29 Jun 2014

Democracy No Longer On The Nation's Radar

By Mark Chou and Jean-Paul Gagnon

Australians are losing interest in their democracy, write Mark Chou and Jean-Paul Gagnon.

Earlier this month, the Lowy Institute released its 10th annual poll. Each year, the poll surveys a representative cross-section of Australians and dissects our views on a range of important domestic and foreign policy issues. But unlike previous years, the 2014 poll has been met with less than the usual fanfare.

In fact, it’s almost slipped under the media’s radar. A reason for this, according to Antony Loewenstein, may be that there are “no surprises” in the poll. It continues to ask “mostly safe and predictable questions” and, as a result, generates largely unimaginative answers in response.

Not even the one aspect of the poll that’s caused most public disquiet in years past – Australian views on democracy – received much media or policy attention. Scoring only a passing mention in the Shanghai Daily and a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece criticising Joe Hockey’s position on a classless Australia, few seem to have paid attention to the startling revelation that a sizeable minority of Australians remain sceptical about democracy.

According to the spread generated by this year’s poll, only 60 per cent of the Australians Lowy surveyed believed that “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”. By contrast, 24 per cent of Australians held the opinion that “In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.” Another 13 per cent felt that “For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have” and the remaining 3 per cent of respondents claimed not to know what their answer would be.

Things only get worse for democracy when attention is turned to the responses of Gen Y. As with previous years, less than half of 18 to 29-year-olds felt democracy to be the most preferable kind of government. A third, on the other hand, believed that there could be times when a non-democratic government should be preferred to a democratic one.

For findings this shocking, it’s odd that they’ve received so little attention in 2014. 

Perhaps, to borrow Loewenstein’s point, this can be explained by the fact that news of these findings are no longer new.

Alex Oliver, the Poll’s Director, revealed as much when she said that: “For the third year in a row, our Poll results have revealed a high number of Australians who are ambivalent about the value of democracy, despite Australia being one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world.”

Three years ago, when the Lowy Institute first released its findings on Australian attitudes toward democracy, media and policy commentators were quick to react.

For instance, former Lowy Executive Director Michael Wesley was taken aback by “how lightly we take our democracy” in Australia.

Chris Berg thought the findings were a clear indication that we’d transitioned into “a profoundly undemocratic age”.

As for Benjamin Herscovitch, his opinion was that results of this tenor “should cause alarm” and “prompt soul-searching” in a country that’s traditionally placed democracy alongside other uniquely Australian values like mateship, egalitarianism and a fair go.

Tim Soutphommasane even went so far as to ask the question: “Can a democracy sustain itself when almost half its citizens are prepared to entertain another mode of government? When they can’t seem to appreciate the self-evident virtue of democracy compared with authoritarian tyranny?” 

Of course, as we’ve noted in our research on this topic, there’s a lot that’s wrong both with the polls and how they’ve been analysed in media and policy circles.

It’s fair to say that any such analyses of the 2014 poll findings would likely be problematic for similar reasons.

Yet it seems even more problematic to not publicly discuss these findings at all. Whether it’s considered old news or not, it is still important news that’s worth discussing.

In this regard, it’s the lack of a concerted media and policy response to the poll findings that has been most staggering this year.

During a time when political decisions are being made that’s threatening to impact Australians decades into the future, the topic of democracy should be on everyone’s lips.

Of course, that these decisions are being made by a government that has shown almost no regard for what the Australian people actually think or want may explain why so many Australians consider that democracy is no longer working for them.

This year more than any in the recent past, the nation needs to be talking about democracy. This needs to be a national conversation, including a discussion about the need for a more sophisticated civics education for today’s youth.

Questions need to be asked – of our elected representatives but also of ourselves.

What do we mean when we say that “a non-democratic government can be preferable”?

Do we understand what democracy is and why it’s important?

Is our distaste for democracy merely a reflection of what the current Abbott government is doing?

Are the popular demonstrations and protests we’ve seen this year an indication that our disdain for formal, electoral democracy is already being replaced with a post-representative politics of participation?

For all its flaws, the Lowy poll is right to monitor democracy’s pulse from year to year. As citizens, the beating heart of democracy is something with which we should all concern ourselves.

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Posted Sunday, June 29, 2014 - 14:07

It might come as no surprise to find people are fed up with the self serving antics in Canberra. It certainly has been a circus for the last four years, but  are people really less interested in a democracy compared to...what?

