How can we increase citizen trust and engagement in politics and our democratic system?

What’s the problem?

Alt text While elections can focus the mind about what type of governments we have, deserve and need, the issue of continually improving governmental effectiveness is an everyday challenge and priority. This is something in which the public needs to be involved but which is difficult when there is citizen distrust and lack of engagement in politics and our democracy. The decline of trust in the federal parliament is quite striking. So too is the low number of citizens who think the current system is working.

Civic participation refers to involvement in a group such as a union, political party, environmental or animal welfare group or human and civil rights group. In recent years, these types of civic participation have declined significantly in Australia. The issue here isn’t just about the decline but also the movement of where participation is occurring. For many people, online activism is preferred. This doesn’t get captured well with existing data but studies have shown that while many young people are disengaged from traditional forms of political and civic life, they are using online, informal and peer-to-peer activities as involvement in the common good.

With traditional notions of community, participation and civic life potentially outdated, how should we both redefine engagement and ensure citizens are better engaged?

Seven things you need to know

  • The Melbourne School of Government’s Democracy Renewal forum states that “citizen disengagement and disillusionment with mainstream politics, the so-called ‘democratic disconnect’, is highlighted by declining trust in political leadership and parties, falling turnouts at elections and a common view that politics and policy making is disconnected from ordinary people”.

  • For example, in 2014, people were less likely to be involved in civic and political groups than they were in 2010 (14% compared with 19%).

  • Scanlon Foundation surveys since 2009 have recorded a decline of trust in the federal parliament. In 2009, 48% of respondents indicated that the government in Canberra can be trusted ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’. In 2015 it was a much lower 30%.

  • In the 2015 Scanlon Foundation national survey, only 16% of respondents indicated that the system of government ‘works fine as it is’, 43% felt that it ‘needs minor change’, 27% wanted ‘major change’, and 11% that it should be replaced.

  • According to a June 2015 Essential Report, Australian’s most trusted institutions were the Federal and State Police and the High Court. The least trusted were political parties, religious organisations and trade unions

  • According to a Swinburne Leadership Survey, Australian’s judged community leaders as the most trustworthy of the five sectors of leaders examined: 81% thought community leaders were somewhat or very trustworthy. Political leaders were the least trusted of the five sectors of leaders assessed. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (59%) reported political leaders were not very trustworthy or not trustworthy at all.

  • In Australia, because voting is compulsory, it isn’t necessarily a good measure of the health of our democracy. Voter turnout in federal elections has remained at 94% or higher since the 1925 federal election when it was about 91%. In June 2009, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) estimated around 92% of eligible Australians were enrolled to vote. There were differences in enrolment across age groups, for example, a lower proportion of eligible 18–25 year olds were enrolled (81%) than eligible Australians in general.

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