Australia, like every other democracy, relies on the participation of its citizens to deliver government to office. Few would disagree that democracy is enhanced when the electorate is informed on, and engaged with, politics and current affairs. When the people are knowledgeable about the representatives standing for office and their policies, their decisions at the ballot box will more accurately reflect the attitudes of the society as a whole. What evidence is there to support that there has been a decrease in traditional political participation? Why is it that people have become disengaged from taking an interest in choosing who creates the laws that govern our society, given that these rights were fought for so fervently by our predecessors?
One hears all kinds of terms to describe a lack of public interest in politics. These include political disengagement, disaffection and disenchantment. However, ‘political apathy’ tends to be the most commonly used phrase to describe this situation, especially in the mainstream media. The word ‘apathy’ evokes an image of a lack of enthusiasm, concern or interest in a subject, and surely these characteristics are less than ideal when a population is given the task of electing its representatives for each parliament. Throughout this article, I will be using examples from countries whose political systems are liberal representative democracies. These countries have a liberalist free-market economy based on competition, and a representative parliament with the key features of equal voting, secret ballot, majority-rule and a pluralist party system. These examples will help illustrate the levels of participation in democratic processes by individuals, rather than groups such as lobbyists and investors.
Voter turnout is arguably the key factor in determining the public’s level of interest in politics. As a general rule, if people are interested, they will want to participate in the political process and hence vote on election days. Globally, there has been a notable downturn in voter turnout since the 1980s. For example, between 1992 and 2001, voter turnout in the United Kingdom (UK) dropped by seven million people, yet the population in that period increased two million. Similarly, voter turnout in Canada decreased by one million people between 1993 and 2000, even though the population grew by two and a half million. This data illustrates that fewer people are taking an active role in electing their Members of Parliament. Furthermore, low turnout can result in even greater apathy towards the newly elected government, as the officials may not accurately represent the sentiments of the wider population.
Despite this downward trend, voter turnout numbers do experience peaks and troughs. For example, the 2008 Presidential election in the United States of America (USA) is notable for its spike in voter turnout. When compared with the previous election in 2004, the number of people casting a vote increased by five million. This spike indicates that when voters feel committed to a particular person or policy, they are much more willing to participate in the electoral process. Voter turnout can be used as an indicator of not only political interest, but also as a reflection of the living conditions in a particular country at election time. If people are heavily motivated to see change, as was the case with Obama versus McCain in 2008, they are more inclined to participate in the elections.
POLITICAL PARTY MEMBERSHIP
Political party membership numbers can also be used as an indicator of how interested the public is in the traditional political mechanisms of a country. In this case it is most useful to look at European countries, as the USA’s system works in a slightly different way and it is not as effective in demonstrating the level of apathy or otherwise amongst the public. It is also important to note that self-reported political party membership numbers can be unreliable and many parties have ceased releasing this unflattering data.
Political party membership continues the global downward trend in political participation in established democracies. In 2008, only 1.2% of the UK’s electorate and 1.85% of France’s electorate held a membership to a political party, Switzerland has the average European participation of 4.7% and Greece was slightly higher with 6.6%. In fact, studies have found that the average official membership of European political parties has decreased from 5% to 4.7% in just over a decade. These numbers are not a strong endorsement of the level of success of recruiting and maintaining party membership, despite the political, social and financial upheaval that is occurring there.
Further to this lack of participation, investigation into the characteristics of members reveals a serious misrepresentation of the electorate. Party members are disproportionally older, male and more highly educated and paid than the majority of the population. Using political party membership as an indication of political engagement and interest demonstrates further how political apathy is increasing amongst large section of the community.
So how does Australia fit into this debate on political apathy? For the most part, Australia presents a similar picture to that of other established liberal democracies, even if we need to use slightly different data to make the comparison. Given Australia’s compulsory system of voting, it is a much more difficult to use voter turnout as the best indicator of political apathy. Eligible adults are required by law to be registered and to vote in elections; consequently voter turnout in Australia is normally around 95%. Due to the repercussions for non-attendance at polling booths during election time, a look at the informal vote count in federal elections may deliver a more accurate picture of the interest of Australians in elections.
