How strong are Australia's key democratic institutions, including the Commonwealth parliament, the federal public service, our major political parties, Australia's federal system, and key national, cultural and educational institutions? Do we have accurate measures of their strength and resilience? How can we measure their performance? How do they compare to equivalent institutions internationally? How could these core institutions of democracy be further strengthened?
While most Australians believe in democracy, many are unhappy with how Australia's democracy is working. Many feel it does not work for them. To strengthen our democratic institutions, we must first acknowledge that they are not perfect. A closer look at our institutions is warranted.
Evidence suggests Australia's democratic institutions are strong, their practices generally held in high esteem, and their procedures robust by international standards. However, Australians consistently report low levels of faith and confidence in these institutions. Why do so many Australians express cynicism towards the key institutions of their democracy? What can be done to change this?
In an era of increasing social and political fragmentation, how can governments and others who defend democracy re-establish trust in the legitimacy of our democratic institutions? Australia's democracy is highly regarded around the world. How can we ensure it remains strong and resilient in the face of populist and anti-democratic threats?
This chapter considers a wide range views on the strength of Australia's democratic institutions, and proposals for making them stronger, more resilient, and more capable of handling the shocks imposed by global threats to democracy.
A closer look at Australia's democracy
According to intergovernmental think-tank, International IDEA, Australia is 'a high performing democracy with many strengths to draw from'. Australia ranks highly in most areas that are fundamental to a functioning democracy, including 'absence of corruption', 'representative government' and 'access to justice' (see Figure 6.1).
Figure 6.1: Performance of Australia's democratic institutions, 2019
International IDEA, Submission 88, Attachment 1, [p. 1].
Despite these democratic strengths, many Australians do not see our democracy in the same way. The 2019 Australian Election Study found that 56 per cent of Australians believe 'the government is run for a few big interests', with only 12 per cent believing 'the government is run for all the people'.
International IDEA submitted data that indicates, while Australia is still a high-performing democracy, there has been a slight reduction in our scores in a number of areas over recent years; including 'fundamental rights' and 'checks on government'.
Professor Mark Evans, Director of Democracy 2025, argued there are many political institutions in Australia and internationally about which there is insufficient information. Without 'a strong evidence base to inform decision-making', it is impossible to know if political institutions are working effectively.
Democracy 2025 argued 'there is an urgent need to create a permanent and independent Democratic Audit of Australia to provide ongoing intelligence on the strengths and weaknesses of Australian democracy'. A democratic audit would be 'funded by, but independent from Parliament'. It would operate like the Productivity Commission, or the Treasury, reporting periodically 'on the state of Australian democracy', in a similar manner to the Intergenerational Report. Its role would be to 'champion liberal democracy, audit the qualities of Australian democratic practice, celebrate its successes and facilitate policy debate on its weaknesses'. Democratic audits exist in the United Kingdom and the European Union which could provide a model.
Professor Evans said his research has exposed 'big gaps' in the knowledge about what is working to sustain Australia's democracy, and what is weakening it. One of the reasons for this is that there are areas that don't receive a lot of research attention:
[T]here's a tendency with political scientists to focus on Commonwealth government, because they're interested largely in power and power relations, and that's where they think the political game is occurring. There's far less research on the role of, for example, local government. There's far less research on state-local government relations. There's far less research on things like how effectively our integrity agencies are working…in the Northern Territory, we only had the choice of, literally, two people to do the audit for the Northern Territory.
A democratic audit would 'start with Australia' and develop a comparative index, looking at 'which of our institutions are delivering great success stories in terms of our democracy, and which institutions are under pressure'. It could propose areas where institutions may need to modernise, because they no longer meet their objectives, or make suggestions for where institutions 'could play a different role in promoting democracy'.
The Australian Museum and Galleries Association proposed government develop a 'national policy framework for strengthening democracy'. The national policy would be cross-governmental, co-designed with academics, cultural organisations and the non-government sector, and resourced over the long-term.
The sections that follow look at the features of some of Australia's key democratic institutions. They consider what contributes to their strength and resilience, issues of concern, and proposals for making them stronger.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes and funds an ongoing independent Australian Democratic Audit, modelled on democratic audits in the United Kingdom and European Union.
The Australian Democratic Audit should use evidence-based, objective comparative measures to monitor the quality, durability and effectiveness of Australia's national and state level political and democratic institutions, and make recommendations for improvements and reforms.
The federal parliament
It is interesting when you look at survey results about how our democracy is performing and you see it waning. I would say: the institutions of Australian government still perform very well. Look at our airports, for example: 130 million people travelled through Australia's airports last year. There wasn't one single fatality as a result of an airline accident. That is a system that works. I think our hospitals and many other institutions of government work quite well.
…This week my daughter started high school, and I opened her humanities book to see, out of great interest, what was in there…There was nothing in there about Australia's democracy and those things that I just took you through. So, at least in the Victorian school system…in year 7 humanities…we are not teaching those children about our own proud democratic history.
Mr Reece, University of Melbourne, Committee Hansard, 7 February 2020, pp. 12—13.
There are nine parliaments around Australia: six state parliaments, two territory legislative assemblies, and the federal parliament. Australia's federal parliament is the central pillar of Australia's democracy, with legislative, representative, scrutiny, and executive functions.
The federal parliament's committees perform two key roles that have the capacity help to build and maintain confidence in the parliament. Committees are the parliament's main mechanism for reaching out and engaging directly with citizens and civic organisations. The committees also perform key scrutiny and accountability functions, helping to hold the government to account. The role of committees is further explored in the following section.
Public perceptions often fail to match reality when it comes to Australia's federal parliament. Dr Jonathan Cole from Charles Sturt University observed that dramatic clips from question time are the only parliamentary proceedings most Australians ever see, because they make the news. However, in reality, parliamentarians spend many hours working productively together, across the political divide, to ensure a well-functioning parliament.
Private citizen, Ms Dinah Kimbell commented on the unsatisfactory experience of watching question time, which she described as 'gotcha moments of one‑up‑manship'. Ms Kimbell said instead of time spent on 'Dorothy Dixers', she wants to see 'my government working for me, and all Australians'.
Participants proposed a number of changes to the way parliament operates in order to address some of these perception issues. Mr Nicholas Reece from the University of Melbourne suggested the parliament could trial a change to the seating arrangements in the parliament. Instead of parliamentarians sitting in party blocs, they could be seated by 'a random ballot'.
The University of Melbourne suggested the offices of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives should be turned into 'quasi-judicial' offices, with the holders 'being seen as truly independent and not attending party room meetings'. In this model, the Speaker and President would be appointed for set terms. Another option would be to have the presiding officers appointed by 'a bi-partisan parliamentary committee'.
Mr Ray Bricknell criticised the notion of a government 'mandate', saying there is 'a fundamental deceit' in governments claiming to have a mandate to introduce policies after winning an election. Each bill or policy proposal should be considered on its own merits, and scrutinised individually.
A number of participants proposed that allowing senators and members to vote freely, instead of along party lines, would strengthen democracy. Mr Reece said, 'Parliament is often at its best when people engage in free votes'. Democracy 2025 remarked that 60 per cent of Australians support free votes in parliament and 72 per cent support co-design of public services with citizens.
