Our two-party system is broken, Australian democracy is in a ‘parlous state’, and the populists are marching on Canberra in their droves. Those are the conclusions being drawn after the release of the latest Australian Election Study data.
While the structural flaws of the two-party system may have emerged, and the jury is still out on whether Pauline Hanson will one day form government, the assertion that the fundamentals of democracy itself are in decay is somewhat problematic.
The term democracy derives from the Greek ‘dēmokratia’ — the rule of the people. The underlying principle of the concept is that citizens participate in the decision-making process of the state; in the Australian case by electing representatives.
While these representatives and the system that constrains them are in need of review, a closer look at the AES survey reveals that Australians are in fact being more proactive when making political decisions.
Take swing voting for example. The number of people who have always voted for the same party has decreased from 72 per cent in 1967 to just 40 per cent in 2016. Split ticket voting — casting a vote for different parties in the House of Representatives and the Senate — has also risen from 12 per cent in 1987 to 19 per cent in 2016.
What this suggests is that constituents are feeling less compelled to adhere to historic family and class voting loyalties, and are more swayed by policy proposals.
This is reinforced by the fact that 59 per cent of poll respondents viewed policy issues as the primary influence on their voting decision, as opposed to 23 per cent who allocated their vote based on party identity alone.
Moreover, 42 per cent of voters made their voting decision during the 2016 election campaign, as opposed to 23 per cent in 2007. Just 35 per cent made up their minds before the election campaign, compared to the 55 per cent in 2007.
These poll results demonstrate that the core fabric of democracy — the demos — is alive and well. People are not mindlessly ticking the same box they have for 30 years. Rather they are increasingly making decisions based on the issues that matter to them.
So, while Australians are becoming increasingly frustrated by the nature of our political system, it would be unfair to say that they are abandoning the precious democratic principles on which our nation is built.
Charles Jacobs is a Policy Analyst in the Centre for Independent Studies Indigenous Research Program.
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