Vox Populi

| September 25, 2020

Australia is ranked as the sixth most ‘liveable’ country in the world. Australia’s gross government debt to GDP ratio is 42%, as against the US at 108% and the UK at 87%. And, as at late-September 2020, Australia had suffered from Covid-19 at a rate of one fatality for every 29,762 citizens; while in the US the rate was 0ne in 1,613 and in the UK one in 1,625.

By any measure Australia has little to complain about. Yet this may well be changing. In 2007 an Australian survey reported that 86% of citizens were satisfied with their democracy.

Ten years later and subsequent to the GFC, while 61% of Australian parliamentarians surveyed were satisfied with the way that democracy was working, only 41% of citizens agreed. And by 2019, political trust in the Australian government was at an all-time low of 30%, as against 34% in the US and 67% in Switzerland.

This is not to suggest that democracy is broken, or that it has reached an end-state. However, like any system it does need to evolve if it is to survive. Stagnation exposes democracy to the risk of lapsing, at best into illiberalism, at worst into autocracy; a fate forewarned by a recent flood of literature on the erosion of liberal democracy.

Priorities for reform

In mid-August, 167 friends and family were invited to participate by eMail in a five-question survey of opinions on the condition of 21st century democracy. A majority (81%) were professional, well-cushioned and close-enough-to-superannuated Australians living in a political system that seems to be working ‘well enough’.

The 43 respondents from Australia, Canada, the US and UK scored their ‘satisfaction’ with the system at 3.2. This suggests a narrow pass mark for democracy. This was not, however, matched by evidently lower levels of ‘trust’ in politicians; who were subject to a litany of criticism from survey respondents:

• Politicians too often begin with a preamble … “Can I / Let me just say” … and then follow it with a complete refusal to address the question.
• The politician’s lens is focused solely on the short term, with an eye only on cheap political advantage and the road to re-election.
• Politicians refuse to address Australia’s most urgent issues: climate change and the growing disparity in wealth and opportunity.
• They tend to undervalue or dismiss the public … but the public is not as dumb as many politicians seem to believe.
• The endless political point scoring between the parties. Some issues, projects and causes are too important to be subject to partisan ideologies.
• Too many politicians forgo their intellectual independence and just become a mouthpiece for (wealthy) single-issue groups.

On the positive side, admiration was expressed at the work commitment of most parliamentarians and their ambition to make a difference; at least early in their careers. And high praise was given for the bi-partisan response to emergencies.

Survey participants were asked to list specific actions and initiatives that they expected to have an immediate impact on changing the behaviour of politicians and improving the performance of political institutions.

They were also asked to suggest actions and initiatives expected to have an immediate impact on facilitating the participation of Australian voters in the political process.

Program for reform

The ten most important initiatives highlighted in the first survey do not constitute a basis for immediate democratic reform. However, ranking by implementation priority would allow a separation between the challenging and the achievable, and between the optional and the crucial.

All 45 respondents to the first survey were therefore requested to make a quantitative assessment of the ten primary initiatives that they had just proposed; scoring each one between 1 and 5 (with 3 = neutral) against two axes:

• Importance (X axis) of the initiative in building barriers against resurgent illiberalism and autocracy. Where 1 = initiative would have little beneficial influence (in the short term) and 5 = would make a fundamental difference.
• Implementability (Y axis) of the initiative in the context of current political and social values. Where 1 = initiative has little chance of it being implemented in the short term and 5 = implementation feasible within one parliamentary term.

The resultant Reform Matrix allows a clear differentiation between those initiatives considered: a) of little immediate benefit and hard to implement; from b) those offering high benefit and ease of implementation.

Table: Reform matrix
Y axis – Implementability
Where 1 = challenging and 5 = achievable

X axis – Importance
Where 1 = optional and 5 = crucial


Three initiatives falling into the latter category could sit at the heart of a 4-year program of democratic reform:

• require compulsory school education on contemporary politics and civics;
• establish a (federal) Parliamentary Integrity Commission (with real power); and
• tighten limits on the access and influence of lobbyists.

Three other initiatives would entail the (probably) contentious 8-year pursuit of behavioural change in parliament:

• ban third party donations to electoral campaign expenses;
• build an on-going culture of consensus seeking between political parties; and
• impose a formal code of conduct on all parliamentarians.

The final four initiatives were directed at the normalisation of citizen engagement in the process of government. However, their scoring implies the need for a 16-year campaign of cultural re-set amongst voters.

This, in turn, suggests that the voting public (as represented by the sample pool) feels no immediate inclination toward involvement in the process of democratic reform. Rather, it is the behaviour of politicians that the voting public still sees as the priority for democratic reform.