The Melbourne School of Government and Democratic Decay & Renewal stated that the federal parliament does not reflect the diversity of the Australian community, and highlighted three issues:
women remain underrepresented in parliament: they comprise 36.6 per cent of the federal parliament after the May 2019 elections; and the proportion of women in senior leadership positions in parliament is far lower;
Indigenous communities continue to seek greater recognition in the democratic system; and
some have called for granting the vote to Australia’s many permanent residents.
Democracy 2025 reported that citizens would respond well to 'reforms to enhance the representativeness (in age, gender and ethnic terms)' of the Australian Parliament.
In relation to COVID-19, intergovernmental think-tank, International IDEA commented that restrictions placed on parliamentary activity 'could hamper effective scrutiny of government pandemic measures', and weaken Australia's democracy. International IDEA suggested Australia's parliament could learn lesson from parliaments around the world, 'especially from targeted measures taken in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada', which demonstrated 'parliaments do not hinder an effective pandemic response'.
In 2007, authors John Halligan, Robin Miller and John Power wrote that parliamentary committees have the power to promote democratic renewal, and offer the 'greatest potential for development in all types of parliamentary systems'. In 2019, authors Carolyn Hendriks and Adrian Kay stated that 'opening up' parliaments to more public participation through committees could help renew democracy and rebuild public trust and satisfaction.
This section looks at two aspects of parliamentary committees: their role in rebuilding trust in the institution of parliament through citizen engagement; and their role as mechanisms of scrutiny and accountability.
Halligan, Miller and Power's 2007 book, Parliament in the twenty-first century, was focussed largely on the Commonwealth's committee systems. It posited that parliamentary committees provide the best opportunity for parliaments to engage meaningfully with citizens:
As the parliament moves through the twenty-first century, these opportunities for 'outside' engagement may come to be of the highest significance for the functioning of the parliament as the leading institution of representative democracy in Australia.
The Senate's key procedural text, Odgers' Australian Senate Practice (Odgers'), describes public engagement as a key function of senate committees.
In 2012, the Inter‑Parliamentary Union and the United Nations Development Program produced the Global Parliamentary Report: The changing nature of parliamentary representation. The Global Parliamentary Report brought together experience from 129 parliaments and 663 individual parliamentarians on the changing relationship between parliaments and citizens, and promoted democratic renewal through innovative public engagement, and more responsive representation.
That same year, the United Kingdom House of Commons voted to make public engagement a 'core task' of the work of committees. The Commons then commissioned in-depth research into committee engagement in 2014, and has continued to improve its practices, providing opportunities for citizens to engage directly with committee work online and in person.
More recently, legal academic Dr Sarah Moulds has established that committees have 'strong deliberative attributes', and provide 'a vital connection between the "governed and the governors" on the development of laws and policies that may have a direct impact on their individual rights'.
House of Representatives and Senate committees in the federal parliament conduct dozens of committee inquiries every year. Mr Geoffrey Robin remarked that most people never see the parliament 'at work' in committees; 'the deliberations, the interaction between people who have different policy views, the probing of public servants or the benefit of the advice they proffer'.
The Grattan Institute commented on the important role of committees in ensuring a greater number of voices are able to provide input into policy development and consideration of legislation. Grattan submitted:
Many politicians and the public service will try to work through broader public interest considerations, aided by institutions within government such as the Productivity Commission as well as outside experts. But even with the best of intentions, the interests of these groups can be given insufficient weight by decision-makers and voters, especially if their voices are 'drowned out' by well-resourced, well-organised and self-interested groups.
Because committees 'actively seek out and invite contributions', the Grattan Institute suggested they are able to get 'a greater variety of relevant perspectives'.
Science and Technology Australia reflected on the value of parliamentary inquiries and the need to ensure they do not become politicised. When inquiries are politicised 'faith in the inquiry process is significantly diminished'. Science and Technology Australia also noted that government responses to inquiry reports routinely take much longer than the prescribed time limit, and suggested rules be strengthened to 'enforce a requirement to respond to inquiries and specific recommendations within six months of receiving a report'.
Dr Jodi Steel CSM suggested parliamentary committees could strengthen their reports by making better use of experts 'where specialist expertise' does not exist on the committee. Dr Steel suggested that experts be 'drawn from academia, professions and trades, consultants and suitably [qualified] retirees', they watch the proceedings of hearings 'remotely', and 'feed' suggested questions to the committee in real time. Senate Standing Order 25(17) allows for the appointment of 'persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the committee, with the approval of the president'. Senate committees also take advantage of the parliamentary library to request research assistance from time to time, and request assistance with costing proposals from the Parliamentary Budget Office.
Dr Steel proposed committees could also be more active in how they seek evidence from citizens, such as asking communities affected by potential decisions to 'submit criteria of importance to them'.
Halligan, Miller and Power made a number of suggestions for making committee inquiries more participatory so that they could play a greater role in rebuilding trust in the parliament, and satisfaction with democracy. These included: providing more time and resources for inquiries; allowing committees to inquire earlier in the legislative process; introducing formal evaluation of inquiries, and monitoring their impacts and outcomes; and conducting more inquiries into emerging policy issues, rather than issues upon which parties already have set positions.
Holding government to account
Parliamentary committees are one of the parliament's key accountability mechanisms. In 2008, former Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans said, '[t]he principal means whereby the Senate obtains information bearing on the accountability of the executive are committee inquiries'.
Senate committees include standing and scrutiny committees, with a critical accountability and oversight role played by the scrutiny committees, including the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, which looks at legislative instruments.
Legislative instruments are the rules and regulations made under a parent Act that have the force of that Act. They do not go through the same rigorous process as legislation, but must be tabled in both houses of parliament and can be subject to 'disallowance' in either house. According to Odgers', over time, the varieties of legislative instruments used in Australia have become 'extremely diverse': 'In 1970 there were only three different kinds; by the 1990s this had increased to over 100'. Some of the varieties include:
ordinances of territories
plans of management, for example, for fisheries
approvals of service providers
by-laws of statutory authorities
navigation and aviation orders
notices, such as broadcasting service notices
standards, such as accounting standards
declarations, such as health legislation declarations
directives, such as airworthiness directives
guidelines and principles, such as aged care principles and child care guidelines.
Odgers' further notes that 'about half of the law of the Commonwealth by volume consists of delegated legislation rather than acts of Parliament', and notes the important scrutiny role of the committee.
The Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation has noted a rise over time in the number of instruments that are exempt from disallowance (Figure 6.2).
Figure 6.2: Instruments exempt from disallowance 2013-2019
Source: Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, Annual Report 2019, p. 34.
On average, almost 50 per cent of legislation is delegated and in 2019 that was nearly 2,000 pieces. Of these, 20 per cent were exempt from disallowance by the parliament and scrutiny by the Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation. The growing amount of delegated legislation that is exempt from full parliamentary scrutiny in this way, and the consequent growth in the power of the executive and the public service, is of increasing concern to senators.
Participants highlighted the important role of evidence in parliamentary decision-making: both the use of evidence by decision-makers, and sharing that evidence with the public to explain decisions.
