Australia

'It’s a shemozzle': Trust in politicians at 50-year low

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The federal election is just weeks away, but only a quarter of voters say they believe politicians do the right thing over their own interests or those of "powerful groups".

When Australians head to the polls on 18 May, it is expected that more people will cast a vote than ever before.

But while enrollment numbers are at record highs, according to a Grattan Institute report, the trust voters have in politicians is at its lowest since 1969.

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Arguments continue on the campaign trail after first debate
Arguments continue on the campaign trail after first debate

It also found that just a quarter of voters believe politicians will do the right thing.

"While there are many causes of falling trust and exasperation with the political establishment, one is the growing sense that people in government look after their own interests, or those of powerful groups, rather than the public interest," the report said. 

And speaking to constituents in some of Australia’s most marginal seats, similar sentiments were regularly repeated.

"Both sides need to get their act together. Neither of them are doing a particularly good job," says a voter in the marginal electorate of Banks in south-west Sydney.

“It’s a bit of a joke these days,” says another voter.

“It’s come to sort of a shemozzle sort of thing.”

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Australia Street: What do you think about Australian politics?
Australia Street: What do you think about Australian politics?

Trust in politicians in 'freefall'

Professor Ariadne Vromen from the University of Sydney says political infighting and a stream of leadership spills has put Australians off mainstream politics.

“People are disenchanted with politicians and political parties,” she told SBS News.

“They don't feel like they're listened to, they don't feel like their issues are represented on policy agenda.

"A lot of the issues that matter to young people, from climate, to housing affordability to job security are not always taken up as the mainstream policy agendas of the major parties.”

Another academic suggests trust has been in "freefall" in recent years. 

“We have seen levels of trust in levels of Australian politics, in politicians and parties in particular, really in freefall since about 2010,” said Dr Jill Sheppard from the Australian National University.

“Voters just don't feel like they're getting really a bang for their buck with the parties."

In another recent study charting just how far politicians have fallen out of favour with the public, the University of Canberra found only 41 per cent of Australians are satisfied with the state of democracy here.

The informal vote factor

The 2016 election saw the highest number of informal votes ever recorded, with 720,915 people casting an informal vote in the House of Representatives, while 567,806 voted informally in the Senate.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne says that will likely grow on May 18.

“In the recent ACT state elections you saw a spike in informal votes,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“Generally speaking, though, they only constitute a small percentage of the vote. So I think in Australia we talk a lot of apathy, but it kind of doesn't matter in a country where you're forced to go to the polls anyway."

Meet Julian

Julian Sheen was once a member of the Labor party and served as an alderman on Hurstville council in the seat of Banks in the 1970s.

Mr Sheen was close to members of Labor's inner circle, but said he is now a swing voter.

"I think it's fair to say that I was quite close to people like (former MP) Frank Walker. I met Gough (Whitlam) a few times, there was some talk of me running for the Federal seat here back in the '70s, but fortunately, I think, that didn't come about,” Mr Sheen said.

"I was probably identified with the left of the party, but gradually I became more, I should say, relaxed, more encompassing of different views."

Julian Sheen was once entrenched within the Labor Party's inner circle, but says he is now disillusioned with politics. (SBS News)
SBS News

Mr Sheen says it is “really difficult to be defined as a Labor man”, as was the case 50 years ago.

“There are so many issues now and it's so complex,” he said.

“The difficulties in who to vote for, what to vote for, what to make of the campaign, you feel disillusioned because it's so difficult to know what people stand for.”

Voter enrollment all-time high

Voter trust may appear to be at an all-time high, but academics say the situation isn't dire. In fact, the Australian Electoral Commission says 96.8 per cent of eligible Australians are enrolled to vote this election, including a record number of 18 to 24 years old at 88 per cent enrollment.

Dr Rosewarne says that is the most complete electoral role in history.

“Australians understand their civic obligations and we complain about it, you know we moan about politics, but we're OK to go and get a sausage, get a lamington at our local school and cast our vote,” she says.

Dr Sheppard says finding a way to reconnect with disillusioned voters could provide politicians a strong chance to clinch the election.

"I think losing trust is really easy but regaining trust from voters is a whole other challenge,” she said.

“We probably won't see a return to the traditionally high levels of voter trust in Australia until the parties do reform themselves.”

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