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Australians have lived recession-free for a quarter of a century, enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world and have great weather — so why are they are so disillusioned with mainstream politics?
This is the question exercising the minds of the Liberal-National coalition government and the Labor party in the wake of the July 2 election, in which support for minor parties and independents surged to record levels.
“There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government and with the major parties, our own included,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “We note that and we respect it.”
With almost one-quarter of voters casting their ballots for candidates from neither of the two main political groups, a diverse group of politicians will be elected to parliament. The trend echoes the rise of anti-establishment forces in the UK, which recently voted to leave the EU, and the US where Donald Trump is a presidential contender.
“Political campaigning has deteriorated to such an extent that it treats politicians as consumer brands, similar to Coca-Cola or Pepsi,” says Hugh Mackay, a social researcher. “This trivialises politics and fuels cynicism.”
Mr Mackay says this is part of a wider trend in which all the main institutions, including government, political parties, banks and trade unions, have suffered a loss of public esteem.
Australia’s eight-week election campaign was notable for repetitive slogans voicing aspirations such as “jobs and growth” and “putting people first”. Debate often descended into mud-slinging and personal attacks, with the wealthy Mr Turnbull earning the nickname “Mr Harbourside Mansion”.
Labor, in particular, ran a negative campaign warning that the coalition would privatise the public health system — a claim Mr Turnbull has since described as a “grievous lie”.
“Trust in politicians is very low — people just don’t believe they will deliver on their promises,” says Duncan McDonnell, politics lecturer at Griffith University.
A survey by the University of Canberra and the Museum of Australian Democracy this year found that the level of satisfaction with Australian democracy has halved since 2007. Three-quarters of respondents think the government is run by a few big interests, which are looking out for themselves rather than for the people, and just a fifth trust political parties — the lowest of all institutions.
Meanwhile, the success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, which is likely to win two or three Senate seats, points to community concerns about high rates of immigration.
Analysts also say a succession of party coups, which have resulted in five prime ministers serving in six years, have increased public cynicism.
“I have Italian friends who joke about how Australian politics is now bloodier than in Italy,” says Bruce Hawker, a former adviser to Kevin Rudd, who was ousted as prime minister in 2010 by Julia Gillard.
He warns that the media is partly responsible for political leaders’ loss of public respect.
One commercial television network, Channel 7, gleefully covered the loss of individual MPs’ seats on election night with cartoon graphics showing them strapped to an ejector seat and blasted off into space.
“Media contributes to politics as an adversarial blood sport,” says Mark Evans, professor at Canberra University.
A significant contrast with other western countries experiencing voter disillusion is that Australia escaped much of the shock from the global financial crisis. It avoided recession, its economy is growing at an annual rate of 3.1 per cent and unemployment is a modest 5.7 per cent.
But Mr Hawker says this does not take into account that perceptions of prosperity are relative and that Australians have not come to grips with the end of the boom years.
“In this election we have seen conservative voters punish any attempt to pull back on spending on middle-class welfare programmes by the Liberal party,” he said.
Other analysts point to the disparity in performances between regions, noting that states with big resource and manufacturing industries, such as South Australia and Queensland, returned big votes for minor parties.
“Australia is in a better position than the UK in terms of the type of deindustrialisation it has experienced,” says Clement Macintyre, professor at Adelaide University. “But in South Australia we have seen similar trends with the car industry closing, high unemployment and rising inequality. People are looking for alternatives.”
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