Mrs Daryl Karp, Director of the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD), noted that the COVID crisis has seen an international increase in public support and trust for 'experts': 'We're returning to evidence based information. They sat side by side with the politicians; they were supporting each other, as opposed to often being antagonistic'.
The Steering Committee of the Evidence Based Policy Research Project encouraged governments to make better use of consultation processes, saying governments had a much higher likelihood of securing upper house approval for contentious bills if the consideration of bills was preceded by 'a proper and transparent Green/White paper process to elicit the known facts, policy options, their pros and cons and citizen feedback'.
Economist, Mr Henry Ergas was critical of what he considered Australia's tendency for 'delegating contentious decisions about value to quasi-judicial bodies' outside of the legislature that are not 'directly accountable to the legislature', such as the Productivity Commission, Reserve Bank, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). While these independent bodies reduce the decision-making burden on politicians, and diffuse political contention, Mr Ergas suggested they may also 'impoverish' and 'infantilise' politics by removing the responsibility for making important and complex decisions from politicians, and giving it to 'experts'.
Others believed that the use of experts, in cooperation with parliamentarians, gives greater legitimacy to political decisions. Professor Evans reported that 77 per cent of Australians believe 'experts should play a fundamental role in policymaking', a figure that is higher than comparable countries surveyed by Democracy 2025. The Australian National University's (ANU) Professor Frank Bongiorno agreed, saying '[s]ome of Australia's greatest success stories have been institutions and authorities that are of government but are at arm's length from government'.
Professor Bongiorno argued that the Australian Electoral Commission, the Reserve Bank, and royal commissions provide examples of the 'substantial authority and legitimacy' offered by independent institutions that use evidence to help inform government decisions. These bodies perform a 'kind of salving function', he said:
Royal commissions are opportunities for people to tell their stories, to have their identities and stories recognised, and to have the pain that they've often experienced recognised. It seems to be that that's of government, but it is at arm's length of government, and that's what I think gives it its authority and its legitimacy.
Political analyst, Dr Scott Prasser also commented on the valuable contribution made by the Parliamentary Budget Office, which provides independent, non-partisan costings and analysis.
The role of science
Participants noted that increasing trust during the pandemic was related to the ever-present involvement of scientific experts in government decision-making. Expert evidence was shared with the public, and the public could see that decisions were being made based on expert advice, rather than on partisan interests. The Academy of Science observed the contrast between this treatment of scientific experts, and previous comments made by politicians in relation to scientific evidence on climate change.
Professor Chubb recommended the Australian government set up a 'formal relationship' between the parliament and the scientific community, defining what it means to 'provide expert scientific advice into the parliament or the government'. Such a relationship exists in the United Kingdom, where the parliament has a signed agreement reflecting roles and responsibilities of 'the two parties':
It included things such as that scientists had an obligation to provide free, frank advice that was as good as they could possibly offer given the evidence that was available to them and their own expertise and their own work. On the other side, parliament made a commitment to make the advice public.
The Academy of Science noted that in many other countries science and technology advice 'is more integrated into the activities of government and parliament'. The Australian government has a Chief Scientist and a National Science and Technology Council, but the Australian Academy of Science argued that these functions are not sufficiently integrated. Recent calls by some federal politicians for the creation of 'a government watchdog' to evaluate scientific findings that have been provided to government demonstrate the disconnect. Such calls risk undermining faith in science, and are damaging to democracy, the Academy submitted:
The ensuing potential to politicise subject matter experts and consultation processes threatens Australia's democratic and free political process by disincentivising experts from engaging and providing advice and evidence.
The Academy of Science suggested that scientific advice to the parliament 'could be strengthened' by establishing an office within the parliament, 'that would work with the learned academies to provide dispassionate, impartial and bipartisan advice on science and technology issues to MPs and Senators'.
Such an office exists in the United Kingdom. The UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) works for the House of Commons and the House of Lords to 'help bridge the gap between research and policy' by providing parliamentarians with up to date research evidence and expertise to inform legislation and scrutiny. POST was established in 1989 as an external science advice office and now features as permanent office in the UK Parliament. POST is jointly funded by both houses parliament with one of the research areas receiving funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.
The POST Board oversees POST's objectives, outputs and future work program. The board reflects the make-up of the UK Parliament and spans the breadth of scientific disciplines comprising:
ten parliamentarians drawn from the House of Commons, and the four from the House of Lords, roughly reflecting the balance of parties in the parliament;
non-parliamentarians from the research community, nominated by the National Academies; and
representatives of the House of Lords, and the Research and Information, and Chamber and Committees teams of the House of Commons.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes a Parliamentary Office of Science, modelled on the United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, to provide independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data to the parliament, and all Members and Senators.
Inquiry participants were highly complementary about many aspects of Australia's electoral system. However, there were some areas where participants believed reforms would help to strengthen democracy.
Mr Geoffrey Robin talked about the importance of compulsory voting and urged the government to protect it:
In other democracies significant resources are spent on bribing people to vote in order to give credibility to the idea that a government has the support of the people. This is one instance where the Australian way is far superior. We should always fight to retain compulsory voting.
In line with this view, the Australia Institute noted that, while still comparatively high, 'voter turnout is falling' in Australia, from an average of 95 per cent to 91 per cent. The institute suggested that the $20 fine for not voting, which has not increased since 1984, should be increased to $70, to better reflect today's wages and act as an incentive.
Mr Thomas Stephen remarked that the House of Representatives should adopt a system of Proportional Representation under the Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP) with some differences to the New Zealand system. The system proposed by Mr Stephens (MMP+) 'is a mixed member proportional system that uses instant run off voting for electorates and party/group based single transferrable voting for the list seats – all on one ballot'. According to Mr Stephens, the benefit of this system would be that voters would still get to vote for a local representative, as they do now, but also receive 'an assurance that voting for a party other than the majors will count'.
Professor Greg Melleuish from the University of Wollongong argued for more federal members. With population increases, 'we're going to have bigger and bigger electorates', he said, which will make members of parliament 'increasingly distant' from their constituents. Professor Greg Melleuish proposed there should be more lower house seats. The Australia Institute supported this call, saying most Australians 'have no direct contact with their local member or his or her electoral office', and having more members would make politicians more accessible to voters.
Mr Reece reported on the outcomes of a major review of Australia's democracy conducted by the University of Melbourne and the newDemocracy Foundation, in conjunction with former premiers, Peter Shergold, Glyn Davis, Innes Willox, and representatives from the social services sector. The review came up with 15 commitments, the first of which is a proposal to review parliamentary terms: 'There was a view that a fixed parliamentary term would be an improvement to democracy'.
The University of Melbourne argued that, by world standards, Australia's three-year parliamentary terms 'are exceptionally short', and their 'unfixed nature' causes 'problems'.
Another suggestion from Mr Reece and University of Melbourne process was for candidate information packs issued by the Australian Electoral Commission:
…so that when you stand for office you are required to answer a questionnaire that really puts forward who you are, what you're about and what you will stand for. Citizens can get that information, unfiltered by the media, from those information packs and thereby make more informed decisions when casting their votes.
