Post-deliberation results showed that 79% of respondents thought they were likely or very likely to get involved in future government decisions…a 50% increase in likelihood to engage in civic affairs.
Participants' trust in government organisations also improved, with 50 per cent of respondents saying the sponsoring organisation was 'trustworthy' or 'very trustworthy' at the start, and 82 per cent of respondents selecting 'trustworthy' or 'very trustworthy' at the end.
The newDemocracy Foundation talked about the highly successful deliberative process that led to the reform of abortion laws in Ireland, which were set down in the nation's constitution. Director, Mr Iain Walker explained:
For those not aware, the Right-aligned Irish government made a move to reform its abortion laws, which were entrenched in the constitution. Whatever you may think of the issue—the degree of difficulty, politically, in a very religious country—it is an extremely challenging issue to take on. That parliament ultimately felt safe to address that and take that on publicly by having a substantive role for a citizens' assembly of just a hundred Irish people, selected at random, who found some common ground, and, in effect, knocked out the worst edges of the debate, and said, 'Should this law pass, these are the nine main conditions we'd see as operable'.
Associate Professor Tom Daly from the Melbourne School of Government said the Irish example provides an important lesson for Australia, as we have similar challenges in achieving constitutional change:
When they started this experiment, there was huge cynicism about what it could achieve. It was completely a trial. Our system for achieving constitutional change, same as the Australian system, was by referendum, and we had suffered a lot, with polarisation and misinformation, especially as we got into the 2000s with referendums on the EU, for example. There was huge cynicism about what could be achieved. It was actually the process and the design of the initial body that worked very well: 66 members of the public, with 33 politicians nominated by their own parties…
Professor Evans also lauded the Irish example, saying it proves how deliberative democratic processes that bring citizens together with members of parliament can cut through the adversarialism of politics, helping governments 'deal with those sticky problems'.
Another example mentioned was the citizens' assembly in France on climate change. The French assembly includes 150 randomly selected people from across France, engaged in 21 days of deliberation across seven months. Mr Walker noted the citizens involved asked 'to hear from the President' at their third meeting, and 'he turned up and answered questions for 2½ hours'.
Mr Ryan Winn from the Australian Council of Learned Academies provided a current Australian example; a project by the National Health and Medical Research Council on mitochondrial donations. The project includes a panel of citizens working with a scientific panel to discuss options for legislating in this contentious political area.
Melbourne School of Government and Democratic Decay & Renewal acknowledged that it is too early to determine whether individual experiments with citizens' assemblies are a success, but they may present a useful way to approach complex policy problems:
Recent analysis of Ireland's Citizens' Assembly, which was convened across four weekends from November 2016 to March 2017, and which broke a longstanding political deadlock regarding the vexed issue of abortion reform, cautions against seeing these bodies as a panacea. However, despite limitations, these bodies may carry significant potential to cut across deadlock or hyper-partisan political systems, to marry public, political and expert knowledge, to attenuate the impact of excessive lobbying by sectoral interests, and can possibly provide a better means for participatory government than one-off referendums (which of course have a particularly problematic place in Australia's political system).
Professor Melleuish articulated an argument that is commonly expressed against participatory democracy – that 'not everyone wants to participate'. Most people expect 'the elites they elect and the people in their public service' will make good decisions and do 'the right thing by them'.
In contrast, private citizen Mr Ivan Winter submitted his frustration with what he saw as a lack of opportunities to engage in democratic decision-making:
There is no meaningful or authentic mechanism whereby the citizen can contribute his or her informed opinion on matters of substance. Any views expressed to parliamentary members or, indeed, to the citizens' own political party are treated as irrelevant or merely given token acknowledgement. But more serious is their elitist perceptions of ordinary people – the citizens – who are all too frequently dismissed on the basis that, 'the people haven't got the facts (that we are privy to), therefore they don't know what they are talking about!' Consequently, citizens are relegated to the 'subject classes'.
Mr Winter suggested '[t]rust, understanding, tolerance, responsibility and wisdom' are developed through 'involvement': 'If one is excluded from the political process then apathy, alienation and, or, contempt prevails'.
Professor Daly said, even if the government did not want to consider options such as a citizens' assembly, it should think about ways to 'shore up what has been lost', and re-establish citizens' 'connection to the system'.
Citizens for Democratic Renewal argued citizens juries were useful for making big decisions that governments struggled to make, such as in areas like climate change or constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians, 'where our normal political processes are unable to adequately lead the public discourse and find the "common good" that the vast majority can accept'.
MosaicLab offered evidence to suggest the federal government is currently 'lagging other levels of government in taking up deliberative processes', with a number of state and territory government, and local councils having conducted multiple deliberative processes, leading to concrete outcomes.
Table 5.1 enumerates major deliberative exercises undertaken by governments in a number of countries, according to evidence provided by MosaicLab.
