It has become accepted wisdom in public discourse that Australians are disengaged with politics. But is that really the case? Or are we more invested in our political system than we appear to be?
A poll last year noted that less than one-third of respondents had “a lot” or “some” trust in either their federal or state parliaments. The figure for the former had dropped from a relatively lofty 55% in 2011.
Political parties, meanwhile, fared even worse. They received a score of 19% in the same poll.
Those numbers aren’t surprising. We’re quite accustomed to thinking that Australians are a deeply cynical, disillusioned bunch; that we are all switching off from politics; and that there is a deep rot setting into the fragile connections between our vital democratic institutions and the citizens they purport to represent.
In order to find out how engaged (or disengaged) we are, we first need to tackle a tricky question: how would we tell?
The simple story
Researchers from different disciplines will often attempt to understand and quantify political engagement in different ways.
Voter turnout is one such measure, although it tends to be far more useful in other parts of the world where turning up to the ballot box (and maybe enjoying a “democracy sausage” afterwards) isn’t compulsory for all adults, as it is in Australia.
It is worth noting that, even though voting is (notionally) compulsory, of all Australians over the age of 18, probably less than 80% cast a formal vote in the 2013 federal election. In large part this is because many people don’t bother putting themselves on the electoral roll in the first place.
Having said that, these are crude measures of political engagement, in that they distil a complex range of activities down to the simple act of correctly marking a sheet of paper and putting it into a cardboard box every couple of years at a local state school.
They are probably better used as indicators of what is referred to in some quarters as “political efficacy”, which is essentially the belief that your own participation (in this case voting) will have some kind of impact.
With so much attention in Australian politics in recent years (at least at the federal level) given over to intra-party dynamics, factional squabbles and backroom deal-making – made most visible by three changes of prime minister without an election – it is no wonder that Australians, perhaps more so than ever, suspect their vote won’t make any difference to policy directions.
In the know
Just because people don’t think their vote has much of an effect doesn’t mean that they’re not otherwise engaged with what is going on in the world of politics. Actor and activist Russell Brand is a name that springs to mind at this point.
Many might assume that the average Australian knows very little about politics (The Chaser Decides once shamed these people with the on-screen stamp “this person votes”), and that people’s general political awareness is declining.
That is a problematic assumption, though, and it relies on a belief that there was a mythical:
… “brained up” era, when the media played a more positive role in fostering informed debate, a knowledgeable public and a healthy democratic system.
As British historian Jonathan Rose, in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, pointed out:
During the second world war in 1942, when one would expect citizens to be more engaged than normal with official politics, research found that only 22% of working class people could identify the chancellor of the exchequer, 14% the minister for war, and 16% the minister of information.
Similarly, there is a school of thought that the growth over the last 40 years of the category of “swinging voter” is a reflection of a more fickle, whimsical and impulsive electorate. Read another way, however, it is arguably a clear sign that more people are voting based on what they see in terms of political performances, rather than being merely “rusted-on” (and potentially inattentive) partisans.
The complex picture
To fully understand if and how Australians are engaged with politics, however, it would be useful if we were much more broad-minded about what constitutes both engagement and politics in the first place.
I have argued previously that we tend to think far too narrowly about what counts as political media. The success of hybrid TV formats such as The Project and The Weekly – and the many instances (globally) where politics is discussed on shows that were once almost purely entertainment – demonstrates that there is an appetite for politics that is presented to us in a more interesting and authentic way.
Significantly, the scope for engaging with that media content has also widened considerably in recent times. Even if is still dominated by political “junkies” and “insiders”, social media has allowed nearly everyone to participate in the national political conversation if they want to.
Audiences today have far more opportunities to be active than ever before, and not just a pair of eyeballs at the end of the production line. As The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy noted, consumers of political media:
… talk to me, and each other, at length in the comments thread under the live blog I write when federal parliament sits. They are in my inbox 24/7, with tips, bouquets and brickbats. They want to follow me in Instagram and Facebook, and they talk to me on Twitter. They give me instant feedback when I’m on Insiders on the ABC, or on the radio, or Sky News. The reader is now right beside me, because technology connects us all, and makes everyone a micro-publisher.
Limiting our definition of “politics” only to the formal, institutional variety also marginalises the significant activity occurring in other arenas, as it has for over a century. Feminists have long fought on issues what were (or perhaps still are) not seen as “political”.
As a PhD student of mine, Belinda Eslick, recently pointed out:
… while survey data might tell us that women are less interested in politics than men are, this oversimplifies both what politics is and also what it means to be political.
Young people, too, are often seen as inherently more disengaged, though Alan McKee argues that this is perhaps because we often don’t view the nature of their activity as valid:
Youth culture is often represented as the ultimate face of political apathy … [and yet,] at the same time, youth culture is shown to us in the media as the source of the most extreme forms of political activism.
Finally, if we really want to understand the way that ordinary Australians relate to politics, we ought to treat cynicism and (dis)engagement as distinct attitudes, with an indirect relationship to one another.
People may be increasingly cynical about politics, but that doesn’t mean they’re lazy, stupid, or bad citizens.
One could argue that Australian politics is becoming increasingly cynical as a whole. Politicians and political actors play games for mere point-scoring, call each other childish names, lie with impunity, and even abuse their privilege.
Just because someone is turned off by all of that, doesn’t mean they’ve lost the democratic faith altogether. We just need to look for ways to make people believe that they alone can make a difference once again.