Addressing the democratic deficit requires a greater focus on empowering individuals and communities, not national capitals.
Anyone who watched the most recent Federal election would have concluded it was a surprise victory for the Liberal/National Coalition. In the aftermath, there have been a number of conclusions drawn, including the claim that Labor lost by going to an election with a plan for many new taxes (which was true), and that the Coalition had a disciplined campaign (also true).
The uniting core of the Coalition campaign was simple — it sought to empower people by allowing them to keep more of their own money by reducing taxes; to respect their freedom, from delivering marriage equality to respecting the freedom of religion; and to understand that our environmental footprint must be addressed, but without leaving anyone behind.
In short, the choice was between those who wanted to empower themselves to solve social and economic ills, and those who wanted to empower other people to take control.
Electorally, that’s a seductive proposition, because it addresses one of the stark gaps in Western liberal democracy: trust.
The data from the annual Lowy poll shows that more than a third of young Australians are ‘not very satisfied’ or ‘not at all satisfied’ with our democracy. While having the most complete electoral roll (96.8 per cent) and turnout (91 per cent) in the Australian election may seem staggeringly high — compared with the United States or the United Kingdom — it was evidenced that this came as a result of lower engagement from younger voters, who are cautious about democracy.
While experiencing a slight uptick in recent years, only 65 per cent of Australians amongst the overall population believe that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’ — and that declines to 55 per cent for those between the ages of 18-29. The ballast of support rests with those who have lived through eras where the shortfalls of alternative systems were on full display.
There is limited clarity about this, but it is clear that attitudes to topical contemporary issues diverge between generations. For example, as the Lowy poll showed, 74 per cent of younger Australians think that ‘reducing carbon emissions’ should be the primary objective of energy policy, with only 19 per cent prioritising ‘reducing household bills’ — whereas only 29 per cent and 44 per cent of those above the age of 60 felt the same way on these respective issues.
This core theme is reflected in a recent research report from the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra, which found that while the oldest Australians included the most satisfied (45 per cent) and the most dissatisfied (35 per cent) with Australian democracy, Generation X and the youngest Australians are the most ambivalent.
What’s clear is that many Australians don’t think that their democracy meets their aspirations, or expectations. And the data shows clearly how this must be addressed: the answer is to decentralise, and localise power in the community, not the capital.
The same study found that amongst all age groups, trust with government is highest with local government (33.6 per cent for Gen X, to 66.5 per cent for Gen Y), then State government (26.7 per cent with Gen X, to 44.1 per cent with ‘Builders’) and least with Federal government (21.85 per cent for Baby Boomers, to 39.5 per cent for Gen Z).
There’s a clear connection here between trust and proximity. Individuals are always most reflective of their own interests, and local government is naturally more proximate and reflective of the community it serves, whereas Canberra is distant and reflective of the whole of the nation.
The great liberal project has always been to empower people to have the freedom to take responsibility for themselves, their family, and their community. It turns out that this not only addresses the question of a democratic deficit — it’s politically popular, too.
Tim Wilson is the Federal Liberal Member for Goldstein and formerly served as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner.