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Is parliament locked in a crisis of representation?

  • 03 March 2022
Most of us accept that over the last twenty-odd years, something has shifted in the way politics in Australia is conducted, and not for the better. A recent report by the Edelman Trust Barometer declares that ‘Australia’s trust bubble has burst,’ more than in any comparable nation other than Germany. Notably, our government (and media) were seen by most voters as a dividing force within society rather than a uniting one.

Separating out cause and effect with all this is difficult and beyond the scope of this piece. What is interesting, though, is that citizens themselves are homing in on one particular aspect of the problem, the role of the major parties in our democracy, and what is happening is potentially transformative.

The truth of politics is that, in the end, you can’t think your way to right action. You only act your way to right thinking, and more and more ordinary Australians are deciding that change will only happen if they make it happen. To put it another way, the desire for good government is always a yearning of the spirit towards community, and in Australia that yearning is currently manifesting in a rise of support for small parties and independents. 

The ‘Voices of’ movement, as it is usually called, has grown from its rather mercurial roots in the Victorian seat of Indi, where Cathy McGowan defeated the Liberal incumbent in 2013, to its present-day manifestation in seats across of the country, many of them blue-ribbon conservative seats, in which well-educated and economically secure voters are letting it be known that they are no longer willing to be taken for granted by the major parties.

I have given talks to a number of ‘Voices of’ groups, and the gatherings I have addressed have been genuine community events, organised by local citizens –– many of whom have had no previous political experience –– and they have been events fizzing and popping with questions, with people suddenly alive to the possibility of their own political agency.

The realisation that democracy is not just a matter of voting for parties, that the parliament can be a place of genuine deliberation and argument, and that the balance of power in the House is something they can actively influence, has, I think it is fair to say, been life changing for many.

'Reform of Question Time, the creation of a federal ICAC, electoral reform, issues of gendered violence, let alone