The correct question to ask is what form of government I'd prefer. Democracy? Dictatorship? Oligarchy? Theocracy? Anarchy?

Instead, the participants were given a set of false dichotomies.Why should I have to choose between a sound economy or democracy? Why not ask whether I'd prefer a sound theocracy or a sound economy? A sound oligarchy?

I suspect the findings indicate a loss of interest in naff surveys!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. musikki
Posted Sunday, June 29, 2014 - 18:36

Those questions don't seem "naff" to me. And the survey results I find profoundly depressing. I suspect that what is behind them is the increasing proportion of our population who see themselves as 'aspirational', that is they are aspiring to individual success, to get on and get more. It probably is not the case that they've thought deeply or at all about political systems and decided that democracy is unimportant. It will surely get worse until our education systems get better.

Posted Sunday, June 29, 2014 - 18:39

The results of this Lowy Institute poll are not shocking at all. They are just reflecting a greater public awareness of the current state of Anglo-American democracy, as expressed in the stark conclusions of a paper by Gilens and Page that will shortly be published in Perspectives on Politics:

"Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened. " (p. 24 of http://tinyurl.com/ns7yxo9).

Similar research in Australia (if anyone is actually doing it?) is likely to yield an even more profound conclusion, given for example the Abbott government's "reverse Robin Hood" budget and the revelations aired in last week's episode of Four Corners (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2014/06/23/4028997.htm).

Why has the media paid so little attention to the Lowy poll results? They are a part of the "powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans" who Gilens and Page warn are dominating policymaking in Anglo-American democracy, so they aren't going to report something that could potentially undermine their situation. For another example of this power and influence at work see the Reuters Institute report Poles Apart (https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/?id=687).

Democracy is promoted (rather, pushed) with religious zeal, but if it can be readily operated to serve the interests of a very small elite minority then clearly there are serious flaws in both democracy as a political system and in the belief that democracy is some perfect utopian political heaven where there can be no wrong. There is clearly much more to effective government and governance than a particular ideology, such as measures that provide for strong public input into decision-making and the effective control of corruption. It is these issues we need to see being discussed.

If Australians continue to see politicians like Abbott beat the democracy drum while also seeing their country increasingly run by an elite minority then the number of people disillusioned with democracy will only continue to rise. Interesting that right next to this article is an advertisement for Red Flag - Newspaper of the Socialist Alternative. I'm certainly heading over to take a look.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tulipa
Posted Monday, June 30, 2014 - 11:53

Democracy around the world  is being hijacked by the rich minority  with assistance of the politicians. Politicians seem to be up for sale t to the highest bidder.

Posted Monday, June 30, 2014 - 12:40

This is just a natural phase in the inevitable replacement of democratic government by corporate rule - engender complete apathy in the population by anaesthetising them with materialism, easy credit, porn, cheap booze and shit television. They don't give a toss whole rules them or how disgusting their policies are, just keep them sated with the crap they are addicted to. Next phase - wind it back in, remove the 'drugs', make the population suffer. They will do anything for a fix, and world domination by the corporations will be complete. Hello Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. 

Posted Monday, June 30, 2014 - 13:49

I am quite aware that certain interests are seeking to subvert and control democratic processes for their own purpose. Indeed, I often quip that the US constitution is now interpreted as government by and for the corporation; with the 'of' clause being removed to reduce overhead. (Question to ponder, as an aside: if Murdoch controls LNP policy through his media outlets and his involvement with the IPA, who funds and controls Murdoch?)

I can accept that people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their relevance to our democratic government. It does *not* necessarily mean that people prefer other forms of government.

I stand by my assertion that the survey is asking 'naff' questions about false dichotomies. There is every reason to expect that a more vibrant democracy will encourage a thriving (and *inclusive*) economy. We are currently seeing a trend in the opposite direction. Yet people are asked 'which would you rather?', and not given the option to answer 'both'.

Posted Monday, June 30, 2014 - 18:53

Democracy requires engagement. The majority of the electorate today is too lazy, or too stupid, or just too bloody comatose to engage. I don't care about your policies, just let me keep my job and my fatboy 60" flatscreen TV.  Red pill or blue pill?

Posted Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 09:48

The reality is, Australia is a Murdochracy, not a Democracy.

When we receive a freeflow of full and accurate information to the community, we can properly be described as a Dermocracy.