Between 1977 and 2010, the informal vote for the House of Representatives has averaged 3.92%. However, between 1998 and 2010 the figure has risen sharply from 3.78% to 5.55%. In these figures we must allow for human error and misunderstanding of how to correctly complete a ballot paper, but otherwise, how can we explain the recent increase? The Australian public is not getter less intelligent and the ballot paper is not more complex. Therefore, an answer to this question could be that a greater percentage of the population simply do not care about the election result. Australians are increasingly politically apathetic and choose to exercise their right not to vote in elections without incurring the legal ramifications of not attending a polling booth. Interestingly, the 2007 election of the Rudd Labor Government had a relatively low informal vote of 3.95%. This can probably be explained by the overwhelming feeling for the need for change, similar to that of the 2008 US Presidential Election.
Australian political party membership statistics are not well reported, no doubt because they present an unflattering picture of the decline in party involvement. However, the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) ‘2010 National Review’ showed that ‘Total Party membership’ had dropped by about ten thousand people between 2002 and 2010 to its current level of less that forty thousand members. Similar data was unavailable for the Liberal Party, but it is fair to assume that the decrease in its membership number would be akin to the ALP. Does this significant decrease prove that there has been an increase in political apathy? Well, the figures certainly show a change in the interest levels of Australians in traditional, formal and more recognised democratic institutions, but it is still debatable as to whether it proves apathy, as involvement may now occur in different ways.
So if voter turnout and party membership are declining, what are the factors that are pushing in the other direction? How are the voting public, and the younger generation especially, expressing their political opinions? Research on this matter hints at two main ways: firstly participation in ‘single-issue’ and non-party groups and secondly, increasing online political activity.
NON-PARTY AND SINGLE-ISSUE GROUPS
Non-government organisations play a key role in exerting influence on policy and adding to the pluralist nature of the democratic system of governance. The trend, both in Australia and overseas, has been to move away from broader organisations, such as Church groups and Unions, towards more niche associations. Amnesty International Australia is the preeminent humanitarian non-government organisation in Australia and they claim a supporter base of 250,000 people, which is more than six times the number of estimated ALP supporters. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition claims to be a movement of over 70,000 young people working to solve the issues associated with climate change. Both these single-issue groups are drawing the attention of mainly young people to assert their political opinions using a less traditional, but still very effective forum. This would tend to signal that people are indeed still interested in politics and its consequences, but they cannot find an established political party that represents the multiplicity of their views.
This notion of a changing forum for political debate and activism brings us to look briefly at the Internet and its influence on traditional systems of political engagement. The growing popularity and accessibility of the Internet has changed the way we communicate and participate in society and politics. Consequently, it is unreasonable to expect that traditional methods of political engagement will remain as popular as they once were. Using the Internet effectively has allowed groups, such as ‘GetUp!’, to target their audience with complementary off and online techniques that increase awareness and inspire people to participate and volunteer. The emerging dominance of online political engagement has been explained by pointing to its convenience, as participants can choose when, where and for how long they are engaged.
Nevertheless, political Internet participation has its critics and it is often argued that the Internet has lead to a deceptive number of people taking an interest in political issues. The ease of supporting a cause on social media has lead some to criticise it as merely ‘slacktivism’, that is, it only creates weak ties between the individual and the cause and has an online atmosphere of ‘low-risk activism’.
Data on voter turnout and political party membership tends to indicate that the public is getting more apathetic towards traditional political organisations. Whilst most would agree that apathy is detrimental to democracy, it is still important to ask to what extent should an electorate be actively engaged in the formal political process? Is it true that the current generation of younger voters are less politically literate than previous generations? Political engagement via the Internet is logically sited as an effective response to this ‘problem’. As the Internet becomes more accessible, its impact on the political processes in democratic institutions has certainly increased and will undoubtedly continue to grow. Nevertheless, one must remain vigilant in protecting the quality of debate on political issues to ensure that party policies are clearly articulated rather than personalities becoming the focus of the campaign. Perhaps this is where YourView and other forums like it can help raise the level of the political debate and understanding in the community.