A crisis of trust: The rise of protest politics in Australia

12 Mar 2018

Australian voters are seeking change. The vote share of minor parties has been rising since 2007. At the 2016 election it reached its highest level since the Second World War. More than one-in-four Australians voted for someone other than the Liberals, Nationals, ALP or the Greens in the Senate, and more than one-in-eight in the House of Representatives.

The major parties are particularly on the nose in the regions. The further you travel from a capital city GPO the higher the minor party vote and the more it has risen.

The minor party vote is mostly a protest vote against the major parties: a vote for ‘anyone but them’. Voter disillusionment with the political establishment is not just an Australian phenomenon. ‘Outsider politics’ is also on the rise across other developed nations. The Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 US presidential election are just two recent examples.

So why are Australian voters angry? And why are they particularly angry in the regions?

Falling trust in government explains much of the dissatisfaction. Minor party voters have much lower trust in government than those who vote for the majors. And since the minor party vote began to rise in 2007 there has been a significant increase in the share of people who believe politicians look after themselves and government is run by a few big interests. More than 70 per cent of Australians think our system of government needs reform. Voters are choosing parties that promise to ‘drain the swamp’.

Economics alone is less important. The largest increase in support for minor parties in Australia came during a period of strong wages growth and stable inequality. And economic insecurity can’t explain the widening city/regional voting divide: the regions are keeping pace on most indicators of individual economic well-being.

But the overall loss of economic and cultural power in the regions looms large in regional dissatisfaction. Regions hold a falling share of Australia’s population, and consequently their share of the nation’s economy is shrinking. Australia’s cultural symbols are becoming more city-centric – from mateship to multiculturalism, Man from Snowy River to Masterchef, what it means to be an Australian is changing. Concerns that ‘the world is changing too fast’ are higher among regional voters, as are concerns about immigration.

But cultural anxiety is not restricted by geography: there are a swathe of minor party voters in the cities and regions who are unhappy with the way the world is changing. These voters place more emphasis on tradition and ‘the Australian way of life’. The rhetoric and policies of some minor parties tap into these values.

Politicians seeking to stem the flow of votes to minor parties need to respond to these push factors. Rebuilding trust will be a slow process. A period of leadership stability and policy delivery could go a long way. But improving political institutions – reforming political donations laws and improving the regulation of lobbying activities, for example – could help reassure the public that the system is working for them.

Politicians should also seek to dampen rather than inflame cultural differences. Language and symbols matter in these debates. Politicians can take a positive leadership role in stressing the common ground between city and country and between communities with different backgrounds.

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