Australia continues to fare relatively well in international surveys on its democracy and quality of governance, but its record is not without blemish.
While a growing trend towards more autocratic government has become apparent in many parts of the world, Australia to date has retained its liberal democratic credentials, but trust in government has been found wanting and, on the policy front, a lack of progress in Indigenous issues, among others, has been highlighted.
The issue of trust is a key feature in a new report, How Does Australia Compare: What Makes a Leading Democracy? Two Paradoxes for Australian Democratic Governance (Report No.6) by Democracy 2025 - an initiative of the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.
The report notes that citizens in Australia have a comparatively high sense of the achievements of their democracy, its importance and its delivery of freedoms. They do not perceive their political system to be as prone to corruption as citizens of many other countries.
However, the study identifies an apparent anomaly in regard to a low level of trust in government, a situation usually associated more in limited democratic societies where there is a weak commitment to liberal values. It suggests there are two paradoxes confronting democratic governance in Australia.
"Comparatively speaking Australians do not trust government but value their freedoms. In good times (and given that democracy requires checking the power of government and authority) this combination might be viewed as admirable. In times of crisis or national emergency a combination of low political trust and high commitment to freedom may create a more challenging governing context that will require careful and skillful political management."
There is "an urgent wake-up call to pause and reflect on what Australia's political system needs to do to adapt to the realities of 21st century governance."
The report says there is a need to find consensus around those democratic values that transcend cultural divisions such as electoral integrity, public accountability, transparency and the rule of law. To do this, leadership is necessary to bridge the cultural values gap, and will require subtle skills to establish the common ground necessary to forge progress.
In terms of international comparisons, Australia exhibits lower political trust than the United States and many other established democracies, with only Spain and Italy recording lower levels of political trust.
To measure trust, the UK-based World Values Survey polled people in 12 established democracies with questions relating to political trust and social trust.
Political trust was highest in Sweden and Switzerland (at 67 per cent) and lowest in Italy (22 per cent) and Spain (22 per cent). Australia came in at 30 per cent. Social trust was highest in Denmark (77 per cent) and Finland (71 per cent) and lowest in Italy and France (27 per cent). Australia came in at 49 per cent.
The Swedish-based Varieties of Democracy project (V-Dem) produces the largest global dataset on democracy, annually surveying 202 countries across hundreds of categories. It warned of a growing trend towards autocratic government around the world, singling out Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil and India.
However, Australia performs creditably across six broad indices of democracy. In the liberal democracy index, Australia is ranked at 14 (Denmark tops the list), in electoral democracy Australia comes in at 23 (again Denmark is first), liberal component 3 (Sweden and Switzerland), egalitarian component 33 (Norway was first), participatory component 17 (Switzerland), and deliberative component 23 (Norway).
In another international comparison - policy performance - Australia has scored moderately well in the survey by the German-based Sustainable Governance Indicators project.
The SGI argues that if the goal of public policy is to promote sustainable development as well as citizens' social and economic inclusion, then governments must cultivate the social, economic and environmental conditions that generate well-being and empowerment.
The SGI examines how well policies have performed in achieving these objectives by examining outcomes across 16 policy fields. Australia scores 6.1 out of a possible 10 in policy performance overall, breaking down into economic policy (6.1), social policy (6.5) and environmental policy (5.4).
On economic policy, Australia is ranked at 24 in the world. With household incomes trailing the overall growth in the economy, Australia falls into the lower-middle ranks with respect to economic policy. Real per capita household disposable income has stagnated below its 2012 level with a decline in terms of trade hitting wages, and hence household incomes.
On social policy, Australia is ranked at 15 in the world. With cost-of-living issues a rising concern, Australia falls into the upper-middle ranks with regard to social policy. Its score in this area has declined by 0.3 points relative to 2014.
The survey notes that significant public sector jobs cuts have threatened to undermine planning ability, and fluctuations in the prime minister's office have weakened cabinet discipline in recent years.
Integration policy has a long and generally successful history, although a surge in temporary migration - somewhat diminished in recent years - has raised integration concerns.
On environmental policy, Australia is ranked 31 in the world. Emissions concerns and unaddressed infrastructural needs have left Australia scoring relatively poorly with respect to environmental policy. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 points relative to 2014.
CO2 emissions are rising, while a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 2030 is not associated with a credible plan for doing so.
A recently completed review of the power generation market offers the prospect of improving renewable energy production, but delayed action has kept energy prices high, and progress with regard to emissions reductions has been very limited.
Public transport gaps call for infrastructure investments as a key element in future environmental policies; however, the rate of actual investment in new infrastructure has been worryingly low, contributing to carbon emissions concerns. Water security and water management policies have improved in recent years. Accelerating biodiversity decline is a serious concern. The issues of carbon emission reductions and participation in international environmental regimes have divided the political left and right.
In terms of quality of democracy, Australia is rated at 7.45 out of 10, ranking 15 in the world. With an open, transparent electoral regime, Australia's democracy falls into the upper-middle ranks in international comparison. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.4 points since 2014.
While civil rights and political liberties are generally well protected, anti-terrorism laws have become progressively stronger, prompting civil and human rights concerns. Asylum seekers are processed offshore, denying them the rights accorded to citizens.
Australia performs strongly in governance in the SGI survey, scoring 7.14 out of 10, and ranking 12 in the world. This is broken down into executive capacity (6.6, ranking 15) and executive accountability (7.7, ranking 7).
It notes that significant public sector jobs cuts have threatened to undermine planning ability, and fluctuations in the prime minister's office have weakened cabinet discipline in recent years. While regulations tend to be enforced in an unbiased manner, their creation process is often heavily influenced by powerful interests. Many tasks are constitutionally delegated to states and territories, but funding is often inadequate, and likely to fall further.
The survey notes that despite declining citizen engagement with the political system, a well developed legislative oversight capability helps Australia score well for executive accountability. Its score in this area has declined by 0.4 points relative to 2014.
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