Mar 14, 2018

What’s really driving voter disillusionment

Disempowerment lies behind the angst that has fueled the rise of minor parties in recent elections. And there is substance to voters' concerns.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, on minor party support in Australia, is another contribution to probably the biggest political debate across Western democracies currently: what’s behind the drift to populism and, in a number of countries, the decline of support for the political establishment?

It explores the growth in minor party support over recent elections, culminating in the 2016 federal election when minor party support reached over 22% in the House of Representatives and over a quarter in the Senate — the highest levels ever recorded (they might have added that 2016 also heralded a slump in turnout, despite compulsory voting). All at a time when trust in politicians and politics is at a low ebb across Australia and much of the West. 

The report is particularly focused on regional Australia, where minor party support is growing more rapidly. Its conclusions are that economic conditions alone don’t explain the rise, although they partially do in relation to unemployment. Instead, the report emphasises the lack of trust in government, a belief that politics needs fundamental reform and a sense of loss of control. This desire to “take back control” is helping drive support for minor parties. And that desire is one rooted in nostalgia:

Some minor party voters are particularly nostalgic for a time when people like them seemed to have had more control over their lives and the country’s direction. They wish to protect the cultural symbols and narratives that are associated with ‘traditional Australia’.

Immigration is, for such voters, a key issue — despite little contact with immigrants, and despite living in regional centres generally untroubled by housing supply and congestion issues linked to immigration in the capitals, they oppose immigration, which for them “may be linked to a fear that immigrants could undermine traditionally ‘Australian’ values or norms”.

Much of the media coverage of the report emphasises a split between the “trust” and “economy” issues, noting that it’s the former and not the latter that is driving the shift away from major parties. But the report is at pains not to reject a role for economic conditions, merely to note that it’s not the only, and may not be the primary, cause. The distinction also glides over the extent to which issues like lack of trust and the kind of disempowerment that fuels a perceived need to “take back control”, themselves arise from economic policies.

True, passing issues like expenses or donations scandals are corrosive of trust in politicians — especially when there seems to be little interest on the part of any side to fix the rules. But lack of trust and the urge to “take back control” — often manifested as “take back control of borders” — are linked. They’re both perceptions that the political system isn’t working in the interests of voters but rather for special interests.

And on economic policy, voters have reason to think the system is not working in their interests. Economic orthodoxy of recent decades has elevated the interests of corporations to primacy in policymaking at the expense of workers. Policymaking in Canberra is overrun with lobbyists waving modelling commissioned to deliver outcomes their clients or employers want. Governments are reluctant to implement policies that might upset “the markets”.

Immigration is really only the lightning rod for this sentiment, the highest and most visible point of the structure. Voters — many of whom are migrants themselves — object to economically open borders, borders that allow foreign workers to compete with Australians either by coming here and taking jobs (and competing for houses, and using infrastructure), or taking jobs remotely via outsourcing and the offshoring of local manufacturing.

That these jobs have been more than replaced by services jobs doesn’t matter. Service jobs, as the report points out, tend to cluster in cities, and tend to attract younger and more educated people, rather than “older male voters who work outside the services sector and are nostalgic for a period of greater job opportunities”.

Many of the drivers of disillusionment are beyond the control of governments. The new protectionism we’ve embraced in the last couple of years won’t bring back more than a couple of thousand manufacturing jobs. But the report rightly urges measures that might restore trust in the political process itself — donations reform, lobbying reform, fixing expense rules. That might encourage voters to start feeling they can have greater trust in the leaders who at the moment are perceived as working for everyone but voters.


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20 thoughts on “What’s really driving voter disillusionment

  1. York City

    “The new protectionism we’ve embraced in the last couple of years”. Where does that come from? Maybe it’s that people are very pissed off with FTA’s being waived through without scrutiny by our parliamentary swill?

  2. EG

    About the point of nostalgia and the desire to take back control and fear of immigration.
    I was born in Australia in 1945 to parents who’d been knocked around by the great depression and the war.
    Like most of their generation they had been victims of circumstances totally out of their control.
    Although they were vaguely left wing and strong trade unionists, I grew up in a society in the thick of paranoia about the the red peril, real hatred of the Japanese, dislike of post war migrants and Ming lording it over all.
    The idea that people had any more control over their lives then than now and that migration is bad is tragic and delusional.
    Nostalgia can be very pernicious.

  3. klewso

    Putting party and self-interests ahead of those of the people that could potentially vote for you was always going to end in consternation.

  4. John Homan

    The exponential increase in inequality, driven by neoliberalism, and supported by our current federal government, has alienated voters from the major parties as they, correctly, believe that they are not heard. It drives fringe parties who will promote popular policy (which is ususally stupid, impractical and irrelevant)
    This trend has given us Pauline, Brexit and also Trump. If inequality keeps increasing, it will give us the equivalent of the French revolution, the voice of the unheaard. Watch out! The pitchforks are coming!

  5. Alex

    Some time ago Crikey published a list showing a strong link between voting patterns and education levels in the USA. It showed that the less well educated tended to vote Republican. The USA has a 2 party system whereas Australia seems to have a growing number of smaller populist parties that are attracting growing support (although not, it seems, in Tasmania). Who did these people vote for before the appearance of such parties? Unlike Bernard, I don’t like excessive generalization. Nick Xenophon’s small party may not qualify as having populist policies and the Greens are certainly not populist, so these small or minor parties are not in the same camp as some of the other newer parties. However, I would like to see an analysis of the link between education levels and Australia’s newer populist parties.

