Scott Morrison Coalition parliament
(Image: AAP/LUKAS COCH)

Australia’s political system is sick. Voters don’t trust it, they’re losing their faith in our democracy, they think it’s run for vested interests that wield too much influence. That’s the grim evidence of the Australian National University’s 2019 Australian Election Study. And its results come at an apposite moment in political debate, when it has become clear that policymakers are unwilling to protect Australia from catastrophic climate change.

It’s been apparent for a long time that trust in government in Australia has declined in the electorate, but the ANU results showed things have reached a new nadir. Trust in government plumbed new depths in the 2016 election, with 74% of respondents saying “people in government look after themselves” and 26% saying people in government can be trusted.

That worsened slightly in 2019 to 75% to 25%. Satisfaction with democracy itself has reached 59%; a new low in modern politics. The proportion of voters who think government is run for a few big interests remained at a record 56%. The perception that big business has too much power reached a new all-time high of 76%.

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This is despite the government reluctantly embracing interventionism and heavy-handed regulation of big business in two key areas — banking and energy — in the 2016-19 parliamentary term. It wasn’t enough to make voters think the system was working in their interests. Not nearly enough.

The ANU results also show that 68% of voters think climate change is a serious threat, up from 62% in 2016 and 55% in 2010. In the last nine years, Australia’s political class has retreated from climate action, with the Gillard government’s effective carbon pricing scheme repealed, market mechanisms to reduce emissions abandoned by both sides of politics, and disastrously unambitious emissions abatement targets (which won’t be reached) made the national objective.

As Australians have become more and more aware of the need for climate action, their government has done less and less.

That was neatly summed up by the way the catastrophic east coast bushfire event dropped off the political agendas of the major political parties in parliament’s last sitting week of the year, a raised middle finger from the political class to communities immolated by fire, cities forced indoors by blankets of smoke, and voters worried about the industrial-scale destruction of flora and fauna.

The narrative from many credible and authoritative political analysts (i.e. who don’t work for News Corp) is that the failure of the governing class on climate action is the result of some quirk of Australian politics, a consequences of extremism on both sides — climate denialists on one side, climate action extremists on the other — that has wrecked the possibility of “sensible centrist” policies like the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

One senior press gallery journalist argued last week that the level of extremism on the climate issue meant people wanting climate action were wasting their time protesting. If only we had civil discourse and less extremism all round, if only we could all get along and compromise, we’d have reduced our emissions by now.

But the ANU survey suggests voters have got things sussed better than political commentators (which might suggest why the ANU survey shows a long-term collapse in the proportion of voters following election campaigns in the media).

Australia’s lack of action on climate change has been bought and paid for by vested interests, using a political donations system that enables them to buy access to decision makers and guide policy without any kind of transparency. Big business does indeed wield too much power (as more than three-quarters of voters believe) and has used it to stymie climate action.

Even businesses that profess to believe climate action is important do this — the top big business lobby group, the Business Council, has assiduously worked to undermine all climate action policies, while professing to support carbon prices and other abatement measures.

While we have a political donations system that allows vested interests to buy access and influence in secret, with little or no transparency about that process, big business will continue to wield too much power and voters will continue to have no reason to trust government, or recover their enthusiasm for our democracy.

It’s true that Labor has long pushed for greater donation transparency and practices it voluntarily, and in the last three years has accepted the need for a federal ICAC. But we’re a long way from mainstream acceptance of a proper set of transparency reforms: tight limits on donations, greater accountability for third-party bodies, real-time donation reporting, real-time reporting of meetings with those seeking to influence policy, and radically expanded freedom of information laws to open up the workings of government to public scrutiny.

Without these, our federal democracy is unable to function effectively. Inaction on climate change isn’t some political accident, but an inevitable result of a corrupted system that is no longer fit for purpose. And voters have worked it out.

What would it take for the government to win back your trust? Let us know by writing to boss@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.

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Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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