Most Australians no longer think it matters which major party is in government according to new research, which also reveals a significant decline in support for democracy over the past seven years.
The study, conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) in partnership with the Social Research Centre, found satisfaction with democracy slumped from 86 per cent in 2007 to 72 per cent when attitudes were surveyed again in June.
The number of Australians who believed it made a difference which party was in power plunged from 68 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period.
ANU Professor, Ian McAllister, said Australian democracy still enjoys high levels of support compared to overseas but he is concerned by the loss of belief in a meaningful vote.
“Efficacy, the belief in the effectiveness of your vote, is really quite an important indicator in the health of a democracy,” Professor McAllister said.
I think people have to modify or lower their expectations of what democracy is – it is adversarial and full of compromise. I think people have unrealistic expectations.
After the unprecedented instability of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, Professor McAllister says the Abbott Government should have generated renewed political confidence but for the first time in the poll’s history, the election of a new government did not see increased satisfaction.
“We had an all-time low in this ANU poll. We would have expected after the 2013 election, with a change of government, that there would have been an increase. But it continued its downward decline,” he said.
Earlier this year, the annual Lowy Institute poll of Australian attitudes found 40 per cent no longer believed democracy was the best form of government.
The main reasons given were that democracy was serving vested interests rather than those of the majority, and that there was no real difference between the two major parties.
“It’s not that they think democracy is bad, but that there is something about the political system that’s not working,” the Lowy Institute’s Alex Oliver said.
“We have had long decades of prosperity and no major wars. I think people have lost touch with what democracy means,” Oliver said.
“I think people have to modify or lower their expectations of what democracy is – it is adversarial and full of compromise. I think people have unrealistic expectations.”
Apathy versus disengagement debate
Nearly 20 per cent of eligible voters, or about 3 million Australians, effectively opted out of the last federal election by either failing to enrol to vote, not showing up to vote or voting informally.
They tend to be younger, poorer, outer-metropolitan and rural, according to Dr Tim Battin from the University of New England.
He says most of them are not apathetic but they believe the political system excludes them.
“There is a very big difference between apathy and disenchantment and disengagement,” Dr Battin said.
“To be disenchanted with political options is not to be apathetic, it’s to take a conscious decision that the system is failing.”
The ANU-SRC poll also found record high levels of national pessimism about the future with just 30 per cent of Australians believing their lives will improve in the next five years.
Most believe their children’s lives will be worse than their own.
“We’ve become a nation of worriers,” political market researcher Tony Mitchelmore said.
“A lot of people say to me in the groups I run that they feel nervous all the time.”
This is feeding growing disillusion and frustration with short-term political gamesmanship between the two major parties, Mr Mitchelmore said.
Claims politically engaged voters shifting away from major parties
The record Senate vote for third parties and independents at the last election includes an emerging group of voters who supported the Palmer United Party and want to disrupt the status quo.
“They are not the stereotypical angry, uneducated voter. They are generally more politically engaged and savvy,” says Mr Mitchelmore.
“They knew Clive Palmer wasn’t going to form government but they saw him as more authentic and voted for him because they knew he’d give the whole system a kick.”
Professor McAllister says the ANU-SRC poll shows that Australians still have very high levels of confidence in key institutions such as the courts, the police, the defence force and universities.
But he worries there could be a looming crisis because of a collapse in engagement with mainstream politics among younger voters.
“The two indicators that worry me the most are the high number of young people not enrolling to vote and the very low numbers of people joining major political parties,” he said.
“The health of democracy depends on the largest number of people engaging in it and if we have significant groups of people that don’t, then potentially if there’s an economic problem or a threat to democracy this can be a real problem.
“They can turn to charismatic leaders and protest parties and turn away from the major established parties that provide the long term stability for the system.”