Does politics let down the people?

| November 1, 2023

We have a distrustful and disillusioned electorate, a professionalised political system that, however, frequently alienates the sort of people we should be attracting into parliament, a public service that has been found wanting, an excessively secretive approach to information and accountability, media that are too often driven by clicks and ratings, and social media that debase political discourse more often than elevate it. All this invites the questions: is our democracy failing us and how can it do better?

Today’s voters don’t think much of the political system as it is operating, or its participants. Trust in politicians and political institutions is low. Some voters are hostile to politics and those in it; a lot are unengaged, except at elections.

Many among the young feel they’ve got the worst of the generational stick, with expensive education bills and home ownership frequently out of reach. Time-poor, cost-and-debt-burdened families are impatient with the gamesmanship that often dominates politics and the way it is reported. Older voters look back with what may be a false memory of the way things were.

The electorate is changing as the baby boomers retire and die. So are political attitudes and values. In the next two federal parliamentary terms, millennials (now aged 27-42) and generation Z (currently 11-26) combined will become the biggest voting group.

What’s happening to people’s standard of living remains central. But debate around components of that is changing, as the proportion of renters increases and pressure mounts for the big cities to become denser rather than more sprawling. Other issues have reconfigured. Mental health has risen in the hierarchy of health concerns. Gender and diversity issues have come to the fore in political debate. Against this background, new pressures are coming on our political system.

In this lecture I’ll canvass political parties, parliament, the public service, accountability, and the media. The media are not strictly OF the political system but they are certainly IN it, very centrally, as messengers and often as participants and advocates.

A question of trust

Let me start with trust, because it is central to the rest of the system – to whether people think it’s worth being involved, their faith in governments and their decisions, in parliament and in the public service, and their confidence in what they see and read in the media.

For an individual leader, as former premier Anna Bligh was fond of quoting, “trust arrives on a tortoise and leaves on a galloping horse”. More generally, in western democracies political trust has been declining over decades, with some cycles within that. Australia reflects the international pattern.

Many factors are at work: the mood of the times, people’s circumstances and their expectations, the behaviour of political participants, and the changing nature and coverage of the all-pervasive media. Political trust is notably lower than, for example, our trust in experts, which is high. In the pandemic we saw an uptick in trust in political institutions and political leaders. In threatening times, people turned to recognised institutions and those in charge. As the pandemic subsided, so did the trust.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found, “Australia is already on a path to polarisation, driven by a series of macro forces that are weakening the country’s social fabric and creating increasing division in society. This year’s report finds that almost half of Australians (45%) say the nation is more divided today than in the past – with the rich and powerful identified as a major dividing force (72%), followed by hostile foreign governments (69%), journalists (51%) and government leaders (49%).”

Mark Evans, co-ordinator of the Democratic Audit of Australia at Charles Sturt University, sums up the trust deficit this way:

“In general, Australians are great champions of democratic values but are distrusting of people in government and have limited confidence in the ability of governments of whatever form to address major public policy concerns.”

We can, perhaps, place “trust”, “scepticism” and “alienation” along a continuum. For a well-functioning democracy we need people to have a fundamental belief in the system, the integrity of its component parts, and how those who operate it behave.

On the other hand, people should be sceptical enough to question the system, advocate for major or minor reforms, and call out faults or dysfunction in it. It’s a balance. If scepticism moves into total cynicism and to alienation, and that takes wide hold, a democratic polity will lurch into disaster. On the other hand, trust without the vigilance of a healthy degree of scepticism will erode the muscle of democracy.

The decline of the major parties

Two notable features of the 2022 election – leaving aside its central feature of a change of government – were the extremely low votes of Labor and the Coalition, and the record number of crossbenchers elected to the House of Representatives.

At that election, the Coalition and Labor between them mustered only a little over two-thirds (68.3%) of the primary vote. Sixteen crossbenchers (including four Greens) were elected (the crossbench later rose to 17 with the defection of a Nationals member).

Recent decades have seen a big decline in support for the major parties. As for the crossbenchers, while over the years there have been a few in the House, and at times they’ve been important (as during the Gillard minority government), the current batch is something new, in numbers and nature.

