Now for the big question: who do you trust to run the country?

As we get ready to vote in a federal election, satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest level since 1996. Shutterstock

When the budget reckoning is over and Australian households have made marginal adjustments to their spending plans, one fundamental question will remain – who do you trust to run the country?

In February and March this year, the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis commissioned a survey of 1444 Australians on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy. Drawing on questions posed in the long-running Australian Election Study, we carefully crafted the survey to ensure comparable data on most questions.

The findings make difficult reading for Australian political parties. At the moment, the majority of Australians don’t want to vote for any them.

Satisfaction with democracy in Australia is now at its lowest level since 1996

While the Howard years provide evidence of a culture of contentment, 2007 to the present day has clearly been a period of profound discontent.

We have, however, demonstrated elsewhere that this is a response to the nature of the current politics on offer and is not an indictment of democratic values per se.

Q: How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Australia?

Levels of trust in government and politicians in Australia are at their lowest level since 1993

Most significantly, only 5% of Australians trust government. 74% exhibit a critical perspective. 25% trust government ministers in contrast with 72% who trust the police and 56% the judiciary.

Q: In general, do you feel that the people in government are too often interested in looking after themselves, or do you feel that they can be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time?

Grey Australians no longer trust their politicians

In our view, the most remarkable finding from this extraordinary survey and a measure of the degree of discontent is that the Baby Boomers who have benefited most in economic terms from a period of affluence no longer trust their politicians.

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

Left? Right? Or an alternative? I’ll decide on the day because I simply don’t care!

Everything is therefore up for grabs at the federal election this year because voting volatility is at an all-time high. Citizens just don’t care who wins the election anymore.

These are fertile conditions for independent candidates and minority parties with ambitious political agendas. Coalition government of some kind is the most likely outcome.

Q: Before the most recent federal election for the House of Representatives, had you always voted for the same party, or had you sometimes voted for different parties?

Q: How much do you generally care about which party wins a federal election?

We don’t trust any level of government very much

And it isn’t just federal government that can’t be trusted. State government can’t be trusted either, but local government does marginally better.

This suggests a role for localism in a successful electoral project.

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

Federal politicians in the Magic Kingdom are corrupt

The majority of Australians think their politicians are corrupt and are too aligned with big interests – that is, business or unions.

Given these data, a political project focusing on cleaning up practices within the Magic Kingdom (federal parliament in Canberra) is likely to gain followers. Given perceptions of association with union corruption, attempts by Labor to play this card would not be taken seriously. This provides another space for minority parties and independents to exploit.

Q: Please indicate how common you feel the following activities are in Australian politics today.

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?

So, what type of political project would Australians trust?

Our findings draw attention to two important dilemmas for Australia’s political class.

First, that citizens view politicians and democratic politics as one and the same – anti-politics equals anti-party politics. In a traditional culture of deference, the conflation of politics, democracy and politicians was viewed as an equation for social and political stability, but in times of rapid social change it may well become a source of ungovernability.

It should also be of significant concern that this pattern of discontent has emerged in a period of relative affluence, unlike in the US and the UK.

Second, we can identify a culture of anti-politics at the heart of the Australian political system. Paradoxically, the evidence also demonstrates that politicians and political parties need to be the solution to these two dilemmas.

The evidence presented here shows that a new political project based on different forms of trust-building is likely to attract significant support. Hence, we need reforms:

  • that make decision-making more transparent and politicians more accountable for their actions;

  • where politicians become the key agents of change in a moral agenda aimed at cleaning up the Canberra-village;

  • that commit to moving away from adversarial politics and towards a collaborative governance approach; and

  • where all federal institutions have a legislative responsibility to connect up Australian citizens with the Canberra-village in policymaking, regulation and operational delivery.

Fundamentally, however, there is the need for a national democratic audit in which to pose three questions to the Australian citizenry. How would you imagine your ideal democracy? What should we expect from our politicians within it? And how is the present system failing you?