Support for democracy in Australia?

by Professor John Parkinson

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The Lowy Institute have released the results of its annual Australian attitudes poll. Included is a question on “the value of democracy”. Around 60% of Australians say that it is the best form of government, 20% say that ‘in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable’, while most of the rest think it doesn’t much matter either way. The support level is somewhat higher for older Australians (70%) and somewhat lower among the young (56%). These results have remained stable since the survey began in 2012.

To be frank, the Lowy report is somewhat frustrating. It hints at data that are not supplied, specifically the age-group breakdowns; but gives no clues as to whether opinions varied by region, identification with a political party, income, gender, education, or other values and beliefs in the survey. And there is no distinctive Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander voice.

As a result, one has to take the results with a grain of salt, especially given that they seem to contrast with reported attitudes elsewhere in the world, based on reports which do look for relationships between values, interests and perspectives.

Attitudes to democracy

If Australian attitudes to democracy are really that stable, it might be because Australia more generally has been remarkably stable through otherwise-turbulent times. It largely escaped the global financial crisis, although more through good luck than good management: the resources boom kept us flying along quite smoothly.

While there are certainly cracks showing now, it has until recently retained a strong political culture and relatively stable, barely distinguishable political parties, with populist movements that fall as quickly as they rise.

But should we be concerned that the numbers are not higher? Is it not odd that in such a stable democracy, more than a third of the population does not think that democracy is the best form of government?

Actually, I’d be rather surprised if they thought anything different, in part because of the very nature of democratic politics. Politics is about how we sort out the inevitable conflicts between individual or group’s ideas of the good life and the fact that we have to rub along with our neighbours –what we do affects others in intricate ways, and so we need rules for that common life and resources. Democracies make those rules by getting us to organise, argue, and vote — they bring our disagreements to the foreground and encourage us to talk them through, sometimes vociferously, in public, and via the media.

Non-democracies can often look more peaceful not because their citizens agree on everything, but because there is no effective means for expressing dissent. Indeed, some systems so dominate their peoples’ lives that even thinking a dissenting thought can be difficult, if not downright dangerous. In other words, that very peace and order can itself be a worrying sign. Democracy, to paraphrase Adam Przeworski, is a way of getting conflict out in the open and dealing with it without drawing weapons.

The thing is, only a minority of us really like conflict and thrive on it. Doubts about the value of democracy are partly about hostility to politics generally, but especially hostility to the ritualised, Pythonesque ‘Yes, I did’, ‘No, you didn’t’ nature of what we see on our news feeds.

But that is not to say that people don’t like talking about political issues — we do, constantly. We talk about the state of aged care homes, road projects, sustainable living and energy, taxes, regulations, health and safety, recruitment of medical staff in rural and remote areas, domestic violence, child welfare, the state of our schools, flood protection…the list could go on.

These are all collective issues, issues on which we have conflicting preferences and ideas; but we don’t call all that talk ‘politics’. We reserve that label for party political “Punch and Judy” shows, and ‘democracy’ gets dragged down with it.

Deliberative democracy

While many of us seek agreement by reference to social norms, others prefer more collaborative, creative and ‘deliberative’ ways of sorting through disagreements. Academic attention has focused for some years on two broad ways of doing that.

The first tradition is to look at the way the rules of the political game can be altered to encourage more consultation and coalition-building, creating broad support for ideas before implementing them rather than ramming them through with parliamentary sledge-hammers. First-past-the-post, winner-takes-all systems tend to exacerbate and polarise conflict; proportional representation with rules on effective consultation and minority group protections tend to lead to better conflict management through more consensus-building. If one party or one leader cannot control the legislature, they are forced to discuss and agree plans with others, and are thus more likely to produce agreements, which work for more people.

The Australian system has features of both: largely winner-takes-all, with relatively weak constitutional protections and centralised revenue-gathering, but balanced by a rarely-compliant Senate and some powers retained by states and territories. But it is also a highly centralised system: local government is relatively weak and thinly spread in Australia, especially when compared with Europe and some parts of the United States. And there are relatively few opportunities for ordinary people to have a direct influence on decisions except through protest and generally getting rowdy — often necessary, but which ramps up the conflict and downplays common ground.

The second set of approaches addresses avenues for direct, popular engagement. Participatory and deliberative democrats have long — far longer than sometimes supposed — advocated, experimented with, and sometimes institionalised processes which involve citizens directly in policy making.

There are thousands of examples. They include Participatory Budgeting in which neighbours on a street or in an apartment block discuss government spending priorities, send representatives to higher-level assemblies, debate the different proposals and allocate some proportion of city or state budgets. There is the Irish Constitutional Convention which includes randomly selected citizens who debate constitutional change with experts and interest group representatives, a process that sparked some genuinely national conversations and led to the Equal Marriage referendum of 2016. But there are also many, many grassroots organisations that do amazing work all around the world, connecting ordinary people directly into collective decision making.

None of those things — consensus-seeking in parliaments or direct citizen engagement — magically make conflict disappear. The fact that we have conflict is a good thing — non-democratic systems cover it up, smother it — but there are ways of managing it besides raw, majority-wins muscle, a conflict-enhancing approach.

Given that a citizens’ daily experience of democracy is pretty limited in Australia — what is remarkable about the Lowy results is not that so many people disagree with the idea that democracy is the best form of government, but that so many people agree. As the end of the resources boom gathers pace; as ideological battle lines are emphasised for short-term political gain; as our news feeds fragment; I suspect we will see those numbers start to fall in future. But until the Lowy Institute makes the raw data publicly available, this can only be educated guess-work. Academics and others need access to the data so we can crunch the numbers more, and make more confident diagnoses about what is driving the trend we see.



John Parkinson is an applied democracy theorist and policy scholar in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, Australia. His books include Deliberative Systems (with Jane Mansbridge, Harvard), and Democracy and Public Space, with a new book called Mapping and Measuring Deliberation with André Bächtiger (Stuttgart) coming out in 2018.

John’s current research project, ‘Sparking a National Conversation’, compares the 2014 Scottish independence debate with the current Australian campaign to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution. It is funded by the Australian Research Council.

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