Six (all women) are the so-called “teals”. (Seven if you count Zali Steggall, who was already there.) Not a party, the teals can nevertheless be seen as a loose “network”. They campaigned on common issues (climate, integrity, more equality for women), and received financial backing and advice from the Climate 200 fund, founded by Simon Holmes à Court. The teals, and some of the other independents, are part of a wider phenomenon of “community candidates”.

Independent Senators and MPs at Parliament House in August 2023.

The major parties, Labor and Liberal, struggle to appeal. Their grip on voters has loosened with the decline of the old class-based, ideological political divide. The voting pattern has realigned, with many wealthier, highly educated voters shifting to the progressive side of politics, and the Liberals pitching to the lower-income, outer suburban voters (“Howard’s battlers”, “Tony’s tradies”).

Over the decades the memberships of the big parties have fallen dramatically. Fewer people are “joiners” these days. Very few indeed, apart from aspirants for office, have time or desire to attend usually-boring party branch meetings, for little reward.

The major parties give their rank and file members little that’s meaningful: even power over preselections is often overridden in practice, and the parties are faction-ridden. Identity politics has brought a new dimension to activism, including within parties, with people joining because of a particular issue or identification, rather than the party’s broader agenda.

Today’s Labor and Liberal backbenchers are much more quiescent than a few decades ago. Labor celebrates its more diverse caucus, but that doesn’t extend to a diversity of views at caucus meetings. One might have expected a debate after the referendum result – it didn’t happen. A caucus meeting with more than two questions can be considered lively. The Coalition party room is usually also placid.

Those ordinary people who are attracted to politics (but don’t aspire to be MPs) want a feeling of agency. Today’s political activists can be mobilised by specific causes, by the prospect of being heard, by the opportunity to feel personally involved and making a difference. The use of the term “voice” by community candidate groups captures the sentiment.

These activists also often want politics to be different, to be better. In some areas, they want to make the system sit up and take notice of their electorate. If a seat is not marginal, both sides might overlook it when it comes to handouts, actual or promised. This was a factor in the seat of Indi, held by independents since 2013.

Some people enjoy getting behind an inspiring local candidate and feeling they are doing something worthwhile, which accounted for the armies of volunteers who backed teal candidates in 2022.

All this can be seen in both positive and negative terms. A big crossbench of vocal people willing to speak out on many issues refreshes the parliamentary system. On the other hand, the hollowing out of the major parties is a seriously retrograde development.

These are the “parties of government”, the routes to power for those who will become ministers and, ultimately, for prime ministers. When they, and the wider political scene, are unattractive to so many potentially good candidates, that will ultimately take a toll on the quality of government we get.

Attracting potential high flyers to their ranks is a major challenge for the big parties. It may sound elitist but these parties do need to get into parliament people who can reach the top ranks of a ministry. Yet the best candidate to win, especially in a marginal seat, increasingly can be the so-called “local champion”, who will be a good representative for their area but may go no further.

As well, given politics has become so toxic and intrusive, many talented, well-qualified people would prefer to fly high in other fields. A view confirmed by what they see of parliament on the nightly news.


It’s too easy to romanticise the past; parliament was always a bear pit. But now, thanks to televising, we see its inglorious detail. Speaker Milton Dick daily must wage a herculean battle in question time, which over the years has resisted efforts to make it more productive and civilised.

The Speaker of the House, Milton Dick, during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra in March 2023. 

Visitors who watch this hour and a bit from the public gallery are often totally disillusioned by the spectacle. I recall a few years ago talking to a group of community leaders visiting Canberra who’d observed question time earlier in the day: they were outraged. “What can we do?” they asked. I could only suggest they contact their local MP.

In 2021 a parliamentary inquiry reported on what changes should be made. In his foreword to the report, Liberal Ross Vasta wrote:

“While opinions differed on how question time could be improved, the need for improvement was conveyed clearly from every quarter. In particular, enhanced accountability, better questions and answers and a higher standard of behaviour were sought.”

