Why Do Australians Dislike Their Politicians?

In a blog response, James Tauber asked about the book I edited with David Burchell in 2002: The Prince’s New Clothes: Why Do Australians Dislike Their Politicians? In the book, I suggested three reasons why Australians are less trusting of their politicians than they were in the 1970s (what follows is from a Canberra Times op-ed).

First, the past few decades have seen a “social-capital crisis” across much of the western world. We are less likely to join organisations, less trusting of our neighbours, and less involved in politics. The same factors that have led us to disengage from civic life have probably also contributed to our tendency to trust our leaders less.

The second major change is that politics has tended to focus on issues of left and right, temporarily ignoring the rise of post-materialist “identity politics”, and leading voters to feel that neither party really represents their values. Here, the parties have begun to respond, with the emergence of Green politics, the Third Way, and Compassionate Conservatism all indicators of a political system shifting beyond simple left-right debates.

Third, changes in the way in which the media report politics have affected the standing of politicians. With a greater focus on conflict over substance, and personalities over policy, media reporting has become more critical towards politicians. In the words of one commentator, much journalism today “presumes to lift the curtain on the wizard and reveal the charlatan behind it”.

Imagining Australia talks less about the problem of trust, and more about the solutions. Deliberation Day, a policymaking Senate, and open primaries (Ch 2) are all ways in which we can reinvigorate Australian democracy — and hopefully also increase trust.

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