Blog · April 16, 2022

Engaging the disengaged in the Australian election

Author: Sam Roggeveen, Lowy Institute

How should the relationship between domestic electoral politics and foreign policy in today’s Australia be characterised?

The defining characteristic of the West’s democratic malaise is the disconnection between the public and the political class. This has been well documented by Peter Mair in the Uniting Kingdom and Europe (Ruling the Void), Theda Skocpol in the United States (Diminished Democracy) and in Australia by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell (Reconnected). The themes of these books are common: the public has drifted away from civic engagement with politics, as evidenced by sharply declining membership rates in political parties, unions, professional associations and churches.

Australia’s major political parties have had to evolve to survive. They have become small (less than 1 per cent of Australians belong to a party), highly professionalised operations. Rather than acting as the voice of a mass of voters and facilitating the rise of talented leaders among that base, they are designed as incubators for the next generation of politicians. In 2017, over half of Labor and Liberal Members of Parliament and Senators were former staffers or party officials. Politics has become a largely closed system in which the public intervenes only at election time.

One effect of the disconnection between Australia’s major parties and the public is that it becomes harder for political leaders to get direct signals from the public about what matters to them. To compensate, politicians look for secondary indicators in the media, social media, opinion polls and their peers in other Western democracies.

If Australians politicians are persuaded by media coverage or observations of British and US politics that refugee issues are electorally decisive, they will behave accordingly. This demonstrates the persistent myth of the so-called ‘Tampa election’ of 2001, in which both sides of politics convinced themselves that the stand-off over the arrival of the MV Tampa and the refugees on board would prove decisive in key marginal seats. There is very little evidence for this interpretation, yet politicians and media largely believed it to the extent that the issue of boat arrivals went on to disfigure national politics for a generation and damage Australia’s international standing.

Absent any authentic connection with a large political base, Australian politicians continually search for points of engagement with a public that has largely switched off from federal politics. The issue of boat arrivals is far from the only occasion that this search has affected foreign policy.

Climate change, Islamist terrorism and now the rise of China have become vehicles for political leaders looking for new points of connection with the public. The evidence for the success of such strategies is weak. Opinion polling indicates that voters continue to prioritise social and economic issues during election campaigns.

Yet sometimes history intervenes, as it did in 2001. The Tampa issue may not have been electorally decisive, but opinion polling indicates that the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington certainly were. Could it happen again? The prospects of a ‘Khaki election’ in 2022 look distant, despite the government’s attempts to put national security at the forefront of voters’ minds.

If there is a distant parallel between the last Khaki election in 2001 and this year’s poll, perhaps it is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which could play a similar role to the shock of 9/11. The 9/11 attacks rescued a moribund government which was trailing in the polls. Yet the Ukraine war has not had the same public impact. For Australians, Kyiv evidently feels more distant than New York and Washington. That might change if the war escalates between now and polling day into a conflict that directly involves NATO. This would probably favour the incumbent government, just as 9/11 did. If the Ukraine war becomes a stalemate or if fighting pauses for peace talks, it is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the Australian election.

The government will continue conflating Russia’s aggression with the challenge of a rising China. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ‘arc of autocracy’ framing is another attempt to forge a connection with the public through an ideological appeal that pits Australia as a member of the free and democratic West against a group of dictators led by China and Russia.

Throughout the democratic West, politics feels increasingly distant. Democracy is something the public observes rather than participates in. This disconnection manifests differently in various countries. In Europe it produced Brexit and the rise of the populist right and in America it led to the election of President Donald Trump. In Australia, it leads to increasingly desperate appeals by politicians to the public mood, which the public largely ignores. Sometimes that encourages politicians to bring defence and foreign policy to the centre of the political debate, but it rarely works. Absent a dramatic worsening of the war in Ukraine, we should expect the same result in the 2022 election.

Sam Roggeveen is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.