Table 5.1: Deliberative processes undertaken in the last 10 years
1 and 1 permanent house of German speaking Belgium randomly selected
1 (in planning)
Source: MosaicLab, Submission 81, p. 9.
Others argue for more direct democracy, where citizens are invited to take part in making (usually) binding decisions, such as through referenda. The Embassy of Switzerland in Australia described the Swiss political system, which makes heavy use of direct democratic methods, saying:
Direct democracy is about setting the agenda and making decisions, not about consulting the people in a top-down process. The latter are plebiscites rather than referenda.
The University of New South Wales Law Society referred to a recent example from Taiwan, where citizens can now enact or repeal laws through a petitioning process:
By gathering enough signatures, citizens can propose reform that, if requirements in both turnout and popular approval are met, will lead to new legislation. There are of course strict procedural guidelines (e.g. numbers of signatures required to initiative a referendum and percentage required to actually pass the referendum) and limitations on what matters of state can be reformed (notably budgetary issues are off limits). To administer this process, Taiwan's Central Election Commission (CEC) has also been used as an impartial method to ensure that the required processes are adhered to before a referendum can be proposed.
Participation of young people
UWA highlighted the particular problem of disengagement and dissatisfaction of young people with democracy and politics. The university argued that because the problem is more heavily concentrated among the young, solutions should be too:
[I]t makes sense to focus any ameliorative steps on young people, and on broader issues of inter-generational equity. There is a strong sense among many young people that they are losers from a political process that privileges the interests of older voters and neglects younger ones. Primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions have a key role to play in addressing both the perception and the reality of this problem.
YMCA Australia submitted findings from research it conducted in 2017: 74 per cent of Australians aged 13 to 22 'don't believe those in power are making decisions with their best interests at heart'; 66 per cent feel their age 'prevents them from being heard', and over half 'believe social media is the only avenue to have their voice heard' (figures are from 2017). Results of a survey conducted in 2018 were even worse with less than 20 per cent of young people feeling that their concerns were represented by those in power in Canberra.
Professor Sidoti highlighted the importance of encouraging young people to participate in democracy. Professor Sidoti said the government's message to young people who participated in student strikes over climate change gave the impression that young people's views were 'illegitimate'. Telling students to 'Get back into school', Professor Sidoti said, communicated that 'somehow our participation is not wanted in reality, that it's not warranted and it's not taken seriously'.
History Professor, Dr Ann McGrath expressed a similar view, supporting the right to protest:
Coming from Queensland, and living under the Bjelke-Petersen regime, there were quite a few restrictions happening. I think it's really important that politicians don't think about curbing civil expression that can really change society for the better.
Professor Sidoti said that young people were 'simply asking' to be recognised by the federal government 'as legitimate agents in a political process and be treated meaningfully and with respect'.
School students who tour the Museum of Australian Democracy as part of their civics program overwhelmingly report that they 'want more opportunities to participate in their democracy'. The surveys show that 64 per cent are 'interested in politics', and want the parliament to engage in 'issues that will impact on their future', such as 'mental health, bullying, indigenous constitutional recognition, equal gender rights, unemployment and climate change'.
When young people are given opportunities to participate in relation to issues of interest to them, 'they are highly engaged'. YMCA Australia submitted that the 2017 marriage equality postal survey resulted in a 'significant increase' in the enrolment of young voters:
The total number of new enrolments of 18 to 24 year olds was 65,000 representing 66% of all new enrolments. While the postal survey was voluntary, 76% of young voters aged 18 to 25 years participated in the survey…Ensuring that young people have a voice is critical for the future health of our democracy.
The YMCA detailed its youth empowerment programs, which contribute to engaging youth in civil society and global democracy. These include:
the Youth Parliament, for ages 16 to 25, where youth are heard at the highest levels of state government about issues relevant to young people's lives;
the National Indigenous Youth Parliament; a partnership with the Australian Electoral Commission, for young people aged 16 to 25, which helps empower young First Nations Australians in electoral participation;
the YMCA Global Change Agent Program, a leadership development program to empower 18 to 30 year olds to be 'change makers in their own communities'; and
the Young CEO Movement, where young people are supported to be 'CEO for a Day', and provided with opportunities to 'have a voice and be heard, locally and nationally', over a twelve-month period.
The ANU's Dr April Biccum suggested a practical recommendation for the committee to make would be to encourage the federal government to explore 'mechanisms' for providing young people with 'a seat at the table'.
Government responses to participatory processes
How governments respond to democratic processes in which citizens participate is critical for the health of democracy. MosaicLab argued that participants in deliberative democratic processes should be able to have an expectation that the process will have some bearing on the outcome.
Professor Sidoti said the manner of the government's response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the calls of the Referendum Council, demonstrated a failure on the part of the executive to genuinely engage with the community.
The process to develop the Uluru Statement, and the recommendations of the Referendum Council, was thoroughly 'representative', lasting 'many years', and involving numerous communities, committees, and 'special panels'. It was a deeply 'consultative' process, and the response to it was 'decided in the executive'.
