Australians give big thumbs down to the public service

Only 27 per cent of Australians believe the public service acts in the public interest and only 22 per cent think politicians act in the public interest.

The media received a score of 26 per cent, while other institutions performed better, with experts/academia receiving 37 per cent and business hitting 32 per cent.

These outcomes come from the Next25 Navigator report, which analyses our aspirations for the country.

It says low scores in these categories are a “major problem” for a democracy.

The report concludes Australian institutions are “not in touch with the needs of the people”.

Next25 executive director Ralph Ashton says one conclusion we can draw is that “whatever the government is doing, it isn’t working”.

“Our research found that four in five Australians believe politicians have the most say in setting priorities for Australia, but only one in five believe politicians are acting in the public interest. This is a clear fail for the political class,” he says.

Only 27 per cent of respondents believe that governments prioritise voters above others, and just 34 per cent feel that governments consider the impact on future generations when making decisions.

The report also found that 61 per cent of respondents don’t think Australia is a better country than it was five to 10 years ago, while only 39 per cent are confident that Australia will be better in five to 10 years’ time.

While Australians still believe in democracy, their belief is “fragile”, the report said, with 64 per cent of respondents indicating that continuing as a Western liberal democracy is important. Only half of the respondents think Australia is performing well as a democracy.

While 66 per cent of Australians think it’s important to have a say in decisions made on their behalf, only 30 per cent believe they can influence Australia’s future and 13 per cent believe they have no influence.

Read more: Millennials disillusioned with democracy

The problem is common to other democracies.

Sean Illing, writing for Vox, says the loss of faith in public institutions is “one of the greatest challenges facing democratic societies in the 21st century”.

He says the internet unleashed a “tsunami of misinformation and destabilised political systems” across the world.

He cites Martin Gurri, a former media analyst at the CIA and the author of the 2014 book The Revolt of the Public.

He says Mr Gurri noticed that when the internet led to an explosion of information, there was a “concurrent spike in political instability” because governments “lost their monopoly on information and, with it, their ability to control the public conversation”.

This has led to a “crisis of authority”.

“As people were exposed to more information, their trust in major institutions – like the government or newspapers – began to collapse.”

The 80,000 Hours podcast puts it this way: “In 1959, the president could control the narrative by leaning on his friends at four TV stations, who felt it was proper to present the nation’s leader in a positive light, no matter their flaws.”

Today, those flaws are all too evident and it’s impossible to prevent someone from “broadcasting any grievance online, whether it’s a contrarian insight or an insane conspiracy theory”.

“Suspicious they are being betrayed by elites, the public can also use technology to coordinate spontaneously and express its anger,” the podcast says.

The aggrieved are united by what they don’t like, but are “without a shared agenda for how to move forward or the institutional infrastructure to figure out how to fix things”.

“Some popular movements have come to view any attempt to exercise power over others as suspect,” the podcast continues.

“The leaders of tomorrow will need a new message and style if they hope to maintain any legitimacy in this less hierarchical world. Otherwise, we’re in for decades of grinding conflict between traditional centres of authority and the general public, who doubt both their loyalty and competence.”

Read more: Democracy on the nose

The Americans are thinking deeply about such issues after the lies and violence of their recent presidential campaign. They consider Canada and Australia “pools of calm in the storm”.

But while we thankfully have not experienced riots at Parliament House, the Navigator survey shows there is clearly little trust from the public in our institutions.

The ABC’s Gareth Hutchens has a contentious solution – make us vote more, not less.

He says America and Australia are not true democracies. In Ancient Greece, voting citizenry met three or four times a month to vote on policies proposed by leaders chosen by lottery who held one-year terms. Policies were adopted only if citizens voted in favour of them.

Power in our system lies with elected politicians, and voters almost never vote on single policies.

“Instead, our major political parties take a suite of policies to an election, and if they win an election, they claim to have a ‘mandate’ to implement every one of their policies,” Mr Hutchens writes.

“They also say they have a mandate to ‘govern’, which means they feel comfortable legislating new laws that weren’t considered at the election.”

There is no mechanism for removing corrupt or underperforming politicians from power until the next election. (The Greeks could vote to ‘ostracise’ such individuals.)

“Even then, if you’re not a member of that politician’s electorate you have no power over them at all.”

Does democracy need a reboot for the 21st century? Are you surprised Australians have so little faith in our institutions?

Read more: What Aussies say about religion and politics

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Written by Will Brodie

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