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Trust and Democracy in Australia - Democratic Decline and Renewal

Mark Evans

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

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

Max Halupka

Max Halupka is a research fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. He is also Managing Editor of 'The Policy Space'

Satisfaction with the way democracy works in Australia

Q: How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Australia?


Over the past four years UC-IGPA and MoAD have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia. For other reports in this series visit our website at: democracy2025.gov.au.

This blog reports on our latest findings from research conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill) and includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 1021 Australians and 20 focus groups with various ‘slices of Australian life’: mainstream Australians (recruited at random, mix of age, gender, family and socio-economic status); older Australians (over 65, not working); young Australians (under 23); new Australians (migrants to Australia that became citizens within the past 10 years); rural and regional Australians (living outside metropolitan Australia); LGBTQI Australians; and, Australians with disability (and their carers).

We understood political trust in this survey as a relational concept that is about ‘keeping promises and agreements’ (Hetherington, 2005). The survey questionnaire was based on questions designed by the Democracy 2025 team, and including questions that had previously been asked of similar samples in 2014 and 2016, allowing for time series analysis. The findings from this quantitative survey have also been explored through qualitative focus group research. Key qualitative insights can be found in the full report.


Democratic decline and renewal

We observe that Australians should rightly be proud of their hard won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government which has delivered social and economic wellbeing for its citizens. However, the findings presented in this report should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizen reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction, receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media) and lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns. Australia is currently experiencing a culture shift from an allegiant to a divergent democratic culture (Dalton and Welzel, eds., 2014) with an increasing number of citizens searching for a new politics to represent their values and defend their material needs and aspirations for the future. Consider the evidence presented below.


Australians are happy with underlying democratic values and infrastructure

The majority of Australians dislike the conflict driven politics of the Federal Parliament but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government. When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order): (1) “Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”; (2) “Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”; and (3) “Australian elections are free and fair”. Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living; but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.


Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics

Fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are currently satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia down from 86 per cent in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013 when 72 per cent of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31 per cent) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50 per cent). At a time when the “#Metoo” movement is beginning to politicize women on a global scale, women are generally less satisfied with democracy and more distrusting of politicians and political institutions.


In general, levels of trust in government and politicians in Australia are at their lowest levels since times series data has been available

Federal government is trusted by just 31 per cent of the population while state and local government performs little better with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21 per cent while more than 60 per cent of Australians believe that the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low. One issue that appears to unite most Australians is complaining about their politicians. What are their three biggest grievances? That politicians are not accountable for broken promises; that they don’t deal with the issues that really matter; and that big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).

The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions with only five rating above 50 per cent – police, military, civic wellbeing organisations (e.g. Headspace or community services), universities and health care institutions. Trust was lowest in political parties (16 per cent) and web-based media (20 per cent). Trust in banks and web-based media have significantly decreased since the last survey reflecting the impact of contextual factors. In these cases the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Those more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal Parties. They are also more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native born. They see Australian democracy as a sanctuary and are excited at the prospect of a new life. Those that are most likely to be unhappy are Australian born, female, aged in their forties (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are also more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation or Centre Alliance or independents such as Cathy McGowan’s Voice for Indi and to be a critic of the major political parties.

In sum, politicians, government ministers, media and political parties are deeply distrusted because the majority of Australians dislike conflict-driven politics in Canberra which they perceive to be disconnected from their everyday lives. There are three dimensions to this dimension of the trust divide – perceptions that politicians lack integrity, empathy and simply don’t deliver on the issues that citizens care most about. But it is not just about the behaviour of politicians but also about getting things done (e.g. addressing cost of living concerns such as rising energy bills).


Declining political and social trust is the perfect storm for independents

Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time to 47 per cent. Although a majority still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47 per cent). There are four attitudinal shifts on display here. Firstly, many voters care more about effective and competent government (governability issues) than promises of more dollars in their pockets (personal economic expectations).

