Trust and democracy in Australia: democratic decline and renewal

Democracy Politics Public opinion Public trust Democratic reform Australia

Over the past four years UC-IGPA and MoAD have conducted a range of quantitative surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy. This report updates our findings from 2014 and 2016.

The research informing this report was conducted in July 2018 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).

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.

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.

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.

Publication Details
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Democracy 2025 Report no.1