The committee notes that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recently tabled its report on the 2019 federal election. The committee recommends the Australian government works with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to develop and implement strategies to increase and voter enrolment and voter turnout at subsequent federal elections.
A number of participants were concerned about political advertising and made suggestions to improve the way it functions within our democracy.
Mr Ryan Winn from the Australian Council of Learned Academies argued there is a need to regulate and even ban certain forms of political advertising, such as 'micro-targeting of political campaigns'.
The Australia Institute recommended the government bring in truth in political advertising regulations, saying these regulations work well in South Australia and New Zealand.
Mr Bill Browne from the Australia Institute observed that recent election campaigns have seen routine complaints 'from one side or the other about misleading and deceptive advertising'. Mr Browne said, '[t]here's a feeling that, if anything, it's getting worse and that if it's not addressed then we could face an even worse situation in the future'. The Australia Institute said as well as working well in South Australia, truth in political advertising had also been adopted in the ACT: 'I think it works well there'.
Mr Bill Browne remarked that truth in advertising regulations improve 'the tenor of the debate culturally', as well as providing 'real redress', with issues of deceptive advertising having 'been addressed, and reasonably promptly' under existing regulations.
Mr Check Ling argued for full public funding of political advertising campaigns, saying:
With properly planned public funding, campaigning will be limited to unadorned facts, say on what the government has achieved, the state of the economy, social issues yet to be fully confronted and attended to, and the pros and cons of proposed policies for the next term of government. All this to be supported by recognised experts in the field.
Another significant concern was political donations.
Dr Sarah Cameron from the ANU Australian Election Study said campaign finance integrity in Australia 'is rated a lot lower than other similar democracies'.
The Grattan Institute observed that political parties received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations leading up to the 2016 federal election and in the final days of the election campaign, and parties 'collectively spent $368 million over the two financial years spanning the election'.
Grattan noted about 40 per cent of the money spent on elections in Australia is 'money from sources we know nothing about':
A lot of this is likely to be donations below the disclosure threshold. Some of these will be from 'mum and dad' donors who give small amounts to support a political cause. But some is probably 'donation splitting' – where donors make multiple payments below the threshold – which the parties don't need to disclose.
The 'little' we do know about this funding 'raises red flags', Grattan maintained, 'about the risk of policy capture'. For instance, thirty six individual people or organisations contributed $25 million over the course of the 2016 campaign, and, according to Grattan, 'highly regulated industries contribute the biggest share of political donations, followed by unions, and individuals with no known industry links'.
Mr Check Ling recommended banning all political donations:
This would end overnight all the cunning ways with which many with big monies try and sometimes succeed in corrupting our MPs, governments, or public servants, such as local government town planning officers.
Democracy 2025 said 73 per cent of citizens support 'limiting how much money can be spent on election campaigning and how much political parties/candidates can accept from donors'.
The Grattan Institute recommended 'capping political advertising expenditure during election campaigns, to limit the influence of money in politics'.
Public funding of elections
Public funding of elections is an important safeguard against the potential undue influence of our elections by wealthy donors and levels the playing field so that public debate is not dominated by the party with the biggest bank balance. Currently, candidates or parties receive an automatic payment of $10,344 after each federal election. They may apply for further public funding which is paid at the rate of $2.829 per eligible vote as long as the candidate receives at least 4% of first preference votes. Parties and candidates must demonstrate actual electoral expenditure for the amount claimed which prevents parties from profiting from the electoral system.
The rate of public election funding differs markedly between the various states and territories and the Commonwealth. In the ACT it is $8.62 per eligible vote for candidates who receive 4% of first preference votes. In Victoria it is $6.25 and in New South Wales it is $4.66 per eligible vote. Recent reforms in Queensland will see the rate of election funding increased from $3.30 to $6.00 per eligible vote where 4% of first preference votes are received. These increases to election funding rates support a range of donations reforms implemented by the states including the introduction of donations and expenditure caps, and reduce the pressure on parties and candidates to conduct fundraising.
Several states also provide administrative funding to parties and elected independents. Administrative funding assists parties with the increased compliance measures which are required by a transparent donations disclosure regime. Future reforms to the federal donations scheme should be supported by administrative funding so that parties, who often rely on volunteers, can appropriately comply with disclosure requirements. Administrative funding would also assist parties to implement important cyber-security measures to ensure the protection and integrity of our electoral roll. In addition to increasing the rate of public election funding, administrative funding would also further reduce parties’ reliance on private donations and hence reduce the potential for corrupting influences. Adequate public funding of our elections and political institutions, including the independent Australian Electoral Commission, is a necessary part of a functioning democracy.
The committee recommends increasing the rate of public election funding paid to parties and candidates and the introduction of administrative funding for political parties and elected independents.
The political party does not consider the elected member as a delegate of the people. Consequently, the member doesn't need to know her or his constituents or their wishes...it seems that the current party political governments, and its administrative units, treat the citizenry as 'the customer' rather than the body politic or common-wealth to whom it is paid to serve...the customer simply shops around for the best policy or product (pre-packaged by the ruling elite of each party) at an election. Thereafter, the customer is irrelevant…And after voting every three or four years the subject has no further involvement in the political process. They are effectively disenfranchised. This doesn't bode well for developing and maintaining a democratic culture.
Mr Ivan Winter, Submission 186, [p. 1].
Participants commented on a perceived decline of major political parties and their decreasing connection with the polity. The Scanlon Foundation observed that faith in political parties is weakening:
There are signs of declining trust in Australia's main political parties. The vote share of the three parties – Liberal, Labor and National – that have formed all federal governments since 1941 has fallen, and the share of independents and minor parties has risen. 23.3 per cent of the primary vote in the 2016 House of Representatives went to non-major parties, compared to 7.2 per cent in 1996. Likewise in the Senate, 35 per cent of the primary vote in the 2016 Senate went to non-major parties, compared to 9 per cent in the 1996 election.
The Lowy Institute's Mr Sam Roggeveen argued that the conditions in which the political parties arose 'simply no longer exist'. Mr Roggeveen said the parties now 'lack any real connection with a social and economic base':
The parties themselves have become much smaller. Their membership is in decline. When they become smaller, the way they've survived is to professionalise. We're in a situation now where I think roughly half of MPs and senators in the Australian parliament are either former political staffers or party officials. The political parties have gone from being mass-membership movements and true representatives of a social and economic class to becoming, really, machines for producing the next generation of politicians.
Mirroring British and European trends, participation in party political activity in Australia is declining. Mr Roggeveen remarked that in 2006, only 1 per cent of Australians were actively involved in a political party, and membership has declined markedly. More importantly, 'neither [major political] today represents a large social and economic base':
The Labor Party was formed to represent the interests of unions and their members. But union membership went into sustained decline in Australia from the 1950s as blue-collar jobs gave way to white.
Mr Roggeveen pointed to a trend of declining voter share for the major parties, saying that eventually the House of Representatives will have more cross‑benchers, and most governments will govern in minority. He argued this is 'not necessarily a disaster; lots of Western democracies function quite well that way'.