Secondly, there is also a group of voters that are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians, but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP. When given 15 options to describe what they like about Australian democracy, including free and fair elections, their main response was ‘None of the above’. This group of disconnected voters are the most disconnected group in our society; they are feeling very economically insecure, a significant proportion are on welfare or low incomes, and are increasingly politically alienated and angry just like Trump and Brexit voters.

Thirdly, we can also identify an increasingly large group of Australians that are up for a different politics, are deeply critical of Australia’s main political parties and are looking for an alternative across a broad ideological spectrum from Hanson, to Sharkie, to McGowan and Phelps. This is a perfect storm for independents of a variety of types.

And, fourthly, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons to either secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two party system.


Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong

Respondents were asked to consider different pathways to reform. We found a significant appetite for reform with nine out of 15 proposed reforms receiving net agreement rates above 50 per cent. The top five reforms favoured in the survey include: (1) limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections; (2) the right for voters to recall ineffective local MP; (3) giving all MPs a free vote in parliament; (4) co-designing policies with ordinary Australians; and (5) citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix. Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There were also strong levels of support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support. Remarkably accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding revealing the centrality of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.

All are reforms likely to challenge dominant thinking within the main political parties. The smart politicians will (and do) understand that this is just good representative politics; treating Australian citizens with respect and empathy on an ongoing basis and not just during election campaigns. Certainly the parties and candidates that do get the importance of a new politics could steal a march at the next federal election.


In conclusion – tipping point

Liberal democracies are founded upon a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Indeed constitutional settlements are designed on that basis through the separation of the powers of the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government, the existence of a free media to monitor legitimate statecraft and other checks and balances. This demonstrates the challenge in defining the appropriate normative stance of what level of trust or distrust is acceptable. The evidence presented here, however, suggests that we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.

Following Dalton and Welzel (2014), we have found a mixed pattern of evidence in relation to both the allegiant and assertive models of democratic culture (see Box 1). The allegiant model is challenged in that deference to politicians appears absent and trust in institutions has weakened. Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system even if lack of political trust means they lack confidence in its ability to deliver especially on more challenging policy issues. At present, sustained affluence matched with a decline in political trust, has led not to the critical citizens envisaged by the assertive model but rather to a culture of citizen disengagement, cynicism and divergence from the political elite. Most Australian citizens are very clear that they do not like the character of contemporary politics on display in Federal government and democratic renewal is required to address the democratic pressures that are threatening to undermine our core democratic values. We characterise this as a divergent democratic culture but not an assertive one.




Emphasis on order and security

Emphasis on voice and participation

Deference to authority

Distance from authority

Trust in institutions

Scepticism of institutions

Limited liberal view of democracy

Expanded democratic expectations

Limited protest/protest potential

Direct, elite challenging action

Traditional forms of participation

Mixture of traditional and new forms of participation

Demand and supply side factors are numerous and in approaching reform options there is unlikely to be a straightforward linear causal path to move from defining the problem, understanding and explaining it and designing counter measures. Nor is it likely that the trust divide will be solved simply by fiddling with the architecture of government or improving the behaviour of politicians or the media, it requires a broad range of responses underpinned by a renewal of our democratic fundamentals. The implication of this finding is to encourage any understanding of this complexity and the need to develop a multi-faceted strategy to tackle issues of trust.We can also observe from our survey findings that trust is a complex and potentially “wicked” problem with multiple dimensions and causes (see Head, 2008). These can be understood as supply and demand side factors. The supply-side factors start from the premise that public trust must in some way correspond with the trustworthiness of government. The argument is that it is the supply of government that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens. Demand-side theories focus on how much individuals trust government and politics and explore their key characteristics.

Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we argue that an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models but of finding linking arrangements between them.


Dalton, R., & Welzel, C. eds., (2014), The civic culture revisited. From allegiant to assertive citizens, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Head, B. W. (2008), ‘Wicked Problems in Public Policy,’ Public Policy, 3, 2: 101-118. 

Hetherington, M. (2005), Why Political Trust Matter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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