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Australia’s political system today is considered a liberal democracy. This is a term used to describe some Western democratic political systems including Australia, the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, among others. The term ‘liberal’ can be traced back to ‘liber’, a Latin word which is the root of ‘liberty’ and can be used to describe a system or person of broad-mindedness, inclusive values, a tolerance for change and individualistic freedoms. The term ‘democracy’ is defined as a system of governance whereby the majority hold the powers of decision making. A system of liberal democracy holds the principles of belief in the individuals of society, an expectation of reason and progress, a notion that society is a reciprocal benefit association based on co-operation and order rather than conflict, and a wariness towards individuals, governments or groups wielding large amounts of power.
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Australia’s citizens have been greatly benefited by our political system, though it has been slow progress for a number of minority groups such as our Indigenous population (not receiving the right to vote until 1965) and the LGBQTA community (Legalized same-sex marriage in 2017, and same-sex adoption being legal nation-wide in 2018). One of the values of the liberal democratic system of Australia is that the people can vote for a political party or candidate who best represents their personal values and beliefs. This is of course overwhelmingly positive, though it can have a negative effect on the remainder of the population if the majority of voters are seeking to serve their own interests as opposed to what may be seen as objectively ‘best’ for society.
Australia has an aging population, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018) shows that 15.7% of the current population is aged 65 and over, with this forecast to grow to between 21% and 23% by 2066. A Parliament of Australia report (2017) shows that Australian citizens age 45+ proportionally have more invested in property than people aged 18-45, and as such are more likely to vote for parties that propose or continue to support policies that are personally financially benefit. For example, negative gearing, minimum/maximum property tax breaks, and the capital gains tax breaks. If a larger portion of the population benefits from policies and laws that are taking benefits
According to report “The wealth of generations” by the Gratten Institute, Generation Y (people born between 1977-1995) are on track to be the first generation with a lower level of affluence and manner of living than that of their parents at the same stage of life. The report compared household wealth in 2003 and 2011/2012 and found that people in the age range of 25-34 had less financial substance than that age range had 8 years ago, despite the fact that they had put aside in savings more than people of that age in the past. This contrasts with every other age group’s finding; 35 to 44-year old households were $80,000 richer, 55-64-year old households were $173,000 wealthier, and the typical 65 to 74-year old home was $215,000 more prosperous over the same time span. In 2010, in households over 65, governments are spending $9400 more per household than they were 6 years previously. Future taxpayers are going to have to repay this debt as the extra spending has been mostly funded by budget deficits. (Daley & Wood, 2014.)
The benefits that the National Liberal Party produce for people over the age of 65 are in alignment with voting statistics, with primary vote and two-party preferred voting percentages at 57% and 61% respectively for the over 65s (Roy Morgan, 2013). As the older generations have the greatest voting power, and one of our political parties favors policies that benefit those generations, naturally the other policies and parties that provide less benefit to the older generations over environmental or younger generations will somewhat fall by the wayside. Discussing John Howard’s contribution to Australia disproportionate effects of tax policies, Stilwell (2013) stated that the Prime Minister’s viewpoint was that “the key to economic success is the creation of individual material incentives” (p. 33). This seems to be the case as increasingly, policies relating to the wellbeing of current younger and upcoming generations are not viewed as priorities, rather a focussed interest in what is going to serve a larger portion of voters (our aging population) today and tomorrow. It is difficult to cast a vote in our elections as the systems we are choosing between can seem like picking between the lesser of two evils. With minor party options such as ‘Yellow Vest Australia’, an anti-Islamic nod to the French populist movement, The Small Business Party, who seek to cut taxes and duties to benefit small businesses – also seeking to reduce levels of immigration, and The Seniors United Party of Australia who want increased funding into aged care, opposing Labor’s franking credit reforms and propose an enquiry into retirement incomes. Those parties among many others can be viewed as self-serving, backwards thinking and an overall negative influence, should they receive any political power. Additionally, as Maddox (2005) notes, can we really claim to be a two-party system while Labor is opposed by the coalition of Liberal and National parties? (p. 248).
As previously mentioned, Australians can thank our current system for the continuing progression of Individual and group rights. Through a voluntary postal survey in 2017, it was determined that 61.6% (7,817,247) of the population responded with a ‘Yes’, while 38.4% (4,873,987) of people responded against changing the law to allow same-sex couples to marry (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). In this instance, although the margin was smaller than one would hope for, it was enough to begin a process of parliamentary vote on the bill. As an interesting sidenote, The Australian Capital Territory has the highest proportion of ‘Yes’ votes, at 74% of participants voting ‘Yes’ to 26% recording ‘No’. Although this is a case of ‘better late than never’, it does show that when the majority of Australia was ready to make a change in our laws, we were given the option to have our say and make the change.
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However positive recent reforms have been for some groups and individuals, including same-sex marriage, single parent fostering and adoption and Indigenous rights, the Australian public appears disillusioned. In a recent data analysis of the Australian Election Study by Andrew Charlton and Lachlan Harris (2018), 40% of respondents indicated that they were unsatisfied with the way democracy is working in Australia. Between 2007 and 2016, levels of trust that individuals had in the people in government dropped from 42% to 26% when asked if politicians can be trusted to ‘do the right thing usually or sometimes’. Over half of voters believe that politicians are out of touch, with minor parties receiving more support and votes from the public. Perhaps the now de-registered Democrat party famed catchcry that they would “keep the bastards honest” will once again gain mass appeal through the minor parties. A. J. Brown (2003) found that “Only 22 percent of local government respondents indicated a preference for the federal system to remain the same in another 100 years, against 70+ percent preferring significant structural change” It seems the disillusionment is not only rife in members of the public, but members of local governments are also ready to seek changes to the system.
Australia’s liberal democracy is continuing to fail many groups of Australians, including generations of individuals who are on track to pay the price of their well-off parents and grandparents, both financially and environmentally. As our population continues to age, the amount of support the aged care industry will require will continue to climb. Perhaps the extra funding required could be taken from decreased tax cuts to multiple homeowners? Regardless of the budget specifics, if changes are not made to the efficacy of the Australian public’s decision-making rights, public discontent may grow into civil unrest. If our government systems are to recover from this downward spiral of distrust from the public, bowing to pressure from Big Business and self-serving groups, they need to commit to policy-making on an evidence based process, returning to the roots of liberal democracy with the Australian public’s input and decision making abilities at the forefront, and dialling back Big Business influences.
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