In August 2019, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee called for submissions from the public, and published a discussion paper to guide submitters in responding to the broad terms of reference for this inquiry.

The terms of reference asked submitters to consider the health of Australia's democracy, and the reasons for falling trust and satisfaction; as well as to provide suggestions for ways to turn the tide. Submitters addressed these issues with generosity and creativity.

In Australia, restrictive measures put in place by governments to slow the spread of the coronavirus had implications for democracy. These measures tested the trust and faith of Australians in our governments, and put pressure on democratic institutions including parliaments and the federation. The committee sought evidence on COVID-19, as it relates to the terms of reference, and that evidence is reflected in this report.

Report structure:

Chapter 1 - Introduction

Provides background to the referral and outlines the conduct of the inquiry, then provides some brief introductory comments on the history of democracy in Australia.

Chapter 2 - Nationhood and democracy: international trends

Discusses the international context for the inquiry; looks at evidence around populism, right-wing nationalism, democratic decline and increasing authoritarianism, and considers how COVID-19 has impacted upon global democracy. The chapter also considers the results of recent international elections, and other global events, and asks the question: Where does Australia fit into this world?

Chapter 3 - The Australian nation: our history, our identities, our future

Considers different constructions of Australia's 'national story', and how this has changed over time. Considers the issue of 'national identity' and characteristics of Australia as a nation. Looks at First Nations' perspectives on Australia's history, calls for constitutional change and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Acknowledges Australia's migrant history and preservation of migrant stories. Looks at history teaching, and the teaching of civics in Australia. This chapter finishes by considering whether the time may be right for an official change in the way Australian national identity is constructed.

Chapter 4 - Citizenship, culture and religion, social cohesion

Discusses the history and definition of Australian citizenship, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and the issue of revocation. Looks at the treatment of non-citizens and the notion of 'global citizenship'. Considers evidence around social cohesion, languages, and multiculturalism, as well as discussing racism, intolerance and 'identity politics'. Considers the impacts of the pandemic of social cohesion. The chapter includes discussion of proposals around defining and protecting citizenship, building social cohesion, and reviewing policy approaches to multiculturalism.

Chapter 5 - Australia's democracy: trust, satisfaction and belief

Analyses a wide range of evidence around declining trust and satisfaction in politics and political institutions, and theories explaining the declines. Looks at the impacts of the pandemic on trust and satisfaction in government and democratic institutions. Considers evidence around the role of the media, social media, 'fake news' and conspiracy theories. The chapter finishes with discussion of proposals in two areas: implementing integrity measures to increase trust in politicians and officials; and increasing citizen engagement in decision-making.

Chapter 6 - Democratic institutions: building strength and resilience

The final chapter considers evidence regarding the health and vitality of some of Australia's most fundamental democratic institutions. It discusses the functionality and strength of the federal parliament, the independence, expertise and professionalism of the public service, and the perceived decline of Australia's major political parties. The performance of Australia's federal system is discussed in relation to COVID-19 and the process of federation reform springing from the replacement of the Council of Australian Governments with the National Cabinet. Australia's cultural institutions, museums, libraries, galleries and universities are also discussed, as key institutions within the liberal democratic structure. The chapter includes discussion of proposals for reform.

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