Nearly a month out from the most charged U.S. presidential election in modern history, many democracies around the world continue to watch and decry the erosion of U.S. democracy from afar. It also serves as a poignant reminder to reflect on our own democratic systems; in countries such as Australia, voter turnout has ebbed lower and the mistrust of politicians continues to feature prominently.
The United States, the leader of the free world, is increasingly weighed down with concerns of gerrymandering, electoral roll voter purges, and toxic voter suppression campaigns. Voter turnout has rarely pushed 60 percent, which ranks among the lowest of allied countries.
From across the Pacific, many in Australia have watched on in astonishment as the president of the United States disparaged the reliability of mail-in voting and then supported it within the span of a single day.
We increasingly have witnessed online political fringe movements disproportionately lead and shape the narratives of both ends of the political spectrum. Malign foreign actors have further inflamed these movements as they frequently find their way into media headlines.
In Australia, the strength of our democratic institutions is predicated on giving up some of the perceived freedoms that many in the U.S. cannot imagine foregoing, such as not being enrolled on the electoral roll or not being legally obliged to vote.
Australian elections are held on a Saturday, compared to Tuesday in the U.S. Australians have accessible and numerous pre-polling options, and electoral boundaries drawn by the independent Australian Electoral Commission.
However, with growing technological interconnectivity and the almost limitless opportunities to digest and engage in political commentary, Australians are seeing an evolution and intensification of the political debate similar to that in the United States. Around the end of John Howard’s prime ministership in 2007 came the boom of the digital age of politics. Both major political parties in Australia have sought the expertise of U.S. professionals in this space.
The political discourse on emotive issues, notably climate change and refugee politics for Australia, has been magnified through social media platforms. This has in turn helped fuel the major misrepresentations of the political zeitgeist by commentators who fail to appreciate that social media is not an accurate barometer of public sentiment.
The misread was on full display when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who once bragged to Arnold Schwarzenegger that he was going to be the next prime minister, managed to lose an unlosable election. His loss came despite years of leading in the polls and a strong endorsement form a majority of media outlets as being expected to win.
For all the talk of budget deficits, politicians suffer from a monstrous trust deficit. Australians consistently rank politicians as the least trustworthy profession.
The opaque world of party politics has been rightfully shamed recently, with reports of political branch stacking exercises. Accountability is now rarely seen as political parties are so deeply embroiled and driven by what happens in the shadows. Both major parties will limit their point scoring off each other’s failures as they are equally aware of their own.
Looking forward, Australia must always look to how it can bolster and protect its democratic system, as recently done with the federal government’s foreign interference legislation. Canberra has been increasingly asking questions of foreign actors and their actions in Australia.
Australia should continue down the path of investigating an extension to the three-year terms for its federal parliament. The shortest of all Australian parliaments, and one of the shortest in the Western world, the three-year term offers little time for constructive policy discussion and implementation before it is overridden by the need to pursue re-election. Greater emphasis and importance should be placed on committee processes, which are often seen as an obstacle by governments to implementing their desired quick fix policies.
More thought should be given to publicly funded elections and clipping the wings of the factional king makers that operate in the shadows of all political parties. Australia should foster a system that attracts more would-be politicians from outside of the well-trodden political staffer-to-politician road.
Political scientist Karl-Heinz Nassmacher’s warning that “the more perfect rules designed, the more perfect evasion will be” is a painful reminder that some will always seek to push the boundaries. Some alarm bells are ringing, and without recourse democratic systems, such as Australia, risk further disengaging their citizens as problems continue to chip away at the foundations of democracy.
Philip Citowicki is a foreign policy commentator and was an advisor to former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.