Trump Trumps Democracy - lessons from a democratic paradox for Australia

Mark Evans

Professor Mark Evans, Director of Democracy 2025, UC-IGPA

Donald Trump’s presidential victory has given rise to a global democratic paradox. For the growing number of citizens worldwide who feel increasingly disconnected from their democracy and are victims of the hard edges of globalisation, the Trump victory demonstrates that it is possible to challenge the established political order through democratic politics and win. For democrats committed to social, economic and political participation, Trump himself symbolises the very anti-thesis of democratic politics. Trump is a divisive figure – an authoritarian populist who draws his support by creating a politics based on fear and hate for fellow Americans. The lessons from history are clear; if we allow the politics of fear and hate to catch fire it will not end well.​
As the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis’s (IGPA) recent research on citizen attitudes to the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy shows, Australia is not immune from the politics of discontent. In February and March this year, the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) and IGPA commissioned Ipsos to survey 1444 Australians on these issues. We have called it The Power of Us survey and the data will inform the design of a new exhibition to be launched in Old Parliament House in 2017. The findings demonstrate that similar attitudes to those informing Brexit and the Trump victory are alive and kicking in Australia:

  • Satisfaction with democracy in Australia is now at its’ lowest level since 1996 (79% to 41%) with the steepest decline occurring post 2007 (85% to 41%).
  • Only 4.6% of Australian citizens have strong levels of trust in government and politicians. Remarkably this increases with age, with 'Grey Australians' exhibiting very low levels of trust (25%)
  • Party loyalty is at its lowest level since 1967 (72% to 37%) but interest in politics across age groups is strong. This partly explains the success of the independents in the 2016 Federal election.
  • Australians trust the police (72%), the military (63%), community-based organisations (68%) and universities (59%) but distrust political parties (20%) and most jurisdictions of government (local government fairs best).
  • We trust judges (56%) and have some trust in public servants (39%) and our local MPs (33%) but clearly distrust politicians in general (26%).
  • Australians are confident in the ability of government to address national security issues (59%) but no other policy issue attracts confidence levels of above 40%.

Findings from a series of focus groups held across Australia and facilitated by Jane Seaborn on behalf of IGPA provide a more detailed understanding of these observations. The core insight from this research is that Australians expect politicians to do the job they were elected to do. To give voice to the sentiments of focus group participants, “when politicians and political parties do not deliver on their policies (the reason for non-delivery doesn’t matter), when they waste time (such as bickering amongst themselves or being badly behaved in Question Time), when they are more interested in themselves than the good of their constituents or the nation (such as short-term policies designed to get them re-elected), when they won’t take responsibility (blaming each other or someone/something else), or when their focus is on trying to cling to power rather than govern (such as dumping Prime Ministers mid-term), they demonstrate they are not doing the job they were elected to do. 

​When those designated to govern are seen to be not doing their job, citizens perceive that important aspects of governance are left unaddressed, and “nothing happens”: the nation (and therefore their lives) stagnates and does not progress. In short, bad behaviour by politicians is seen to lead to instability in government. Together, government stagnation and instability cause electors ongoing, underlying unease with respect to how the nation, and therefore their lives/future, is being managed. This affects their peace of mind, they are concerned for the future of their children and grandchildren, and they feel some sense of personal responsibility for the outcome as if by voting for these particular politicians citizens are ‘complicit’ in the stagnation and instability”. 

These findings make difficult reading for Australian political parties but provide strong clues as to how to respond. Our findings draw attention to two important dilemmas for Australia’s political class. Firstly, that citizens view politicians and democratic politics as one and the same – anti-politics equals anti-party politics.  In a traditional culture of deference, the conflation of politics, democracy and politicians was viewed as an equation for social and political stability but in times of rapid social change it has become a source of ungovernability. It should also be of significant concern that this pattern of discontent has emerged in a period of relative affluence unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Secondly, we can identify a culture of anti-politics at the heart of the Australian political system. Paradoxically, the evidence also demonstrates that politicians and political parties need to be the solution to these two dilemmas. 

The evidence presented here shows that a new political project based on different forms of trust building is likely to attract significant support. Hence reforms that (1) made decision-making more transparent and politicians more accountable for their actions; (2) where politicians became the key agents of change in a moral agenda aimed at cleaning-up the Canberra village; (3) all party commitment to moving away from adversarial politics and towards a collaborative governance approach; and (4) where all federal institutions would have a legislative responsibility to connect-up Australian citizens with the Canberra-village in policy-making, regulation and operational delivery. Fundamentally, however, there is the need for a national democratic audit in which we pose three questions to the Australian citizenry: How would you imagine your ideal democracy?  What should we expect from our politicians within it? And, how is the present system failing you?


This article first appeared on LG Professionals Australia, and can be found here:

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