Citizens for Democratic Renewal commented that political parties need to change: '[N]o system or organisation can function effectively in perpetuity if it remains unchanged or sees itself as immune from disruption'.
Mr Roggeveen observed that 'political staffers and party officials now dominate the parliament' because outsiders are excluded. He suggested this may be because it is 'in the interest of the senior power holders within those parties to keep the party small and insular—they're much easier to control that way'.
Reporting on the results of its survey of politicians, Democracy 2025 noted that they 'appear to be genuinely concerned with the adverse impact of the professionalization of the party machine on its community-linkage role':
Perhaps the most damaging outcome of this development has been declining public trust which in turn has weakened the ability of political parties to perform their educative function through communities.
Mr Roggeveen concluded:
Liberalism is not in peril, but our political parties are. The old parties are dying, but they are dying in place. In the process they are losing public legitimacy, becoming more unstable, and more vulnerable to ideological fringe elements. The story of Australia's political turmoil is not about the rise of a new political movement but the fall of the existing party political settlement, with only chaos, confusion and political nihilism emerging in its place.
Dr Lewis observed that former prime ministers, Bob Hawke and John Howard, saw 'the narrowly focused backgrounds of those selected to be candidates as contributing to the problem Australia is facing in the political space'. Dr Lewis said the 'rules governing political parties must change'. She argued for free votes, less factionalism, and pre‑selection processes that would select more representative candidates.
The strength of Australia's federal system of government was a topic of discussion among participants in the inquiry, especially in relation to COVID‑19. This section considers the performance of the federation during the pandemic and the role of the National Cabinet in 'renewing' Australian federalism.
Renewing the federation: the National Cabinet
The survey data is very, very clear that most Australians citizens view that to be the old politics. The new politics is about common ground. It's not about adversarial politics; it's not about conflict‑driven politics.
Professor Mark Evans, Director, Democracy 2025, Committee Hansard, 7 February 2020, p. 16.
The Department of Home Affairs submitted that coordination of the pandemic response through the National Cabinet process, and other mechanisms of 'commonwealth‑state collaboration', 'has reinforced unity and trust in all levels of government'. The National Cabinet has allowed Australian governments to:
…capitalise on coordinated information sharing through functions such as the National Coordination Mechanism…in responding to the pandemic and, through the National Cabinet, have delivered innovative responses to the virus.
International IDEA described the National Cabinet as a 'democratic innovation…stemming from the times of crisis', saying it worked not only across borders, but across 'political divides'.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's (PM&C) Ms Stephanie Foster, described the National Cabinet as 'the rejuvenation of the federation over the course of this year':
To see the way in which our first ministers have been able to come together in response to this crisis has been inspirational, not to put too much weight on it. You will see in the media people highlighting those areas where there's been tension or friction. I think what that ignores is the overwhelming degree of cooperation and the success of that mechanism…
Ms Foster praised the way the National Cabinet has been able to 'tackle really tough issues' and 'set a road map and a broad direction and still allow for flexibility for individual jurisdictional requirements', while maintaining a 'national momentum towards our recovery'.
Ms Foster said she believed the ability of Australia's first ministers to come together and work cooperatively through the National Cabinet is responsible for the successful position of Australia in relation to the pandemic.
PM&C said the National Cabinet has demonstrated that 'intergovernmental relations can be more effective when ministers take ownership of agendas, focus on a small number of national priorities and make decisions quickly'. PM&C submitted the following information about the National Cabinet:
Initially [the National Cabinet's role] was a health and crisis management response and increasingly it is one of economic recovery and jobs creation. The National Cabinet meets frequently and via telepresence…The National Cabinet directly commissions and receives advice from a range of experts…National Cabinet discussions are confidential, facilitating frank and open debate. National Cabinet members have the flexibility to implement decisions in accordance with jurisdictional circumstances. Some of the benefits of the National Cabinet is that all leaders receive the same, expert and up-to-the-minute advice, can take into account the special circumstances of their jurisdictions and can learn lessons from the experiences of other jurisdictions.
Professor Evans said there has been 'a massive endorsement for more collaborative politics', and the creation of the National Cabinet was seen by citizens as 'a very, very important initiative in moving away from adversarial politics towards more collaborative, cleaner politics'.
International IDEA stated that the Australian Human Rights Institute has raised concerns about aspects of the COVID-19 response, specifically its 'impact on vulnerable groups':
Reports indicate that the pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities. More females are frontline workers, and are likely to care for family members. The economic impact of the pandemic has also affected females more than males. More time at home and isolation measures have also placed females at higher risk of violence.
The Department of Home Affairs argued that the measures implemented by the governments have been based on 'expert medical advice', 'within the constraints of the law', and have placed 'clear limitations on emergency actions to preserve strong democratic governance'.
Democracy 2025 remarked that its research has further shown that states 'which have been seen to pursue self-interest rather than the national interest during the pandemic, such as Queensland, have the lowest public approval rates in our survey'.
Reforming the federation
In its submission made before the COVID-19 crisis and the creation of the National Cabinet, the University of Melbourne recommended the government should reform the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) 'in such a way as to mitigate the problems of federalism' and 'exploit the advantages of federalism'. This should with a 'properly funded and independent secretariat charged with developing an agreed forward agenda'.
PM&C explained that leaders agreed on 29 May 2020 to 'cease' COAG, replacing it with the National Cabinet, and to commission a review of the former COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums. They also established the National Federation Reform Council (NFRC). The NFRC is made up of the state, territory and federal leaders, the treasurers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association:
The NFRC will focus on national priorities not otherwise dealt with by the National Cabinet. Three Taskforces will support the NFRC: Women's Safety, Indigenous Affairs and Veterans' Wellbeing. The first meeting of the NFRC is scheduled for 11 December 2020. The Prime Minister has said mental health will be a key focus of the meeting.
The public service, strength and independence
At every point in our history as a country where major and necessary changes have been made to public policy—and I'm thinking here of periods such as the Federation era, the 1940s and 1950s and also the 1970s and 1980s, government has been willing to draw on expertise, and it's been particularly willing to draw on the expertise of an independent Public Service. If public servants aren't in a position to share that kind of expertise, we have a problem, and I think some of the gridlock that we've seen in the last generation around a lot of policy areas is directly connected to that.
Professor Frank Bongiorno, Head, School of History, Australian National University, Committee Hansard, 14 February 2020, p. 6.
Originally designed to offer advice 'to guide and inform government', the School of History at the Australian National University, argued that the Australian public service has increasingly been required to operate under a model 'emphasising responsiveness to ministerial direction'. The School of History recommended government commit to 'greater independence' for the public service, and wider use of 'independent statutory authorities, public enquiries and royal commissions'.
Mr Chris Stamford from Civil Liberties Australia said that a lack of 'ethical architecture' at the federal level in Australia means public servants end up being 'asked to implement increasingly partisan policy'.
Professor Bongiorno said there is benefit to senior public servants having 'greater security of tenure' in that it increases the 'likelihood' that they will provide 'frank and fearless advice'. Dr Scott Prasser concurred, saying the public service has 'lost some of its capacity over the years': 'I'm all in favour of a permanent career Public Service. I'm pretty critical of contractual systems and arrangements for those sorts of people'.
