Democratic and federal implications

Stitching together and sustaining political support across the divides revealed by the Pulse is a test of the adaptive capacities of Australia’s political parties, our parliaments and public services, as well as of the other key institutions of Australian governance. State and territory elections will provide some insights into their ability to navigate these in 2024 and in the lead-up to the next Federal election. 

2024 is acknowledged as a critical juncture for democracy. As the Economist noted recently, citizens in 70 countries will go to the polls in the next 12 months, including in the United States – perhaps the most consequential of all in determining whether the principles and promise of democracy can withstand the cresting threat of authoritarian populism.

In Australia, elections will be held in the Northern Territory (August), the Australian Capital Territory (October) and Queensland (October). A byelection will be held in the Federal seat of Dunkley in February or March, to replace the popular and respected Labor member Peta Murphy, who succumbed to breast cancer in December 2023.

Australians last went to the polls in October 2023, where a majority in a majority of States comprehensively rejected a proposal to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in Australia’s Constitution. The referendum result, and the divisive campaign that surrounded it, raised concerns about the health of Australia’s democracy. Analysis of the referendum and the social and political attitudes that it revealed, conducted by experts at the Australian National University found that: 

‘... compared to the start of the year, Australians are far less satisfied with democracy, less confident in the government, less satisfied with the direction of the country, and less satisfied with their own life’.

CPD’s Purpose of Government Pulse confirms many of these findings. The survey, which tracks attitudes from as early as 2015 to December 2023 measures public attitudes to key questions around the purpose of government and democracy, and the performance of Australian governments in fulfilling these purposes.

CPD’s 2023 survey confirmed Australians’ firm belief in “fair and equal treatment for everyone, including the most vulnerable in the community”

A philosophical commitment to fairness and opportunity, is widely shared among Australians. While vague, open to interpretation and often contested across the political spectrum, such attitudes have proven resilient in Australian history and myth-making and across successive surveys conducted by CPD. The 2023 Pulse finds this belief is strongest among people inclined to vote Labor, women and those aged 55 years and older.

Other findings highlight the challenge that increasing diversity, and the fragmentation of attitudes and experience across age, gender, levels of education and place poses for the nation’s political leaders and other campaigners for change. The Purpose of Government Pulse reveals the struggle that confronts them to engage and persuade voters against the backdrop of economic and geopolitical uncertainty, and given differences of affiliation, aspiration, identity, income, postcode and state.

Such differences are reflected in changing attitudes towards the purpose of government. In 2023, “ensure a decent standard of living” supplanted [to] “improve the overall wellbeing of the population” and “deliver and fund critical services and social infrastructure” as the most popular response about government’s primary purpose. It has risen from 17% in 2021 to 33% in December 2023.

As this suggests, and in contrast to fixed views about the purpose of democracy, Australian attitudes about the purpose of government have been responsive to circumstances over the life of the survey. This dynamism makes keeping abreast of changing views, and variance across the cleavages of age, gender, levels of education and place an imperative for policymakers. But it is also a dilemma for policymakers and politicians at all levels.

For example, the most significant divergence in this year’s survey concerns the role of government in “deliver[ing] and fund[ing] critical services and social infrastructure”. People between 18 and 34 showed much less support for this statement than older cohorts, perhaps reflecting cost of living pressures and lower reliance on government services among younger than older Australians.

It’s plausible that younger Australians lack memory and experience of Commonwealth governments taking an active and direct role in service delivery. But those courting their support need to consider whether it might also reflect their frustration – a feeling that their needs and concerns have been subordinated to other interests. Demography is shifting the balance of influence among the generations of Australian voters. For the first time, younger voters, who are both more progressive and less fixed in their political allegiances, comprise a comparable share of eligible voters as baby boomers. Moreover, they are defying the expectation that they will become more conservative as they age.

Since 2021 survey respondents have been asked to nominate the level of government that benefits them most four times.

Unsurprisingly given their responsibility for the delivery systems that impact Australians’ everyday lives, “state or territory government” has been the leading response in each survey wave, at 40-47%. Across the four surveys, more people selected “federal government” than “local council”, however the margin narrowed from a high of 17 percentage points in February 2022 to only two percentage points in the December 2023 survey.

More nuanced analysis of the data again reveals significant differences. Those consistently more likely to cite state and territory governments as directly benefiting them include Western Australians and South Australians, people aged 18 to 34, those engaged in paid work, on higher incomes or who have dependent children living at home. Men are more likely than the average respondent to report that the federal government benefits them most, while women increasingly choose local government.

At A Glance

It’s not surprising that such a variety of views exist about the purpose and performance of government and democracy across a country as large and diverse as Australia. People’s experiences and expectations differ greatly depending on where and how they live.

What is more striking are some of the areas where over the course of the polling views appear to converge.

On the question of public service capability for instance, sustained support for greater public service capability can be observed since 2015. Deviations from the average on the question by different cohorts were most pronounced in 2018 and are less polarised in and after 2020.

The number of people who say they do not have a view on this question has declined from 15% in 2018 to 5% and 7% respectively in the March and December 2023 surveys. The greatest decrease occurred between the October 2018 and June 2020 survey waves. The option was changed in subsequent surveys, from “don’t know” to “unsure”, which was used in the 2021, 2022 and 2023 surveys. This complicates interpretation, but may indicate public service delivery has remained broadly desirable and become a topic that people hold firmer views on.

A further interesting finding is the growing share of responses that local government attracts across the four questions that ask respondents to compare levels of government: on direct personal benefit, on competence, on reflecting community interests and needs, and on service delivery.

These findings underscore the enduring relevance of Australia’s federal framework, and of the principle of subsidiarity in accommodating increasing diversity and the historic, demographic, economic, spatial and other differences that persist.

Subsidiarity is often understood as the preference for government decisions to be made at the level closest to the people affected by them. However constitutional scholar Jacob Deem argues for a three element approach, compassing “decentralism” (“the current decisions of government should be made at the lowest level possible”); “non-absorption” (“higher orders should not absorb the functions of lower orders”); and “support” (“higher orders should help lower orders to help themselves”).

As this implies, subsidiarity is really about how different tiers of Australian government can work together to address complex and interdependent public problems that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, capabilities and expertise.

CPD’s Purpose of Government Pulse, with its findings of rising support for local government and firm consensus on the importance of direct public service delivery capability, indicates recognition of its critical role within the federation and public appetite for such efforts. Their importance is acknowledged by political and senior
bureaucratic leaders – at the rhetorical level at least. As ever, their challenge is to implement and deliver.

Beyond this, stitching together and sustaining political support across the divides revealed by the Pulse is daunting – a test of the adaptive capacities of Australia’s political parties, our parliaments and public services, as well as of the other key institutions of Australian governance. State and territory elections will provide some insights into their ability to navigate these in 2024 and in the lead-up to the next Federal election.