National

Our jaded country's lost faith in democracy, and how to fix it

If voters are to trust public institutions, ministers must to cede control to independent agencies and open themselves to scrutiny.

The system of democratic government is in trouble. Current stories about campaign donations and politicians' use of travel entitlements, while important, are the recent public airing of only one aspect of Australians' fundamental questioning of our version of the Western democratic project.

Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Abbott, right, at the wedding of Greg and Sophie Mirabella, for which Bishop and other ...
Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Abbott, right, at the wedding of Greg and Sophie Mirabella, for which Bishop and other politicians requested payment to travel to. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

For more than a decade, the Lowy Institute has conducted annual polls of Australian attitudes to issues of national importance. In 2014, only about 60 per cent of Australians, and only 42 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 years, agreed with the statement "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government". That is 58 per cent, well over half, who effectively disagreed with democracy.

The result was slightly better in the recent 2015 Lowy poll: 65 per cent of the voting age population, and 49 per cent of young people, now say democracy is preferable.

Note that although they had a slightly more positive view, still fewer than half of young people surveyed preferred democracy. Just over a quarter agreed that "it doesn't matter what kind of government we have". The results attracted less attention than the 2015 security and foreign policy findings (admittedly "slightly better than last year but still of concern" is not a great headline). However, they confirmed the long-term trend: a significant number of Australians, and a majority of young people, now have little faith in our democracy. There is further corroborative evidence in the increased number of young people who either fail to enrol to vote or vote informal.

This kind of disillusionment can see young people disengage from key public policy issues. When that happens, it becomes harder for governments and public services to develop and deliver good policies; and then when policies fail due to lack of engagement, it leads to further disillusionment – a vicious cycle.

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What can be done to break that cycle? In response to recent events, there have been calls for improved transparency in political donations and tighter controls on politicians' use of travel and other entitlements. When politicians stretch the rules, it reinforces the general impression that they are untrustworthy, even where they are acting within the letter of the regulations. A concept called selective attention is at work today (if I tell you there are a lot of red cars on the roads these days, you will suddenly see far more of them; there aren't really more but you're now paying attention, whereas you overlooked them before). The public is primed to notice reports of misuse of entitlements, and each new instance further confirms a negative impression about politicians. Changes to the system, such as fewer and more straightforward allowances, or even no special allowances at all, would help break the selective attention focus. It was done a few years ago with what were then seen as overgenerous parliamentary superannuation arrangements.

This kind of systemic improvement would be helpful in its own right but is far from a complete answer to the loss of faith in democracy. The issue is broader than the actions of a few politicians. Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh does not buy the argument that there has been a decline in Australians' trust and regard for politicians. He's right. Australia's healthy disrespect for politicians has not moved much over time. For generations, Australian satirists have lampooned politicians. The Australian union/folk song Bump me into parliament (the refrain notes the tendency of politicians to abandon humble origins) dates from about 1915. Polls in our own era show the level of trust in politicians is and remains at a low base; it is not in sharp decline.

The broader problem is that trust in institutions of democratic society has declined, here and globally. There is plenty of speculation but little empirical evidence on the contributing factors in Australia. Internationally, there are clear pointers, in work by the World Bank and others, that factors such as transparency, effectiveness and lack of corruption are important to maintaining trust in government. A well-performing public sector is crucial. In Australia as elsewhere, the public service is one of the key institutions of a democratic society.

The way in which political and public service institutions interact in the Australian system of government is complex and continually evolving. At times, the separation between the two comes into question (for example, in the opposition's call last week for the Finance Department to hand the investigation of Speaker Bronwyn Bishop's travel spending to the federal police). The core departments of the public service work directly to ministers, and always have. However, when, as at present, there is lower trust in democratic institutions, they are more likely to be questioned or even accused of bias.

One effective way to increase trust in the system is therefore to make greater use of independent, arm's-length bodies to contribute to public policy and implementation. We already see this in practice. If, for instance, a minister wants scientific advice to be credible and persuasive, he or she is far more likely to turn to the CSIRO as an arm's-length body with a strong reputation than to use one of the public service's in-house science units. The Productivity Commission is an authoritative voice on the policy issues it considers because it is one step removed from direct ministerial control. Parliamentary budget offices, as I noted last month, can play a useful role in providing reliable policy costings. At state level, bodies like independent pricing and review tribunals (as in NSW) have become key regulators, as have bodies at Commonwealth level such as the Australian Energy Regulator and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

In Britain, public confidence in Treasury budget forecasts fell to such a low ebb that, in 2010, an independent Office of Budget Responsibility was created, according to its website, to provide independent and authoritative analysis of Britain's public finances. It has succeeded in restoring a level of trust in its official forecasts.

A further characteristic of most independent agencies is that they have a higher level of transparency – that is, their work is published and open to public scrutiny – than do departments. The Australian Public Service became more and more transparent over the 1970s (freedom of information, administrative review), 1980s (publication of forward estimates, evaluations and performance information) and 1990s (the Charter of Budget Honesty). For reasons too numerous to explore here (including pressures of the media cycle, absurd levels of risk aversion, overuse of "security" to avoid scrutiny), transparency has declined over the past two decades. Low transparency has obvious implications for trust in democracy: if the public cannot see how decisions are being made and what is going on inside government, it is less likely to trust it.

The Commonwealth still lacks the ultimate assurance of trust provided in other jurisdictions by independent commissions against corruption. There is no evidence that there either is, or is not, widespread corruption: without an independent body, it is impossible to say. The oft-heard claim that federal public servants are inherently less corruptible than those in other jurisdictions is naive: it presumes human morality differs depending on employment status. The only way the Commonwealth would be able to determine whether it had a corruption problem would be to establish an independent scrutiny agency with powers not only to examine complaints (as does the Ombudsman) but to conduct investigations.

If the public service were to be organised to a greater extent into independent, arm's-length bodies, there would be some loss of direct ministerial control – a necessary trade-off for greater trust. It is not the only option. There are other ways the public service could enhance trust:

  • Open itself up to greater transparency in the policy process (currently strongly resisted in Australia, even though it appears to work in, say, New Zealand or Scotland).
  • Engage with the public and young people through social media (one of the approaches suggested by Alex Oliver, who runs the Lowy poll, in a Senate lecture last year: "Are Australians disenchanted with democracy?") – noting that engagement means listening as well as lecturing.
  • Produce meaningful information on performance in real time, online, and respond quickly when this provokes a reaction.

Politicians are aware of the disenchantment problem. It is unclear whether the message has filtered through to the public service. The messages are mixed at present. In principle, there has been a commitment to greater transparency but, when politically sensitive matters are raised, it can be quickly abandoned. Better information on performance has been promised but is yet to be delivered. There have been trials in some parts of the APS of what is termed co-design and co-production (designing what services will be delivered and how, in collaboration with service recipients; delivering the services through and with the affected people or communities). They were shelved once it dawned on high-level management in the departments concerned that genuine co-design meant not just consulting but actually changing policy and delivery in light of other people's views. While individual public servants involved were genuinely committed, the culture of risk aversion from the top defeated them.

While ideally the APS itself should be more open, transparent, engaged and flexible, this may require considerable cultural and organisational change to achieve in the short term. In the meantime, trusted independent bodies – within the public sector but at a distance from ministers – can provide government with opportunities to re-engage with Australians and restore trust in democracy.

Stephen Bartos is a former senior public servant and was the NSW parliamentary budget officer for the 2015 election.