Monash University Professor, Dr Colleen Lewis was critical of recent 'sackings' of department heads by incoming governments, saying such action 'is another barrier to impartial policy advice':
The sackings usually occur not because of incompetence but rather because senior members of the incoming government believe some department heads have been too close to the previous government from a different political party. Such sackings only serve to politicize the public service, which is not in the public interest.
Dr Lewis identified problems caused by the 'rising influence' of ministerial advisors over the public service as a source of advice to government, saying:
…the advice ministers seek, rely on and often act on is too often based on the interests of the party and/or the individual minister rather than the public interest…Partisan ministerial advisers also contribute to the combative nature of politics that is becoming tiresome to the electorate. It appears to be impossible for MPs to comment on a policy or to put forward an idea to change a policy direction without denigrating the other side of politics. To use a war analogy, it seems MPs cannot stop lobbying hand-grenades at each other from deeply dug trenches.
Mr Reece said instituting a 'more independent process for senior appointments', to the public service, the judiciary and major statutory bodies would strengthen Australia's democracy:
Those decisions would absolutely still remain with the parliament, and there needs to be respect for the government of the day, but we have some mechanisms which we believe can just make that a bit more independent and a bit more rigorous.
The University of Melbourne recommended government implement an independent selection process for senior appointments that 'includes improved parliamentary oversight but does not limit the ability of governments to enact change'. The university recommended appointments be made after 'a rigorous independent process has been carried out and parliament…be given the opportunity to scrutinise and comment on the appointment'.
National institutions, arts and culture
[I]ndependent public institutions are critical [and] provide opportunities for discussion of what is in the public good: the ABC, universities and the cultural sector. I'm thinking of museums, libraries, archives, perhaps state education systems and local government—all of these are really important forums in which people debate one another, discuss things with one another and try to work out something that isn't just about immediate political expediency…
Professor Frank Bongiorno, Head, School of History, Australian National University, Committee Hansard, 14 February 2020, p. 5.
Arts, heritage and culture are core components of the democratic ecosystem. Australia's national cultural institutions play a key role in 'exploring national identity, strengthening communities and supporting democracy'. The arts play an 'increasingly powerful role' in 'bridging social divides, and building empathy, social cohesion and the health of our civil society'. Ms Alexandra Marsden, National Director of the Australian Museums and Galleries Association, said, '[a]n informed, educated, inquiring and empathetic citizenry is a fundamental requirement for a mature understanding of nationhood and a sustainable democracy'.
National cultural institutions
Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dr Matthew Trinca, said national cultural institutions are 'critical to our self-understanding as a nation and that, in turn, underpins our democracy and the strength of our nation'.
The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) maintained that libraries provide equity of access to current and historic materials; support family historians, scholars and academics; hold content in languages other than English; and promote cultural harmony and diversity. Libraries contribute 'to the development of an informed society and to citizens who can participate in public debate and decision-making'. By providing free internet access, civic, and literacy programs, libraries provide 'a safety net' and access to government information, helping people participate in their democracy.
Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, Chair of National and State Libraries Australia talked about the critical role of national and state libraries as collecting institutions. This year alone, Dr Ayres explained, the libraries have collected 'what is going to be needed tomorrow' for the nation to reflect upon and understand one the most challenging and significant years in recent memory: 'We have collected well over 1000 COVID websites, and nearly that many around the bushfires. We have collected Black Lives Matter Twitter streams'.
The collections held by libraries, archives and museums, which are made available to all Australians, provide the knowledge and materials Australians need to understand the past and face the future armed with wisdom. Dr Ayres offered this example:
As we have been dealing with COVID, you'll have seen lots and lots about how Australia managed the Spanish influenza—what happened, how we dealt with it and the resilience. That commentary that allowed Australians to say we've been here before, we can get through this and we'll do it again all came from our collections and it came from the fact that they were available online to anybody in Australia.
The Director-General of the National Archives, Mr David Fricker, made clear that a core and unique role of the institution under the National Archives Act 1983 (the Archives Act) is to identify the most important records of government for permanent retention. It is the responsibility of the Archives to protect records of importance to governments, selected for their evidentiary, cultural and historic value.
This underpins democracy and public accountability, protects the rights and entitlements of the Australian people, and facilitates an historical understanding of our national identity. A strong Archives, with a transparent public-access regime, has crucial role in reinforcing trust in public administration and strengthening our international reputation.
The Archives Act is 37 years old and in need of revision. For some time a need for amendment has been recognised, to deal with such questions as the definition of a Commonwealth record in the digital age. The recent High Court decision on the so-called Palace Letters has reinforced the need to establish a new interpretation of what is a public record, and the rules for public access need to be clarified.
Mr Fricker said it is only the National Archives and the Archives Act 'that stop government officials from destroying records':
Without that role, many records would be destroyed before they even saw the light of day. We've heard a bit of discussion already about the phenomenon of disinformation and misinformation. Without authentic primary source records, Australian democracy would be poisoned by misinformation or, indeed, information warfare.
The archives also preserves records, and makes them available for all Australians. Mr Fricker explained:
We are not keeping records because we are setting out to glorify the past and we are not keeping records because we are setting out to apologise for the past. We are keeping records to remember the past—to faithfully and completely remember the past, warts and all—and to have that memory available in equal fashion to all Australians.
Mr Fricker was asked to comment on the need to balance issues of 'national security' and 'state secrets', with Australians' right of access. Mr Fricker's role in fighting a legal battle to prevent the release of correspondence between former governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen ('the Palace letters'), was discussed, along with Australian involvement in incidents in Indonesia and Chile in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr Fricker was asked if there should be 'a statute of limitation on national secrets'.
Mr Fricker said that, while that is a matter for legislation, he believes a 'balance needs to be struck':
The Archives Act is 1983. The world has moved a lot: the nature of information, our understanding of a social contract, of our citizenship, has changed in the decades since 1983. And, if the legislation could be brought up to date with contemporary thinking, then that might open new avenues for the release of that information. I would say this, though: it does go to the committee's terms of reference around citizenship. If you've ever had to negotiate the release of an Australian hostage or you've ever had to negotiate the repatriation of Australians who are stranded around the world, then sometimes you appreciate healthy foreign relations and you appreciate the work that has gone in by successive governments to maintain good relations with our friends and allies around the world…However, it has to be balanced with the universal right of access. I agree—and I think all our colleagues agree—that the more we understand about ourselves as a nation, then the stronger our social cohesion will be, the more we'll feel a part of the fabric of Australia's society and our obligations to the future of Australia would be strengthened.
Mr Fricker also observed that the role of institutions can sometimes be 'politicised…in the heat of a debate', which is unhelpful for democracy:
Whether the Bureau of Meteorology can be trusted or not is running at the moment. I think there is a role for parliament and a role for government to actually be a bit more supportive of institutions and—rather than, in a short-term debate, being dismissive of an institution—to try and think about: 'What's that institution for? What rules is it operating on?' And maybe its opinion might have an equal weight to something voiced by a journalist or something elsewhere. We were talking about trust earlier on. It has to be said that sometimes institutions do get dragged through a fairly highly politicised discussion, and it's unhelpful.