Professor Sidoti said, regardless of ones views on the issue of constitutional recognition, the government's actions were a disappointing response to such a long and deliberative process, involving so many citizens:
[C]learly what it was saying was that we as an executive will make the decision, without reference, as far as I know, to the party, and not to the caucus and certainly not to the parliament, and not talking to the Indigenous leaders in advance. They're simply illustrations of a pattern of behaviour of governments over some time in the way they shut down the space for conversation at the same time that we're saying we want to open the space for conversations.
Trust, satisfaction and belief
The committee has considered all the data on trust, satisfaction and belief in democracy submitted by participants in the inquiry. We note that there are differences in the way data are collected and interpreted, and differing views as to what this means for the health of Australia's democracy.
Whether or not the Australian data shows a downward trend over the long term is questionable. The Australian Election Study's reports show trust at a low 29 per cent in 1979, at 34 per cent in 1993 and 1998, and at 32 per cent in 2001, after a high of 48 per cent in 1996. We note that there are a number of elections missing in this analysis. In 2013, trust was at 34 per cent again, before dropping to 26 per cent in 2016 and 25 per cent in 2019 (see Figure 5.3, p. 7).
While the low levels of trust reported in 2016 and 2019 are concerning, the committee believes it too soon to definitively establish a downward trend, based on this data. The increase in trust reported during COVID-19 complicates the situation further. It will be interesting to see how long these increases in trust and satisfaction are maintained, and if they impact the results of the surveys conducted after the next election.
Regardless of how the data are interpreted, we know that levels of trust and satisfaction have been at historic lows for a number of years now. This is not something governments can afford to ignore.
A sizable majority of citizens in Australia in recent years have told us that they do not believe the federal government makes decisions in their interest, that they do not trust political parties, and that they are not satisfied with the way democracy is functioning at the moment.
Australians may not like politics, but we still believe in democracy.
Surveys report that support for democracy as the best system of government has remained relatively stable in Australia. Scanlon ranks support for democracy at 65 per cent as does the Lowy Institute Poll.
Renewing political engagement
The logical conclusion is that politics is broken, not democracy. Or, more specifically, something is broken in the way we are conducting politics. The way politics functions is alienating to citizens; causing them to turn away from established political parties and mainstream political processes.
Citizens are not lazy, nor are they apathetic. Australians volunteer in high numbers, and lend their support to their fellow Australians in tough times, such as during fires, floods and emergencies. We get involved in civic organisations; Rotary, the Red Cross, GetUp, or the Australian Christian Lobby. We lend our support to online petitions, make donations to charities and campaigns, community donation drives, and volunteer for our local schools, religious organisations and clubs.
Elected representatives cannot afford to disregard the many ways Australians are engaging. Governments must find new channels and new ways of communicating that really speak to citizens. We must find a way to reach out and meet citizens where they are, or risk being stuck in an echo chamber, which is where citizens are telling us we are now.
Critically, we must listen and respond. Whether through deliberative exercises, or other forms of consultation, governments must seek input from citizens, and meaningfully engage with that input.
Young Australians also have an interest in their world and its future. They talk to their friends about issues they care about, they participate in online campaigns, and, more recently, they have organised strikes and protest action on climate change.
There is a need to nurture democratic sentiment in young people. As Professor Sidoti said, 'young people are legitimate agents' in our democracy. We must encourage their interest in politics and ideas, and facilitate their participation in the political system. If this initially manifests in online activism, or legal protest activity, so be it. Attending a rally may spark a lifelong interest in politics in a future Prime Minister.
This report contains recommendations to ensure our young people learn about the history of our nation, about civic participation, and about Australia's democracy. History is the foundation: young people are the future of our democracy.
The committee recommends that the Australian government consults with the National Youth Commission and Youth Commissioner to develop options to:
ensure greater youth input into political processes of the federal parliament; and
promote democracy among Australia's youth.
Integrity and transparency
The choices and behaviour of politicians significantly impact upon public trust in governments and democracy.
The committee is in agreement that an independent federal anti-corruption commission is required; and that the commission must be constructed in a way that ensures it can operate effectively to detect and prosecute corrupt behaviour.
The committee notes the calls for a code of conduct for members, senators and their staff, and professional training or orientation for newly elected members, senators and their staff, and believes there is merit in these calls.
The committee acknowledges the importance of high quality, impartial public broadcasting in providing citizens with trusted information, local content and emergency services information. An adequately resourced, independent public broadcaster – incorporating online, radio and free-to-air offerings – is a critical component of a healthy democratic system. As is an adequately-resourced multicultural broadcasting service.
The committee notes the calls from the Grattan Institute and others for a public register of lobbyists with access to Parliament House and supports this call.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes an independent federal anti-corruption commission that earns and maintains public confidence through transparency and accountability while also upholding the fundamental principles of justice and procedural fairness.