  6. CML

    What people don’t consider when they vote for ‘fringe’ parties, is that they will only rarely be able to influence government…and then only in a detrimental way.
    If things keep going in this direction, we will end up like one of those countries that takes months/years to cobble together a ‘coalition’ of several parties in order to govern, none of which agree with any of the others.
    Result…NOTHING gets done, and things will be worse than they are now. Why don’t voters ever think rationally about the outcome of their actions???

    1. John Homan

      Minority or coalition governments can be very successful.
      At best they learn to arrive atoutcomes that may not be ideal for everybody, but that everybody can live with. Collaboration rather than confrontation.

    2. The Curmudgeon

      Because, as the Trump phenomenon has demonstrated in the US, they’ve given up on “influencing government, blah, blah etc”. They’re settling with sticking it up the bastards who in their minds (rightly or wrongly) have dealt them the hand they’re stuck with. Put another way: voting is not a rational act. Sorry, idealists.

  7. brian crooks

    the trouble with politicians of today is they are totally out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, they move up through the political ranks without ever having a real job, they are professional politicians , the latest hare brained attack on retirees and pensioners is a classic example of dumb and dumber politics, the biggest losers are the mum and dads super funds returning low incomes and once again the winners are the super rich, its a 30% hit on the incomes of people earning less than the average wage and a tax break for the rich off their tax, clearly labor has received bad advice on this, bowen claims only a few thousand retirees will be affected by this policy then claims five and a half billion dollars will be saved , the simple truth is a retiree on $40,000 will be hit with a 30% tax on his earnings from dividends because they are under the income threshold required to pay tax while the rich on $200,000 p/a will still get the 30% franking credit off their tax, a worker on $40,000 a year would pay considerably less than 30% income tax so why slug a pensioner or retiree in the twilight of their lives, particularly when they have tried to save and look after their own retirement, I note nothing is suggested about reigning in the massive tax payer funded politicians super rip off, once again labor snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, after all, if they`re happy to slug the bottom dwellers I`d warn the rest of the I`m all right jack`s to prepare for their turn because its coming to a super fund near you.

    1. The Curmudgeon

      Thanks Brian, well said. And those retirees will be the ones hit by increases in the GST, but ineligible for compensation, and no benefit for them from tax cuts. If the government wants to tax super, do it after death: I don’t care if they take all of what’s left of my super (after I die), no interest in handing it on to the next generation- which is becoming the greatest threat to the perpetuation of inequality.

      1. The Curmudgeon

        Oops, not the greatest threat to the perpetuation of inequality, but one of the greatest means for the perpetuation of inequality.

    2. Sleuth

      It takes about $1m. to generate $40,000 income which is tax free. So if you’re not paying tax, why should you receive a tax refund? If you have a million dollars, then you’re not eligable to receive a centrelink pension of the princely sum of $23,000 per annum. Self funded should be just that, not a taxpayer funded cash donation.

    3. Dog's Breakfast

      Deary me, Brian, either you have taken the advice of a financial planner with a vested interest or you have no idea how this works. In simple terms. Labor’s plan will not be taxing people who have large franking credits, it will just stop the situations where they get a refund (bonus) on top of their dividend, and they have to have a whackload of dividends for it to add up to 4/5ths of 5/8ths of sweet FA!

      And these people will not be on low incomes, and they will be paying no tax, none at all, not a cent, because they are retirees on incomes from their investment dividends, superannuation and any other forms or income which they earn tax free, because it all comes through the tax act which doesn’t tax income for retirees, you only have to be over 60 years of age.

      I really recommend you research this, because pretty much everything you have said is wrong.

      1. Alex

        Dear Dog’s Breakfast, I don’t know which Tax Act you have been reading but it is certainly not the one that applies in Australia. Even those who receive a part old age pension pay tax on any income over the threshold. Once you become of pension age even your super is classed as a taxable asset.

  8. klewso

    Dash the hopes of those that voted for you (by wiping your arse on those aspirations) and naturally they will be driven into the arms of those that hold out hope – even another siren.

    1. Bobby

      It’s little to do with those other parties holding out hope at this point. It’s purely about giving the major parties and their life long politicians a bloody nose.
      Burn it all down.

  9. Dog's Breakfast

    “what’s behind the drift to populism”

    For crying out loud Bernard, there is a substantial difference between highly educated and informed opinion recognising that the economic orthodoxy that you and others peddle which has been shown by 20 years of experimentation that has failed abysmally, and those who are saying ‘immigration is too high, I don’t like them foreigners’

    It’s not all populist. Some of us actually understand what is going on, have read Kahnemann and Tversky, Krugman, Marx, Keynes, and other no-names and recognise that we have been sold a pup, masquerading as cronly capitalism.

    There’s much more to this debate than you have caught on, and much of it is highly rational, and steeped in psychological studies, behavioural economics, real economics, and much more.

    The rest of the article is a mixture of non-sequiturs and exonomic shibboleths which I wish I had the time to argue. Stop lumping together real and studied and realised economics with your ‘populist’ epithets. It demeans you, and continues the neo-liberal game of not engaging with the substance of the arguments, which in many cases is real and substantial.


  10. gjb

    Economists, government and the wealthy support immigration as they need population to increase the goods and services they profit off…. growth, growth GROWTH at all costs.
    The median income individual has no such benefit and sees their dreams of home ownership and the lifestyle they know eroded and multiculturalism is more important than their own Australian culture.
    The world is a closed system, at some point a lot of humans will die…. boom & bust get used to it.

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