Professor Ian McAllister and PhD researcher Intifar Chowdhury. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Does Australian democracy need a grand redesign?

With the pillars of trust and satisfaction holding up Australian democracy crumbling, our political system is due for an overhaul, Megan Dingwall reports. 

When Kevin Rudd and Labor won Australia’s 2007 federal election, trust in government climbed.  

The victory, which ended the 11-year term of John Howard’s Liberal-National government, also saw satisfaction with Australian democracy reach its highest level on record. 

The increase wasn’t a surprise. Political trust in government tends to follow a pattern in Australia; when a new party is elected, trust in government typically rises while the public is buoyed by optimism and hope. Then, as expectations aren’t met and disillusionment sets in, it starts to fall.  

According to that cycle, when Tony Abbott led the Coalition to victory and unseated Labor in 2013, there should have been an increase in trust in government. But it never came.  

In the following six years, trust in government eroded to its lowest point on record and satisfaction with democracy to a 40-year low. 

Is our democracy in crisis? 

Professor Ian McAllister wouldn’t call Australia a democracy in crisis.  

“It's a warning signal that there's something not right out there, that people are concerned about what the government is doing, and about the people that are going into government.” 

McAllister leads the Australian Election Study, conducted by ANU, which has analysed every federal election since 1987. But research tracking trust in government and satisfaction in democracy goes back to 1967, just in time to capture Australia’s constitutional crisis in 1975.  

If citizens don't trust the politicians...then this defeats the whole purpose of democracy.

The crisis saw both trust and satisfaction plummet. In a 1979 survey 29 per cent of respondents felt the people in government could be trusted. Slightly more than half, 56 per cent, said they were satisfied with democracy, down from 77 per cent a decade earlier. 

In the latest election study conducted in 2019, just 25 per cent said they had trust in government and 59 per cent were satisfied with democracy. But unlike in 1975, the catalyst for the decline isn’t as clear.  

“What has happened since 2007 has been a secular decline and we call it secular because it's not related to particular events,” McAllister says. 

Australia escaped much of the damage of the Global Financial Crisis, but in harder hit countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, it led to political discontent and affected attitudes to democracy, most notably among younger people, McAllister says. 

Are our youth to blame? 

Distrust of democracy isn’t restricted to young people; the research shows it stretches across generations. But a low turnout of young voters at Australia's last federal election led to claims young people were turning their backs on democracy, as has happened in several advanced democracies across the globe.  

PhD researcher Intifar Chowdhury has investigated these trends and found that’s not happening here, but there is a difference in how young people engage in politics.   

“Young people are not rejecting democracy,” she says.    

“For the same-sex marriage plebiscite young people enrolled in droves. Then at the subsequent election in 2019 there was a drop in young people engaging. That shows youth electoral disengagement is a symptom of a deeper problem in the system.” 

While millennials and Generation Z are less likely to participate in traditional democratic processes such as voting or joining a political party, they are finding other ways to engage, such as protesting or online petitions, which they feel will have more impact.  

“This shift away from traditional politics is possible for two reasons,” Chowdhury says. “Number one, traditional politics is not catering to young people the way they want to be catered for, and two, there are other options of engaging more effectively.” 

What happens when people don’t trust government? 

Chowdhury points to Hungary and Italy as examples of what happens when democracy is under pressure.   

“We see cracks in the existing system lead to erosion of trust and confidence in mainstream political institutions and political parties. You then have this disenchanted mob, vulnerable to anti-system populist rhetoric that is anti-democratic and sometimes has sexist, racist undertones.” 

By contrast, countries with high levels of satisfaction in democracy, such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, have some of the lowest levels of crime and corruption, McAllister says.   

“Generally, people participate less when they have a lower sense of efficacy,” he says. 

“When people don't trust government and what government does, they're less compliant with the rules and regulations that are put forward.”  

How can we fix our democracy? 

Australia’s political system is due for a radical redesign, according to McAllister. 

“We have a political system that was designed in the late 19th century and drew on British and American parliamentary practice going back about another 50 or 70 years,” he says. 

“Look at all the things that have happened in the last 140 years or so. This is not fit for purpose.” 

There are several steps Australia could take to reform its political institutions and improve the calibre of politicians, starting with changing our “absurd electoral cycle”, McAllister suggests. 

“We are one of the few countries in the world that have a three-year electoral cycle. Effectively, a government only has about a year to do anything and then within 18 months they’re looking at the next election. 

“Having parliamentary terms of four years is a no-brainer.” 

Other changes could include Senate reform to reduce the influence of political parties, term limits to undermine career politicians, recall elections to hold politicians more accountable to their constituents, and overhauling parliamentary procedures to make them less adversarial.  

“But all of this would require consensus among the political parties,” McAllister says. “It would require those leading political parties to effectively write themselves out at some stage, which they wouldn't be very keen on doing.” 

To engage younger generations, Chowdhury says government and politicians need to talk to young people, not at them.  

"If you want to restore trust and confidence among young people, you need to start listening to them, talking to them, and considering them as important parts of the electorate who are capable of making sound political judgements." 

Institutional and structural changes are also needed to ensure key policymaking bodies are more representative of the electorate, including marginalised groups, minorities and young people, she says. 

“If citizens don't trust the politicians or the institutions that shape the rules that inform their everyday lives, then this defeats the whole purpose of democracy.”