Cliffhanger Election 2016: Have we Reached Peak Disaffection?
7 July 2016 at 11:16 am
Election Analysis: Saturday’s vote confirmed a global wave of voter disaffection, social inequality and doubts in democracy as we know it, writes Sara Bice, socio-political commentator from the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne.
In times past, a cliffhanger election result would have generated exciting headlines about historic events. Instead, it was more head shaking and disappointment at leadership instability and a lack of major parties’ ability to deliver strong and distinctive policies.
While the pundits on Thursday morning suggest that Malcolm Turnbull will likely be able to form government, the experience has left many with a sense of dark déjà vu and concern for the effectiveness of the government to come.
As a social scientist, my job is to pick out the patterns in a complex world. So, what is revealed by Australia’s cliffhanger federal election?
Far from achieving the stability called for by both major parties in the final week of the marathon campaign, the election result gives Australia an ideologically divided parliament, with individual minor party members – including Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie in the Senate – holding power incommensurate to their representativeness.
We know that informal voting is on the rise, as are votes giving preferences to minor parties, largely due to a focus on very particular “narrowcast” issues.
But to call these protest votes however, is to devalue them.
These are not protests but choices. The choice to vote informally or to preference minor parties is less of a protest and more of an admission that a considerable number of voters feel disempowered and excluded from the political system. To view these votes as “complaisance”, not protest, better recognises the sentiments of disenfranchisement and disempowerment that sit behind them.
In the late 1990s, American political scientist Robert Putnam gained fame in academic circles for his book Bowling Alone. In it, he described America’s’ growing sense of social exclusion and loss of social capital – the feeling of belonging to community that provides people with a sense of place and empowerment. Combine this with French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent findings that capital in the 21st century is driving the style of deep social inequality that has fuelled past revolutions and declining empires, and you start to get worried.
Brexit, Donald Trump and Australia’s election: is it too long a bow to connect these events? I think not. Because they each offer yet another sign of growing public disaffection with government, social inequality and a sense that democracy isn’t living up to people’s expectations.
The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, for example, shows that only 43 per cent of people surveyed globally trust their government. The study also identifies a growing gap in levels of trust reported by the “general public” and that of the “informed public” (ie those socially and economically better off), with members of the informed public more trusting of government. Other patterns materialising around these events include rapidly emerging intergenerational angst – with Gen X’ers and Millennials beginning to finger point against Baby Boomers, worrying xenophobia, isolationist national sentiments and support for a conservatism not seen since the days of Reagan and Thatcher.
Yes, this election experience was terribly disappointing – even though it did give us a chance for a Saturday night OD on Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb. But it may also be the kick in the pants we need to catalyse social change.
If we gain nothing else from such a divisive experience, we must at least use it as an opportunity to acknowledge that declining social capital is real. And it is a real social problem. This will be a critical first step in ensuring concentrated attention is paid to re-engaging the Australian public, to taking a long and honest look at political tactics that are no longer serving the greater good, and to pursue policies that re-establish trust in government while reducing social inequality.
Cliffhangers are fun, but I’d much prefer a happy ending.
About the author: Sara Bice (PhD) is director of research translation, Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne. With a decade of experience assisting private firms, Not for Profits and government agencies to plan and advance their sustainable development agendas, Bice’s career is committed to creating shared value for communities and companies through evidence-based decision-making, risk management and strong stakeholder engagement.
(Photo of Sara Bice is courtesy of Adam Hollingworth.)