Political Disengagement in Australia

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Political Disengagement in Australia


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE Australian economy is booming (the 'Wonder Downunder'). It is the only major Western economy to avoid a recession in the global financial crisis, with unemployment at 5.2 per cent, and a record number of foreigners who would like to live here. Why, then, should there by such a sense of political disengagement and alienation from a political system that is helping to contribute to such a wonderful life?

The low level of political literacy was illustrated in the June 2010 political crisis that saw Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suddenly dumped by his Labor Party powerbrokers and his replacement by Julia Gillard. (1) 'How can they sack the person I voted for?' was a common complaint which continues to haunt Gillard's turbulent time as Australia's first female Prime Minister. In fact, of course, very few people actually voted for Rudd himself: only the majority of voters in his Queensland constituency.

Australia now has a 'presidential' system of politics but still has a parliamentary system of government. Voters elect politicians who (if they are in the majority) will then go on to form a government and the party leader becomes prime minister. Voters do not directly elect a prime minister. The party elects the prime minister and it can dismiss him or her (such as Margaret Thatcher, who never lost a general election but did lose the confidence of her party colleagues). Most Australians can explain the intricacies of a sporting event--but do not understand the basics of their political system. This article examines five factors.

Little Incentive to Become Engaged

Australians have moved from being citizens to becoming consumers. Economics dominates their lives and with the Australian economy doing so well, there is little incentive to worry about politics. The old politics of envy has been replaced by the new politics of aspiration. The economic boom (partly thanks to China's own boom) has provided a record standard of living. (2) This is probably the best time ever in two centuries of European settlement to be living in Australia.

It is a pity that Australians are so fatalistic and unassuming. If they had the brashness of Americans they would be willing to boast about the 'Australian achievement'. It has been a remarkable two centuries. The British settled convicts in Australia in 1788. Earlier Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch explorers had gone around the coast and decided that there was nothing worthwhile in the barren land; at least the British thought it could be a good dumping ground for convicts. But within a century, Melbourne (thanks to gold mining) was the world's richest city, and in 1901 Australia was the world's richest country. Its 1901 federal constitution is now one of the world's oldest. Even with the rise of so many other countries, Australia remains in the top 20 of the world's economies.

Agriculture and mining were key drivers of economic progress. But there were also Australian persistence, resilience, innovation, and pioneering spirit. The progress has not happened just by accident and not without some struggle. (3) For example, in the early 1980s the Hawke Labor Government began a process of modernizing the economy away from protectionism and government intervention in the economy, towards deregulation and greater competition to force Australian companies to be more productive. Many companies collapsed but those that survived are now world class.

The current Australian economy is now very different from its old popular image. Australia used to 'ride on the sheep's back' producing much of the world's best wool; now it earns more money from exporting wine. The economy is broadly 15 per cent mining and agriculture, 15 per cent manufacturing and 70 per cent services. Agriculture, mining and manufacturing are now far more capital intensive: despite Australia's very low unemployment rate, for example, there are three times as many people unemployed (626,000) as work in the mining industry. …

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