Protest politics is on the rise in Australia, and the main cause is collapsing trust in politicians and the major parties.
If the major parties and politicians want to rebuild trust with voters, they will need to change the way they do politics: stop misusing their entitlements, strengthen political donations laws, tighten regulation of lobbyists, and slow the revolving door between political offices and lobbying positions.
They will need to stop over-promising and under-delivering, on everything from reducing power bills to making houses more affordable and developing regional Australia. And the major parties will need to increase the size of their ‘gene pool’, by preselecting candidates who have broader work experience than being political staffers or union officials.
The vote share for minor parties and independents has been rising for a decade. At the 2016 federal election it hit its highest level since the Second World War. More than one-in-four Australians voted for someone other than the ALP, the LNP or the Greens in the Senate. First-preference Senate votes for minor parties and ‘outsider’ candidates leapt from 12 per cent in 2004 to 26 per cent in 2016.
Voters in regional and remote areas are particularly disillusioned. The further from a capital city GPO, the higher the minor party vote and the faster it has risen.
Voter disillusionment with the political establishment is the major cause of the rise in protest politics; it’s an ‘anyone but them’ vote.
Voters for ‘outsider’ politicians such as Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch and Nick Xenophon have much lower trust in government than those who vote for the majors. Australians increasingly believe politicians look after themselves and government is run by a few big interests rather than in the public interest. More than 70 per cent of Australians think our system of government needs reform. Voters are choosing parties and candidates that promise to ‘drain the swamp’.
Economic factors are less important. The rise in the minor party vote doesn’t seem to be about stagnant wages or rising inequality: the vote grew most strongly when real wages were rising and inequality wasn’t. And the biggest increase in the minor party vote was between 2010 and 2013 – a period when Australians were particularly optimistic about their immediate financial future.
But the loss of economic and cultural power in the regions looms large in regional voters’ dissatisfaction. Regions hold a falling share of Australia’s population, and consequently of the nation’s economy. Australia’s cultural symbols are becoming more city-centric – from mateship to multiculturalism, The Man from Snowy River to MasterChef. Regional voters increasing fear they are being ‘left behind’ and that ‘the Australian way of life is under threat’. The rhetoric and policies of some minor parties tap into these concerns and values.
Our political leaders need to heed the warning signs and focus on what matters to voters: restoring trust and social cohesion. They should stress the common ground between city and country and between communities with different backgrounds.