National and State Libraries Australia said Australians trust and value libraries, and visit them repeatedly. Ms Marsden observed that museums are highly trusted institutions. In fact, in the United States museums are considered 'the most trustworthy source of information', more trustworthy than 'local papers, non-profits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers'.
Ms Deborah Sulway, Manager of Learning at the Museum of Australian Democracy said, since it opened in 2009, the museum has had three million visitors, including 'over 890,000 students and teachers from more than 3,000 schools'. Ms Sulway said the museum makes 'a difference' in promoting democracy and educating students and the public about democracy: '[O]ur programs provide enriched experiences that highlight shared values, build social cohesion and create pride in our democratic heritage'.
Mrs Karp added that those who visit the museum for civics education 'are less cynical and more optimistic about democracy than 'we have been led to believe'.
The National Museum of Australia proposed that museums raise public awareness about 'the value of cultural and natural heritage' and encourage citizens to 'recognise responsibilities to their fellow citizens'. Museums 'make abstract ideas of national meaning more material and physical' and stimulate 'reflection upon national identity, national community and the practice of citizenship', especially for school children.
Cultural institutions also help to create more active citizens. The Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) said museums are increasingly encouraging active participation and interaction as part of their exhibitions: '[V]oicing your opinion or sharing your experience – whether as visitor, citizen, or community collaborator – is an accelerating trend.'
Digitisation and discoverability
Representatives from the national institutions noted the importance of making their collections as accessible as possible to all Australians. Mr Fricker said:
There's no value in a sheet of paper in a dark room if nobody knows it's there. We are in a digital society. It's got to be where the people are, and the people are on their smart devices. So, if we want to pluralise our collections, we must digitise. That's the antidote to the misinformation and disinformation that we were talking about.
Dr Ayres said digitisation is about 'proliferating access to the collections'. The National Library has digitised just under 10 per cent of its physical collections, all 50,000 hours of its audio collections, three quarters of Australian newspapers up to 1955 (the project will be complete in about three years), and the papers of General Sir John Monash.
Dr Trinca said digitisation is only one side of the coin, with 'discoverability' being equally important. Despite significant efforts of the sector to make records available, such as through 'Trove', it is not 'at the same level' as it needs to be for the public to enjoy easy access to these resources. Dr Trinca said the cultural sector needs something like 'The Atlas of Living Australia':
…which enables you to go in and spatially locate collections relevant to an area you might be interested in—that same kind of facility across the breadth of the cultural heritage estate, held by all of us as a distributed collection, is not available.
Dr Ayres confirmed that the library sector has been campaigning for a kind of all-inclusive 'index'. All of the collections are currently represented through Trove, but not in a way that is truly interconnected and discoverable to the public.
Dr Trinca agreed, saying he wanted to see Australia's cultural heritage collections digitised and made accessible:
…in ways that allow you to compare Phar Lap's heart, say, held at the National Museum of Australia, with a newspaper report that might be available in Trove and, indeed, with information about Flemington Racecourse online.
Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA), Ms Sue McKerracher said another way the federal government could support digital access would be through supporting copyright law reform. She noted that initial copyright law reforms were passed in 2017, and urged the government to continue supporting the 'round of copyright law reform being discussed right now'.
The current tranche of reforms relate to copyright access. The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications notes that 'the need for change has been highlighted during COVID-19, with schools, universities, cultural institutions and governments having to deliver essential services online'. The reforms being proposed are designed to 'simplify and update Australia's copyright laws' so that they 'better support the needs of Australians and public institutions to access material in an increasingly digital environment'. These reforms would support schools, libraries and other institutions that support democracy. The Government expects to release exposure draft legislation later in 2020.
Ms McKerracher said, '[d]igital access to collections is essential. Please help us get those reforms through'.
Historical and heritage societies
President of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, Professor Don Garden talked about the role of historians and historical societies in strengthening Australian civil society and national identity, and building community by igniting an interest in history. Professor Garden said:
The voluntary community historical and heritage societies do an enormous amount to preserve and retell our stories; they collect the documents and images and the ephemera, and use those to promote a sense of understanding. This is very important in developing a sense of wider community connection and a sense of being Australian, being part of the wider community.
Small government grants, provided at key times for well-planned projects have had big impacts, such as during the Centenary of Federation, when many community projects were funded. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a massive community interest in the history of the flu pandemic of 1919:
…there's a historian in New South Wales, Peter Hobbins, who's been both an academic historian and a professional historian and is very active in community history. He recently said in a talk that I heard on Zoom that he has made more than 50 appearances talking about his special knowledge of the Spanish influenza pandemic that started in 1918. I think this is where community historians and professional historians can really play such a vital role in informing the wider community.
Mr Gary Kent from the Australian Council of National Trusts said national trusts have been 'an important part of Australian heritage protection and awareness for…50 or 60 years'. National Trusts not only preserve buildings and the built environment, they also have a comprehensive program of research, education and walks.
Mr Kent cautioned that preserving the nation's heritage 'doesn't just happen by accident':
It requires an effective national heritage regime, requiring strong leadership, effective legislation and appropriate funding, backed by state and local initiatives…We would like to see the importance of heritage reflected in the committee's report. We'd like to see a renewed Commonwealth interest in heritage. We think that's been on the wane over recent decades. We're also, of course, very keen to see continued and appropriate resourcing of the national institutions here today, because so much of our heritage is captured in these institutions.
Mr Kent said the National Trust is 'very disappointed' to note that in the last 20 years there have only been 'about 130 heritage listings'. The trust believes heritage assessments 'take a long time' and often do not progress. Mr Kent recommended the resources provided to the Australian Heritage Council be increased, and that heritage listing should be 'a much more independent process', not the choice of one minister, and that more should be listed.
Screen, visual and performing arts
A combined submission from Australian performing arts organisations proposed that the arts are 'vital enablers helping us to explore identity' – both individual and national. Performing arts provides 'different understandings of the world, of how we live and who we are' to local and international audiences. The arts are 'fundamental to nation-building', and to the vibrancy and inclusiveness of Australia's democracy.
The Australia Council for the Arts explained that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture are increasingly becoming Australia's key tourism draw card. The Australia Council is now providing support to 'the First Nations arts sector' to develop a National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority, to ensure First Nations artists can have control over their production.
The arts have a role in promoting social cohesion, which helps to strengthen democracy and protect against populism and other threats. The Australia Council for the Arts submitted:
Given rising social divisions, anxiety and xenophobia both at home and overseas, there is an urgent need to harness the dynamic energy of our multi-layered, multicultural, contemporary democratic society. The arts are an antidote to social divisions and threats, through their ability to inspire our collective imagination, engage and connect us, challenge our assumptions and humanise those with whom we may disagree. They enable a plurality of voices to be heard, including the disaffected and divided 'quiet Australians' and those who feel they are being left behind by rapid social change.
The Australian performing arts organisations maintained that art has been 'the most effective tool for building relationships and awareness between First Nations peoples and the wider community'. There is currently 'no dedicated program' for the funding of First Nations performing arts, and the performing arts are currently underrepresented in existing government arts programs: 'Enhanced government investment will increase the vibrancy, diversity and capacity of the arts to explore and reflect our national identity'.
