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The Indi Project: who do Indi voters trust to run the country?

Cathy McGowan is a community-minded representative who seeks to build her electorate’s capacity to respond to rural challenges. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The Indi Project: who do Indi voters trust to run the country?

Cathy McGowan is a community-minded representative who seeks to build her electorate’s capacity to respond to rural challenges. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

At the moment a lot of politicians go into politics for advancement rather than service. Turning out clones of media-savvy people with soundbites and platitudes not genuine responses. It feels like they’re manufactured. – Indi citizen

Only 42% of Australians are presently satisfied with the way democracy works. Trust in our politicians and the political process are at the lowest level than at any time since 1994. And the majority of citizens describe the standards of honesty and integrity in Australia as low. The proportion of those disaffected increases with age.

At the same time, more Australians than ever before are undecided on how to vote at the forthcoming election.

These observations of democratic decline are just a snapshot of the views of 1,444 Australians reported in a survey designed by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) at the University of Canberra and the Museum of Australian Democracy.

To explore these findings in more detail, the IGPA research team is conducting focus groups with different groups throughout Australia.

The first stop has been Indi in northeastern Victoria. Indi was selected for two reasons:

  • it is experiencing demographic, economic and social challenges that are fairly typical in rural communities; and

  • its incumbent MP, Cathy McGowan, is an independent. She usurped Sophie Mirabella, who is attempting to reclaim the seat in 2016, in spectacular fashion at the last election. This suggests Indi has a potentially large number of floating voters at the local scale, mirroring the situation nationally.

These are two politicians that represent very distinctive styles of politics. Mirabella is a seasoned party woman – a career politician once tipped for the frontbench who exercises some influence both in her party and in Canberra. McGowan is a community-minded representative who seeks to build her electorate’s capacity to respond to rural challenges.

Mirabella approaches politics like a blood sport and has significant skill in engaging in adversarial politics. McGowan appears empathetic, concerned and responsive, and is immediately likeable. So what do the people of Indi think about issues of trust?

What are the characteristics of Indi’s ideal politician?

Although Indi voters cite standard characteristics that we would expect when asked to describe their “ideal” MP (such as honesty, trustworthy, ethical, local identity – “knows the area”), there are some additional features they are looking for. These appear to correlate strongly with experiences of their immediate past and current federal MPs.


Q: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

A: Politicians are in it just for themselves.

Perceptions of political self-interest by age cohort in Australia (2016). Author

Indi voters desire someone who is “approachable and accessible”, “who listens to them”, who “communicates and follows up”, who “fights for them”, and who “has influence in government to get things done”.

What do they trust politicians to do?

Younger Indi voters particularly are highly sceptical of the discussion around jobs, and feel the numbers thrown around in that discussion are slippery.

They doubt whether the job creation promised will be delivered, and think the job prospects are likely to be short-term, part-time or casual positions, when they are looking for long-term, meaningful employment.


Q: Please indicate how concerned you are about the following activities by elected politicians in Australia today.

A: Making promises they know they can’t keep.

Concern about false promises by age cohort in Australia (2016). Author

Younger voters’ disappointment in their political representatives is manifest. They see their lack of faith as justified by the ubiquitous “broken promises” of politicians of all persuasions.


Q: Please indicate how concerned you are about the following activities by elected politicians in Australia today.

A: Breaking promises.

Concern about promise breaking by age cohort in Australia (2016). Author

Older voters don’t trust governments in general. However, they make some dispensations for local government – which they see as somewhat more accessible and accountable because of its proximity to citizens.


Q: In general, would you say that federal governments are typically run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all people?

Perceptions of the motivations of politicians by age cohort in Australia (2016). Author

What does trust mean to Indi citizens?

Indi soft voters were asked to define what trust meant to them. While there was a wide range of responses, several key themes emerged.

Trust means that I know that someone’s being real and honest with me, not pleasing my ears with sweet talk while holding a gun under the table.

Trustworthiness is earned by following through with promises without betrayal, and in regards to politics (or just being in the global community) for me it means feeling that a person is being who they really are, not just putting on an act when the cameras are on.


Q: How much do you personally trust each of the following?

A: MPs in general.

Perceptions of the level of political honesty and integrity for MPs in Australia by age cohort (2016). Author

Q: How much do you personally trust each of the following?

A: MPs (local).

Perceptions of the level of political honesty and integrity for local MPs in Australia by age cohort (2016). Author

To a large extent, Indi’s floating voter is resigned to what they get.


Q: How much do you personally trust each of the following?

A: Federal government.

Perceptions of the level of political honesty and integrity for federal government in Australia by age cohort (2016). Author

There is some recognition that governments do actually deliver decent services, but that they need to be accountable for their promises.

Understanding the politics of trust

The declining figures on democratic satisfaction, formal political engagement and trust in political institutions and politicians should be troubling for all political parties who have presided over a decade of democratic decline.

The evidence nationally and from Indi is that the key question for the majority of Australians come election time is: who do you trust to run the country?

For many, political parties are simply failing to capture the political imagination. This provides the space for either independents and/or minority parties to build alternative agendas around the politics of trust or a wake-up call to the major parties to reconnect with the citizenry.


The election generally, and Indi in particular, will be discussed at a forum attended by Mark Evans, Michelle Grattan and others on Saturday, June 25. For a more detailed exposition of this article see the forthcoming book, From Abbott to Turnbull: Australian Commonwealth Administration 2013-2016.