Australia has long been viewed in the political world as a relatively stable democracy. In the face of the extreme partisanship that has characterised America’s political landscape over recent years, the land down under has stood on its own as somewhat of a beacon of democratic stability. But following the global Covid-19 pandemic and the spotlight that it shone on the workings of Australia’s government, the effectiveness of this democracy has been somewhat thrown into question. While it isn’t as dramatic as rioters overrunning the architectural symbol of politics or a repressive leader retaining power after losing elections, declining faith in Australia’s political institutions as well as a lack of effective representation indicates that perhaps this democracy is not as healthy as it may once have appeared.
In January 2022, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer report was published providing a snapshot into the current levels of trust that people hold in governments, businesses, media, and NGOs around the world. In this report it was found that only 52% of Australians have faith in their government to “do the right thing”, some 9 points lower than when the same study was conducted one year early. Similarly, 61% of Australians expressed that they did not trust their political leaders to be sharing honest unexaggerated information. This is a clear indication of an unsteady relationship between Australia’s government and its wider population. While a government that isn’t keeping its citizens completely happy doesn’t immediately sound alarm bells in the mind of political scientists, one of the key characteristics of a successful working democracy is a strong relationship between those deciding on policy and those who elect them to office. Almond and Verba in their book The Civic Culture highlight this placing an emphasis on the trust and cooperation that must exist to maintain a successful democratic society. In Australia’s case, this trust and overall relationship is deteriorating, and therefore, it could be argued that Australian democracy more widely is weakening.
The handling of travel restrictions and lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic provide a salient example of this relationship break down. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Australians were relatively open to the restrictions both federal and state governments put in place to limit the spread of Covid. No one wanted to be unable to travel to see loved ones or go to their favourite café, but it was recognised as a necessary evil. However, as the rest of the world seemed to get back on the move, Australia remained relatively stagnant in its policies towards the virus. According to information shared by the Australian Department of Home Affairs, citizens were still required to put in applications to leave the country up until late last year and even till this day are unable to travel into certain states without applying for passes and quarantining. At the same time, Australia is having some of the worst outbreaks of the virus to date, is experiencing huge waiting lines for testing facilities, and the rules regarding contact tracing and stay-in-place orders have become unclear and constantly changing. All these elements have combined to leave the wider Australian population disheartened and disconnected with a government that after over a year of restricting their freedoms has failed to handle this virus effectively.
As Australia moves forward, it is important to recognise the disconnect that has formed over the past year and understand the impact that it could have on the country’s future. As explained by Juan Linz, it is democracies that are regarded by their people as legitimate with effective policies that are the most stable, something that Australia seems to be currently lacking. As other more divisive social issues are brought to the forefront of Australian society, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent controversial religious discrimination bill, the foundational relationship between the people and their government needs to be mended so that this democracy can tackle future tasks and remain as stable as it once appeared.