Any improvement has been marginal. This government, like the last, has its backbenchers fire off “Dorothy Dixers”, which can be summarised as inviting ministers to say what a good job the government is doing. While the opposition has the opportunity to ask incisive questions, in practice it is often just looking for TV grabs and, anyway, ministers seldom attempt to genuinely answer questions from the other side.

The larger crossbench has probably produced a few more questions actually seeking information (and the government is very polite to the teals). But mostly, I have to say, question time is pretty useless.

The Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney during Question Time in September 2023. 

However, there is an important qualification to that damning judgement. When a minister is under pressure, question time can be potent. We saw this in recent months with Transport Minister Catherine King and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney. These encounters can be painful to watch, and not for the faint-hearted to endure. Ministers sometimes complain the attacks amount to bullying. Another interpretation is that ministers are being held publicly accountable.

There have been various attempts at promoting a so-called “kinder, gentler” parliament, including from the crossbench in the Gillard years – and we remember how that went. After one fracas this year, teal MP Kylea Tink called out the bad behaviour, including saying an opposition MP had aggressively challenged her over how she was voting in a division during a particularly unruly question time. Tink told the house: “I do not feel proud of the way my workplace was represented yesterday. And, quite frankly, I did not feel safe.”

There is one obvious obstacle in trying to improve parliamentary behaviour, particularly at question time. That is, an opposition might decide its best strategy is to cause havoc. This can be an effective tactic, but it won’t win the respect of the public.

In relation to more general behaviour in the parliamentary workplace, various inquiries and activity following the allegations from former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins have resulted in reforms and improvements.

Some aspects of the parliament do excel, and we should not overlook that. The committee system, notably in the Senate, has grown in importance. While some committee work amounts to little more than going through the partisan motions, in other cases the efforts can be first-rate.

The Senate estimates committees, which in theory examine appropriations but in practice range much further, provide a degree of check on secretive governments, including the opportunity to question bureaucrats (who fear, even hate, these interrogations).

This year parliamentarians in various committee hearings did remarkable digging on PwC and the other consultancies; they also put strong pressure on Qantas, as well as delving into the government’s performance in rejecting the bid for Qatar Airways to be allowed more flights. Committee work gives the backbenchers involved a chance to shine. Labor’s Senator Deb O’Neill, the Greens’ Barbara Pocock, and the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie have done notable work recently.

But more generally, too often backbenchers – in their parliamentary role – find themselves foot soldiers following orders, or rather, talking points. Hear one on a topic, and you’ve heard them all. Frequently that goes for ministers too, when they are speaking outside their own area.

Top-down control means all ministers receive “talking points” on everything that is or might be in the news. Given the government floods the media with ministers, and every minister is likely to be asked about anything in the day’s news, regardless of most of it being outside their portfolio, “talking points” provide their security blankets. They just have to absorb and repeat them. Hence those embarrassing TV clips of several ministers parroting the same words.

Back to basics

The Albanese government came to power promising to revitalise a public service that had lost capability and independence and was demoralised under the Morrison government. Maybe it will, though it’ll be years before we can judge. But it wasn’t just the attitude of the former government that dragged the public service down. It’s a much longer-term, complicated story.

The advisory process has become more competitive over the decades. Since the early 1970s, there’s been the rise and rise of the ministerial office, with its powerful and sometimes pesky staffers, who have special access to ministerial ears. There has also been the rise of a plethora of advocacy groups and the emergence of many specialist well-resourced think tanks.

In recent years the pitches from the consultancy firms have found extensive favour with governments anxious to outsource. Also, in a public service that has lost much of its prestige, rising talent is easily tempted into well-rewarded private sector positions, especially in those high-paying consultancies.

Back in the day, it was the Keating government that put top public servants onto contracts, making them literally and psychologically more vulnerable. Former public service commissioner Andrew Podger wrote recently that:

“the contract system for secretaries, which means they are constantly under an implicit threat of losing their jobs, is contributing to excessive willingness to please.”

