A health check on Australian democracy

What the Voice referendum reveals about the state of our democracy

The Voice result reveals hard truths about our progress to reconciliation with those who were here before 1788. The campaign leading up to that outcome exposes serious weaknesses in our democracy – weaknesses that were exploited by ruthless opportunists with little regard for truth, evidence or reasoned argument, and who seemed to have no moral framework within which to contain their political behaviour.

To quote from Barry Jones, writing in The Saturday PaperTruth and the threats to liberal democracy:

Since 2016, Donald Trump has changed the nature of political discourse beyond recognition. With Trump, the concept of truth is irrelevant. Assertions are completely transactional. Evidence is discounted or dismissed as “fake news” and gut reactions and instinct override analysis and the need to take account of contrary views. There were Trumpian elements in the 2019 and 2022 federal elections but the referendum on the Voice in 2023 took it to another level.

Also writing in The Saturday PaperThe plot to bury reconciliation – John Hewson states:

There should be little doubt about the extent of misrepresentation and dishonesty in this referendum campaign – so much, in fact, that the government must be pressured to honour its promises to reform truth in political advertising by way of new laws before the next election.

Jones reminds us of the ground rules that should govern political discourse:

Liberal democracy depends on rational debate, where evidence is testable, both sides use a common language and accept accountability for misleading. If democracy is to survive, it will require each of us to commit to hard knowledge, rational calculation, basic values and an obstinate will to end avoidable suffering.

What do we think of democracy?

Worldwide, and most notably in the USA, there is evidence of democratic backsliding. To what extent is it happening here?

The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has pulled together Australian and Asian survey data to track the path of public attitudes to democracy here and in our region: Australian views towards democracy: Comparisons through time and with the rest of the region.

To quote from its abstract:

While the majority of Australians are satisfied with democracy, there is evidence of some declines in the level of satisfaction with democracy amongst the Australian population with a substantial drop in the proportion who were very satisfied with democracy between 2008 and 2023. The fact that levels of satisfaction are lowest amongst those living in the lowest income households and those with relatively low levels of educational attainment should be a matter of significant concern. This is particularly in the context of growing perceived disparities in income and wealth in Australia.

The document also reports on changing confidence in government. Our confidence in government was low when the pandemic broke out but it rose rapidly as governments brought the pandemic under control. Then it fell over 2021 and 2022. It picked up when the Morrison government lost office, but has been slowly falling since. Our confidence in state governments is generally higher than our confidence in the federal government (a common finding in multi-level democracies).

The survey has many findings on specific attitudes. Some that stand out:

In 2023, 15 percent of Australians believe “we should get rid of elections and have experts make decisions on behalf of the people”, and 8 percent believe “the army should come to govern the country”.

In 2023, 52 percent of Australians agree with the statement “the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves”. This is down from 68 percent agreement in 2018.

When asked how satisfied people are with democracy in their own country, Vietnamese and Cambodians are more satisfied than Taiwanese, Australians and Koreans. That’s a hard one to figure out: an explanation probably lies in people’s understanding of what is meant by “democracy”.