Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Why is trust in ‘democracy’ declining?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Satisfaction with politicians, political institutions and government in Australia has collapsed. According to new research less than 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way ‘democracy’ works, down from 86% in 2007.

The research was conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

Unfortunately, ‘democracy’ is a much-abused term and when the academics behind this study use it, they are really referring to liberal or bourgeois democracy, under capitalism.

But capitalism is far from democratic. It is a system where the means of production are owned and controlled by a tiny group of profiteers, the 1%. At the same time, it’s the 99% who work together to produce all the wealth.

While we are ‘free’ to vote at parliamentary elections every few years, most of the important decisions about what happens in society are made by a minority in corporate boardrooms. Big business decides what gets made, how, when, where, and at what cost.

Capitalism is in effect democracy for the rich, while the 99% are merely ‘free’ to sell their labour power in order to put a roof over their head and food on the table.

If capitalism is stable and experiencing growth it can cover over the inequalities and mask its undemocratic nature for a period. But capitalism is a system of crisis, regularly lurching from boom to slump.

When in crisis the real nature of the system is exposed and people can become extremely dissatisfied. It becomes increasingly clear that those we are asked to ‘trust’ are actually exploiting and oppressing us. It is this process that this latest study highlights.

Over the last decade people have seen their living conditions recede. Many have only kept their heads above water by racking up huge amounts of debt. At the same time profits have soared. This is what so-called ‘democracy’ looks like and means to most.

The research included a national survey of 1021 people. While the questions asked were premised on the false idea that capitalism is the only way to run society, they nevertheless yielded some very interesting results.

Some of the biggest grievances people have are that politicians are not accountable, they do not deal with issues that really matter, and that big business has too much power. Trust in all major institutions and authority figures has diminished significantly and was lowest in the major political parties.

While people are not yet expressing their views via political action, they clearly understand that the current system is rigged against them, and that the major parties do not represent their interests.

Interestingly, while trust in ‘democracy’ as a system is at an all-time low, people’s desire for democratic reform is actually very strong.
When asked about what changes they would like to see, those surveyed supported reforms aimed at giving ordinary people a greater say in decision-making processes and making politics more representative.

A majority of people supported the right for voters to recall ineffective MPs and there was also firm support for changes that would create stronger local communities. There is clearly a groping towards a different way of doing things.

The issue is that these types of reforms are at odds with a system that is driven by profits. The democratic changes that people desire are actually more suited to a system where the economy is collectively owned and controlled by the majority.

Refusing to accept that there could be a better way of running society than capitalism, the authors of this study suggest that the current system could be improved if we could only find ‘linking arrangements’ between representative and participatory democratic models.

But in the same way that you cannot make a fruit salad out of a bowl of lemons, you cannot make a system that is based on the rule of a rich minority ‘democratic’.

For real democracy we need a system where the majority of people decide that majority rule should apply, not only in the parliaments, but also in the workplaces, schools and local communities. In this type of socialist system, we would not be asked to put false hope in our exploiters but to trust those who have a shared interest in taking the whole of society forward.

By Anthony Main


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