Post Australia-Day blues

Australia Day has come and gone for another year. Depending on your politics, the Aussie flag budgie smugglers or the ‘Invasion Day’ T-shirt has been returned to the top of the wardrobe. Australia is officially back at work – reluctantly and with more than a little trepidation about the year ahead. As if Trump, Brexit, and the Rugby World Cup weren’t enough for Australians to worry about, a federal election is expected in May.

If past experience is any guide, the election campaign will be a dispiriting affair. The marketing background of the current (five months and counting) Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is a cause for some concern. In the early 2000s, as head of Tourism Australia, he approved and oversaw the controversial $180 million ‘So where the bloody hell are you?’ campaign to promote Australia overseas. We anxiously await the Coalition government’s slogan for the coming election.

Politics and politicians inspire varying degrees of distrust, disgust and disillusionment in all liberal democracies. But as a keen observer of politics in both Australia and New Zealand, my sense in recent years has been that these negative attitudes are more prevalent and more intense on this side of the ditch; that Australians are much grumpier about their politics than kiwis.

Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on my perceptions. Hard data is available, always a comfort in these times of fake news and alternative facts. For many decades the Australian National University has been carrying out the ‘Australian Election Study’. This is a well-run, large-scale statistical survey that measures the views of Australian voters on a wide range of issues at election time. Since 1990 a number of New Zealand universities have undertaken a comparable survey of kiwi voters – the ‘New Zealand Election Study’.

For the latest national election in each country – 2016 in Australia and 2017 in New Zealand – both surveys asked whether voting ‘matters’; whether it ‘makes any difference to what happens’. Of those who expressed a view, 81% of the New Zealand respondents said that voting matters compared to just 58% of the Australian respondents.

Both surveys also asked whether it ‘makes a difference who is in power’. Again, the kiwis were much less cynical, with 73% saying it makes a difference versus only 55% of Australians.

So, by a significant margin, New Zealanders have a stronger belief than Australians that voting matters and that it makes a difference who governs their country.

What do these results tell us? That Middle Earth has better politics or that its inhabitants have lower standards? Some Australians would say that this just confirms what they’ve always known – that kiwis are more gullible and naïve than their sophisticated Australian cousins. (That may be a bit of a stretch from a country that sought to lure higher-spending international tourists with the catchphrase ‘where the bloody hell are you?’).

As an expat kiwi with a foot in both camps, I think Australians and New Zealanders are very similar in their attitudes and outlooks. Accordingly, my explanation for the disparity in the election surveys is that politics is a more troubled, and troubling, business in Australia. And it goes much deeper than Australians simply mourning the parade of lost Prime Ministers in the last decade. They long for better politics.

One intriguing side-effect of the revolving prime ministerial door in Canberra is a relatively recent affection among many Australians for New Zealand’s PM, both the current incumbent – Jacindamania being alive and well on this side of the Tasman – and her predecessor – John Key’s length of tenure lending him an air of sensibleness and competence that seems lacking in Australia’s leaders as come and go so quickly.

Australian politicians realise that they have a problem. A few days after his narrow election victory in 2016, then Prime Minister Turnbull acknowledged that there “is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government and with the major parties.” Another Coalition MP, Andrew Hastie, stated that “the people feel disenfranchised from the political class. … They don’t feel like they have a stake in the future of the country.”

This is consistent with polling undertaken by research organisation the Scanlon Foundation since 2007. Over that time the percentage of respondents saying that ‘the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing for the Australian people’ ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’ has been in a downward trend and in 2018 sat at 30%. In addition, when asked ‘What is the most important problem facing Australia today’, the problem ranked second by respondents was the ‘quality of government and politicians’. It has received that ranking in eight of the nine Scanlon surveys since 2010.

The Global Corruption Barometer survey conducted by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia asks respondents ‘how much trust and confidence’ they have in the federal government doing ‘a good job in carrying out its responsibilities’. The number responding ‘not very much’ or ‘none at all’ has risen from less than 20% in 2008 to more than 50% in 2018.

While the numbers vary, two clear points emerge. Trust in government and politics in Australia is low, and it is trending down over time. Significantly, some of the evidence indicates that the decline has accelerated since 2007. This is a serious problem.

There’s an old joke about a tourist in Ireland asking a local the best way to get to Dublin, to which the local replies: “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”. He could well have been answering the question of how Australia can get to the good politics it so desperately needs.

It may be tempting for New Zealanders to feel superior about their politics. But rather than rest on their laurels, they might do better to understand why politics is so dire in Australia and whether the Australian predicament offers any lessons for New Zealand.

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