And the modern doctrine of the need for the bureaucracy to be more “responsive” to its political masters has changed the dynamic in the relationship between ministers and their bureaucrats. Many ministers look for excessive compliance in their public service advisers. Anyway, with the news and political cycles becoming ever faster, bureaucrats inevitably get caught up in this cycle, as they service their bosses, who require instant (and often politically tailored) responses.

Many public servants are, to be blunt, meek in the face of their political masters. Those in the top jobs may have been chosen with at least half an eye to their political orientation. As their contracts come up for renewal, some may become more cautious. Others may just want to keep out of trouble, having in mind a possible later private-sector career.

This year the detail of three scandals have cast the public service in a bad light. The Robodebt royal commission’s report documented how senior bureaucrats had acted reprehensibly, variously to please ministers or their bureaucratic bosses, or because they were fearful of speaking out.

The very different revelations about how the public service has become enmeshed with the big consultancies have highlighted the extent to which the bureaucracy has been, in effect, compromised.

Partly the fault lies with government decisions to prefer outsourcing on many fronts, not just for delivery but for advice. But partly, too, the public service became complicit in a mutual back-scratching operation, with bureaucrats jumping easily to lucrative jobs in firms they had dealt with.

Former Home Affairs Dept. Secretary Mike Pezzullo during Senate Estimates in May 2023.

The emergence in the media of the texts sent by the secretary of the Home Affairs Department, Mike Pezzullo, to a Liberal insider close to then prime ministers Turnbull and Morrison, raises a very different issue. This was an extraordinary case of a departmental head dramatically inserting himself into the political process in pursuit of his own bureaucratic and policy agenda.

Some bureaucrats always play the politics behind the scenes or go out of their way to please their masters. But the indictment of bureaucrats over Robodebt is a huge wake-up call about a malaise in public service culture. The out-of-control use of consultancies, now being reined in, weakened the service’s ability to do its job. The Pezzullo affair goes to the heart of how top bureaucrats should behave.

A public service that lapses in terms of its capability, values, behaviour, or all three, has obvious implications for the policy process, as well as for the integrity of government. In the Audit Office’s 2022-23 annual report, the Auditor-General had some sharp words for public servants:

“Upholding the ethical values of the public sector requires compliance with all relevant laws and acting in a way that is right and proper as well as technically and legally correct.”

It’s a statement of the obvious. Its shock impact is that he had to write it.

Transparency and accountability

Governments (or perhaps it is more accurate to say, alternative governments) preach the virtues of transparency and accountability but practise the habits of information control and secrecy.

The Canberra press gallery has great physical access to the executive government because it is housed in the same building – this Parliament House – and can roam the ministerial corridors. Over the years, however, governments have found extra ways to limit and control access to government information. This ranges across a number of fronts.

When I first came to Canberra in the early 1970s, even a junior reporter could contact senior public servants and, if they came to trust you, they would talk to you on a “background” basis. This was not a matter of “leaks”, though of course there were those on occasion. I am referring here to the intricacies of policy, information that was very helpful for understanding and reporting.

Governments of both sides have closed down this access, and beefed up the PR sections of departments which are, mostly, worse than useless. The overpopulated PR section of the Defence Department is a standing joke with the media.

Freedom-of-information legislation is supposed to further accountability. But the former FOI commissioner, Leo Hardiman, who earlier this year resigned only a year into his five-year term, has recited a litany of issues with how that system operates. He detailed to a Senate committee how he confronted a lack of resources and cultural issues; in the end he decided he could not achieve the reforms necessary to make the system work properly.

Former senator Rex Patrick, who in his post-parliamentary career is pursuing the cause of open government (with some private sponsorship), said in his submission to the Senate inquiry into the FOI law that a “common theme is risk aversion and timidity on the part of many FOI decision makers, especially when responding to applications for documents that may have political sensitivity”.

Patrick argued these officials are “generally not overtly political” in their work, although some do note the direction of the political wind. But, Patrick says:

“many see the release of information as potentially risky – not to the national interest, but in terms of political blowback and anger from Ministers and Departmental Senior Executives. In these circumstances delay, excessive and unjustified redactions and reliance on lengthy review processes to duck shove responsibility are commonplace.”