The Australia Council for the Arts recommended the government:
scale up existing programs aimed at increasing social and community cohesion through investment in arts and culture;
provide funding for First Nations performance, art and culture in recognition that culture is 'a cross system priority through the Closing the Gap Refresh'; and
provide funding for arts activities through the Department of Home Affairs as part of a social cohesion package for 'Bringing Australians Together', 'similar to the funding stream providing investment in "Driving Social Inclusion through Sport and Physical Activity"'.
Australian universities actively engage in community civic discourse and play an integral role in giving a forum for open and informed debate. This function of Australian higher education institutions is a vital contribution to Australia's cohesive democracy, national identity and understanding of nationhood.
Western Sydney University, Submission 161, p. 1.
Universities have historically been seen as important institutions upholding and strengthening liberal democracy. The University of Western Australia (UWA) maintained that public universities 'offer the foundation of educated, thoughtful, critical, decision-making that should be at the core of democratic engagement'.
Professor Joy Damousi from the Australian Academy of the Humanities said that the humanities, including her discipline of history, play a critical role 'in promoting a robust and enduring democracy'. With over half of Australians between the ages of 25 and 35 now holding tertiary qualifications, Professor Damousi argued the university sector 'plays a major role in identifying the strengths of democracy and creating social cohesion around knowledge'. Professor Chubb added that university education in the sciences and other disciplines teaches Australians to be active, critical citizens.
Ms Meghan Bergamin from Australasian Council of Deans of Arts said students who undertake studies in the humanities and social sciences (HASS) disciplines 'participate more in democracy': 'They have greater trust in democratic institutions and they participate more in civic society than students who haven't had that advantage'.
Ms Bergamin said that HASS graduates learn to 'apply critical and analytical skills', which help them to identify sources of information that are 'trustworthy and which ones may not be', learn to solve complex problems, and may gain 'cultural competency, global citizenship and research capabilities in a variety of disciplines'.
The Australian Academy of the Humanities suggested that with trust in politics and the media so low, 'it is useful to look to sectors and institutions which continue to maintain high levels of public trust'. Universities continue to enjoy relatively high trust compared with politics and the media, the academy stated. As such, the academy suggested government 'consider ways to harness the collective experience and expertise' of Australia's universities to contribute to protecting and defending Australia's democracy.
By international standards, Australia's key democratic institutions are strong. From our national cultural institutions, to our independent electoral commission, to our public schools and universities.
The key pillar of Australia's democracy – the federal parliament – is a strong democratic institution with robust procedures and a number of mechanisms for holding governments accountable. The Senate in particular has powerful ways of scrutinising the actions of the executive, government departments, and officials.
Parliamentary committees are the key mechanism by which parliaments can build strength and resilience to guard against threats to democracy.
Committees take parliament to the people and bring the people to the parliament. They provide a direct line of communication between citizens and elected representatives. At their best, committee inquiries bring together citizens and communities affected by policies and legislation, with experts and decision-makers, to work through detail, and solve problems.
Committee inquires can lead to improvements in legislation, or to new ways of doing things. They can uncover truths, and they can heal divisions.
To fulfil their potential as agents for citizen engagement, committees need to be better resourced. The parliament should fund more secretariat staff to complete committee work. Committees need adequate staffing so they can dedicate sufficient time to public engagement activities and promotion of inquiries. Committee secretariats need additional time and, where appropriate, additional training, to help them reach out to vulnerable or hard-to-reach stakeholder groups.
The Senate Standing Orders provide for the provision of 'all necessary staff and resources' and the appointment of 'persons with specialist knowledge' for committee purposes, with the approval of the President (Senate Standing Order 25(17)). Committees should be encouraged to make better use of this facility to ensure inquiries are better resourced and have access to specialised expertise, where it is beneficial to do so.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the committees' communications technology systems. Committees have traditionally relied heavily on collecting evidence through face-to-face hearings. This method is very effective, but its weaknesses have become apparent in light of the travel bans and social distancing requirements imposed by COVID-19.
Committees need to look at new and innovative ways to engage the public in the work of committees. These should not replace face-to-face hearings, but supplement them. Critically, committees need access to effective and reliable communications technology, especially during the pandemic. Australia's parliament is the core institution of our democracy: its IT system should be world-class.
Improving the image of parliamentarians
Australia's parliaments are largely functional, surprisingly cooperative organisations. Parliamentarians are generally hard working, dedicated and passionate about serving our constituents, and most of us have a genuine belief in the policies we promote.
It would be foolish indeed, however, for us to ignore the anger and cynicism of Australians who do not see things that way. When many Australians look at the parliament, they do not see a proud institution, full of hardworking women and men. They see division, they see infighting, and they see game-playing. What they see has no relevance to their lives. It is alienating, it is disappointing.
The public sees so little of the good that happens in parliament, and this is unfortunate. Question time is not a positive reflection on the parliament or parliamentarians, and does not build trust and confidence in Australia's democracy. The committee notes that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure is conducting an inquiry into the practices and procedures relating to question time. We look forward to the outcome of that inquiry.
Members of parliament have a role to play in upholding the institutions of democracy. Criticisms levelled against democratic institutions and their representatives may make short term political gains, but the effect is to delegitimise our institutions, and lessen public trust in their role. Ultimately, this weakens democracy. When we attack our political opponents in a way that delegitimises democracy itself, all we do is score political 'own goals'.
Inquiry participants made a number of suggestions to strengthen parliamentary democracy. The committee has adopted some of these and made recommendations. In relation to others, we wish to express our support.
The committee sees merit in the idea of candidate information packs created and issued by the Australian Electoral Commission, using information sourced through research, and a candidate questionnaire. These information packs need not replace existing forms of election advertising, but would provide a reliable source of basic candidate information citizens could access if they wished to inform their vote.
The committee supports the copyright access reforms that would update Australia's copyright laws to simplify access to digital materials for schools, libraries and public institutions that support democracy.
The committee notes the critical role of libraries as civic spaces, and spaces for learning, literacy and social engagement.
The committee supports our national cultural and heritage institutions, and the key role they play in protecting Australia's knowledge, history, heritage, information, data and cultural artefacts. Perhaps even more importantly, these institutions provide access to this history, this culture and this knowledge for Australians and those who visit us – both in person and online.
The committee acknowledges the important role played by screen, visual and performing arts in exploring and enforcing national identity, and building social cohesion. Social cohesion strategies should not ignore this critical area of investment.
Finally, the committee recognises the optimism generated in response to the creation of the National Cabinet, and the reported 'renewal' of the federation. It is too early to know if this optimism will be maintained. However, the committee is encouraged to hear of its innovative working practices, and hopes this may be indicative of a new era of political cooperation.
The committee recommends that the Australian government amends the National Archives Act 1983 to extend the definition of a public record to include new forms of information storage such as digitised data, and to clarify the rules for public access to the Archives.
The committee recommends that the Australian government works with academics, national institutions and cultural organisations, and the non‑government sector, to develop a long-term national strategy to strengthen Australia's democracy.