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The future of Australian democracy

Photo: Melody Ayres-Griffiths,

Erin Gear

The shortcomings of representative democracies are becoming increasingly apparent in a political climate characterised by polarisation, with representation teetering on the edge of exclusion. Worldwide, representative democracies are inevitably demonstrating a tendency to be exclusive, with minority groups failing to be represented in political discourse. The recent Australian federal election saw the Coalition government defeat the Australian Labor Party by a margin of less than 4%, making the ‘minority’ vote nearly half of the total.

While this was not the expected outcome, it should come as no surprise given the skewed age demographic in Australia. With an aging population that sees over-40s being overrepresented at elections, and a rising national median age, millennials and Gen Zers are the minority in the landscape of Australian politics. Despite their clear interest in politics and social issues – evidenced by the recent climate action strikes – young people are demonstrating a lack of political participation in elections, and a preference for activism and direct involvement with government. The most recent federal election saw youth enrolment at 88.8%, all-time high, however, youth voter enrolment has never been synonymous with youth voter turnout or electoral engagement. 18-24 year olds have consistently been identified as the least likely demographic to enrol to vote, and the most likely to cast intentional informal votes. In addition, the politically-wired youth radio station Triple J Hack recently released results from a survey revealing that 85% of respondents aged between 18-29 do not believe that politicians are working in the best interests of young people. With a diminishing political platform, and a representative government with limited interest in and representation of youth, young people are disengaging from formal democratic processes. Efforts need to be made to modernise and reinvigorate democracy to be sustainable and functional for the future.

In its current state, democracy is in decline, notwithstanding compulsory voting in Australia, which simply blankets public relations concerns. Only 41% of Australians in 2018 were satisfied with the practice of democracy in Australia, compared to 86% in 2007. This rapid and steep decline can be explained by political parties failing or simply not trying to connect with millennials and Generation Z. Take for example the recent appointment of Senator Richard Colbeck, a baby boomer, as Minister for Youth. Representation matters, and young people are as offended by this appointment as women were of Tony Abbott’s appointment of himself as Minister for Women in 2013. This lack of engagement with and representation of youth in government is a major contribution to the emerging trust deficit facing Australian democracy. If the youngest generations are being exposed to a version of democracy that structurally excludes youth, and learning to believe through experience that representative democracy is out of touch with the modern world, then democracy is unlikely to fare well in the future without revision. The distrust in, or, at best, poor rates of satisfaction with government is dangerous because it provides an opportunity for populism to leverage and exacerbate the polarisation of the current political climate. This is already being demonstrated by Britain in the wake of Brexit, and by the Presidency of Donald Trump in the United States.

The weakening of Australia’s political system has been acknowledged for at least the last ten years, as 2009 witnessed the formation of the Australian Citizens’ Parliament. This was an initiative convened by the new Democracy Foundation that enabled 150 citizens from across Australia to come together and brainstorm ways to improve democracy. One of the key priorities identified by this citizen-body was the empowerment of youth to participate in politics through education and community engagement. Similarly, the Democracy 2025 report published in 2018 emphasised the importance of democratic reforms that work towards the inclusion of ‘ordinary Australians’ in policy design and solution-making processes.

This styling of democracy has been theorised as ‘deliberative democracy’ and proponents of this remoulding argue that it would reinstate trust in government. Meaningful and substantial collaboration between citizens and politicians outside of election campaigns is necessary to ensure the health of democracy. Deliberative democracy would increase citizens’ political participation, and therefore raise the political literacy of the Australian public to create a more sustainable societally-reflective democracy. However, despite the government’s acknowledgement of democratic instability, and appreciation of 2009’s Citizens’ Parliament, virtually no definitive action has been taken to restore the public’s faith in democracy or respond to youth apathy and dissatisfaction with the political system. Changing the structure and function of democracy is obviously no small feat, and is unlikely to be implemented any time soon. However, small steps should gradually be made to lay the foundations for a deliberative democracy.

I recently received a scholarship from Global Voices, a not-for-profit organisation that provides opportunities for young people to develop domestic policy recommendations through multilateral fora, and attended the OECD Forum in Paris last month. This was an incredible opportunity to learn from and engage with Australian and international diplomats, academics and change-makers with a vision to create a better future.

One of the focal topics of this year’s OECD Forum was Integrity and Trust, with an emphasis on the ‘sustainability of political systems’ and ‘increased civic engagement’. The discussions surrounding this all suggested that democracy in its present state is failing, and needs to be reinvigorated. Inclusivity is at the core of a deliberative democracy, whereas representative democracy leaves too many people on the periphery of public life. It is obvious that our political system is not going to make this shift overnight, nor should it. To make a sustainable democracy, change should occur incrementally.

Based on my time at the OECD, and my research as a Global Voices scholar, I am creating a forward-planning policy proposal that I hope to submit to parliamentary committees in Canberra to help Australia as we grapple with the future of democracy. My proposals will focus on the creation of a more robust and inclusive civics education program in high school, which is as interactive with local councils and governments as it is based on theory and practice. A civics education curriculum that is interactive with local government will be incredibly valuable, as it will lay the foundations for a democracy that not only values young people, but also a democracy that sees the value in a deliberative model.

Erin Gear is a graduate of the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in History, and a Global Voices research scholar. Her interests are social history, global politics, and good political commentary on current affairs.



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