On other fronts, routinely governments baulk at giving information that might embarrass them. Examples this year have included continued secrecy, on “security” grounds, of passenger details and destination of VIP flights. The secrecy around the flights was imposed in the latter days of the Coalition government, driven in part by the police, but it flies in the face of what was done for five decades and seems to have little serious justification.

The government repeatedly refuses Senate demands for documents on a range of issues, and takes forever to provide answers (or non-answers) to Senate questions on notice.

To balance the ledger, it should be acknowledged the Auditor-General does a good (though necessarily limited) job. The National Anti-Corruption Commission has been an overdue development, though not without some secrecy issues in its operation.

The social media revolution

I never thought I would say this, but sometimes you can have too much information. Circulation was always important to newspapers, ratings to TV. But the digital age has brought the “clicks revolution”, so the popularity of individual stories can be readily and immediately measured. And that has implications for political coverage.

It means even serious media outlets will lean to the popular, while the dull and worthy (but often important) subjects struggle for readership. Even these days, a story about Scott Morrison is a no-brainer when it comes to clicks. Voters showed they’d had enough of his prime ministership, but online readers continue to lap up references to him. Reportage about trade policy? Not so much. If clicks become KPIs for judging journalists, that’s very bad.

There are some other developments in the media over recent years that affect coverage, for the worse. The traditional media have become leaner, as their business models have been compromised by the digital age, and the squeeze on journalist numbers has hit, in particular, some of the specialist reporters.

So you have fewer eyes on some crucial policy areas, especially eyes that have been on them for quite a long time. Fewer specialists adds to the trend to look at policy through a very political lens, because the stories are often written by generalist political reporters and, as well, because it’s easier to do them that way and they get more readers.

Recent decades have also seen more extensive “opinion journalism”. This has the advantage for media companies of being relatively cheap and attracting readers, viewers and listeners. The big name opinion journalists build “brands” and often become shouty and extreme in their bid to attract audiences. Other manifestations of the growth of opinion journalism include shows where journalists talk to other journalists, and the intrusion of more opinion into the way the news is reported.

Today’s media are polarised which, together with the growth of social media, contributes to a wider phenomenon of many people living in “silos” in terms of where they get their information and what information they choose to consume. Even some journalists choose to inhabit silos, avoiding certain media. Social media can be the ultimate in “siloing”; for some people, it also removes all inhibitions to behaving badly.

The downsides of polarisation and silos are obvious. Some media consumers no longer operate in a limited “common square” of information. Debate becomes more fractured, angry and extreme. Tolerance is in shorter supply.

Perhaps we should add there are small offsets to the negatives in this polarisation. Media stretching across the spectrum from left to right contributes to diversity, with one end picking up on issues the other end prefers to ignore. But I reiterate, there is a cost and I think the negatives outweigh the positives. And while polarisation has added to diversity, the concentrated ownership of Australia’s print media, which is overwhelmingly in Murdoch hands, is a serious distortion of diversity.

Research suggests the consumers don’t feel well served by the media. Trust is low. Journalists are near the bottom when people are asked to rate occupations (although that’s nothing new).

The latest Digital News Report Australia, prepared by the University of Canberra, found what consumers want (or say they want – the two are not always the same) is “positive news, watchdog journalism, and news stories that suggest solutions”.

Women’s interest in news is at a record low. News avoidance is high, driven largely by a sense of being overwhelmed by information overload and the amount of conflict and negativity in the coverage. There are messages in the data about the need to change the way politics is conducted and reported if we are to engage more people in public debate, particularly young women who are turning their backs on mainstream news.

The parliamentary press gallery has a special place in the media when we are assessing how well political participants are held to account, and thus our democracy served. We’re looking at something of a battleground – governments, and the other political players, doing their best to control messages and optics; the media trying to push through the gate. It’s a lecture in itself.

Each PM brings his or her own style and skill set to mustering the media. And their own little tricks. Just one example from Anthony Albanese’s tool box. At his news conferences, he limits journalists to a single question, so an individual can’t pursue a dodgy or evasive answer. Given various other journalists have their own priorities, there is often no follow-up. Well, you say, one question per person sounds fair. Equally, however, it is a method of control, wearing a cloak of fairness.


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

The case of the Voice referendum?

The Voice referendum this year put our democratic system through its paces, and different judgements will be made about how it performed. For many, the campaign was bruising, because of the nature of the issue. Those for whom it was difficult include some Indigenous journalists, who were subject to special pressures and in some cases, racism.

The referendum showed many people are unfamiliar with some basics of the political system, especially the Constitution. Sharp questions were raised about so-called misinformation and disinformation. The “yes” advocates complained strongly about that. Remember, this was the first referendum campaign in which we’ve had the full play of social media.

I might say that I don’t like this terminology of misinformation and disinformation, which we have taken from abroad. I would prefer to talk about, firstly, wrong or misleading information. That falls into two categories – some of it deliberately misleading, and some inadvertently so. Beyond that, there is contested information – where one side makes a claim the other rejects, but which can’t be definitely established or disproved, or at least not at the time.

In the referendum, we saw a good deal of dispute over whether some points were contested claims or mis/dis-information. The Voice campaign has given more impetus to those pushing for truth in political advertising legislation. Special Minister of State Don Farrell is looking at this, but is aware of the difficulties it presents.

Even more contentious, however, is the legislation the government already has in the public arena to crack down on “misinformation and disinformation” on the internet. The move has attracted many critics, including eminent constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey, one of the advocates for the Voice.

In the internet age, there are good reasons to try to stop the spread of misleading information. But at some point you run up against the right to free speech. And then, as we saw in the Voice debate, there is that fine line between “misleading” information and “contested” information.

A few modest suggestions

So, we come back to the question: is the political system letting the public down? The answer, I think, is yes, on many fronts, although we should acknowledge the picture is never black or white. We do have a robust democracy, a “clean” voting system, strong institutions, freedom of expression, various checks and balances, vigorous media. Our compulsory voting system, while flawed in theory by denying people the right to opt out, is a gem in practice, in pushing our politics towards a broad centre.

But from what I have canvassed, I think it’s clear the system needs renovations.

Let me suggest a few very modest ones.

1. The main parties should allow and encourage their backbenchers to express their individual voices more, internally and in public. Labor MPs should be able to cross the floor without being automatically expelled. This would on occasion attract media headlines of “split” and “division”, but it would contribute positively to the policy process and to the regard voters had for their MPs.

The parties should also tone down the factionalism.

They should broaden their search for talent.

And, while it’s a hard balance in our adversarial system, the voters would appreciate greater signs of across-the-aisle co-operation, rather than what frequently comes across as an unremitting diet of conflict for the sake of it.

2. Individual politicians should respond to the public’s desire for better, more courteous, behaviour. If they wouldn’t want their kids to shout insults in class, they shouldn’t shout them in the House. Perhaps – and I am only half joking – the Speaker could arrange for an annual register of those he’s had to toss out of the House for bad behaviour, so voters could check on their local MP.

3. Public servants should go back to core values, to being more frank, fearless and robust in dealing with ministers and with each other. The Thodey inquiry notwithstanding, it’s perhaps worth discussing whether there should be a royal commission into the service – half a century after the Coombs royal commission.

4. The freedom-of-information regime and other mechanisms for accountability should be overhauled and strengthened.

5. Governments should trust senior public servants to speak directly to the media, to better inform the reporting of policy.

6. Media organisations should devote more staff and resources to monitoring important policy areas, regardless of whether they attract “clicks”. They should also take note of the public’s desire for less wall-to-wall negativity. Once again, it is a matter of balance.

7. Our schools should ensure students emerge with a basic knowledge of the democratic system, how it does and should operate, and the values on which it rests.

I want to end on a positive note, despite the criticisms and weaknesses I’ve canvassed. We do compare well to like democracies. The problems of the system call for reform, not despair.

Michelle Grattan delivered this House of Representatives Speaker’s Lecture at Parliament House on Monday, October 30. This text was published by The Conversation.