A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Citizens’ Agenda survey: voters tuning out, have little faith in politics

Australians are switching off politics like never before with more than one-in-three voters having “not much or no interest” in this year’s federal election, according to a national survey.

Words by Georgina Galbraith

Nearly 60 per cent of voters said the quality of political leadership was noticeably worse than in the past, as was the tone of political debate.

Tuning out . . . 
 Voter interest in elections
In 2013
A good deal
Not much
. . . getting fed up . . . 
The tone of political debate
Party identification*
Noticeably better
Not much different
Noticeably worse
Don’t know
 * Voters were asked: Do you usually think of yourself as Liberal, Labor, National or what? They were NOT asked their voting intention.
. . . and losing faith
The level of confidence in organisations
Fed Govt
Legal system
A great deal
Quite a lot
Not very much
None at all
Don’t know

The results of the survey, released nationally today, also show that voters have lost confidence in institutions across-the-board — including government, the print media, the legal system and television.

Only universities were spared the public’s loss of faith. Almost four-out-of five respondents said they had “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in them.

The survey of 1000 voters was commissioned by the Centre for Advancing Journalism and provides the foundation for a world-first research project that seeks to measure the potential for social media to lift voter engagement and shift journalists’ priorities in the run-up to the September 14 election.

The pioneering Citizens’ Agenda will focus on 10 marginal electorates across Australia. Instead of asking people ‘Who will you vote for?’, the University of Melbourne researchers say their focus will be ‘What do you want the election to be about?’.

Voters in these electorates will be invited to pose questions to the OurSay social media website that they wish to be answered by political candidates. They will then be able to vote for their favourite questions, which will be put to the contenders at town hall meetings during the election campaign.

The findings of the foundation survey concur broadly with polls that have shown a recent decline in the public’s interest in political discourse. The Australian National University’s ‘Trends in Australian Political Opinion’ revealed a sharp decline in the public’s perception of the quality of politicians, with only 15 per cent of people in 2010 believing Australia enjoyed strong leadership.

But the public’s condemnation is increasingly severe.

For example, 70 per cent of voters in the Citizens’ Agenda survey said they had little or no confidence in the federal government, with men and women rating the government almost exactly the same.

Disapproval came from 90 per cent of those who said they supported the Coalition, but almost half of Labor voters, too.

The survey’s random sample was representative of the public generally, and the results could be extrapolated as a framework for understanding the current political climate, according to Aaron Martin, a researcher from Melbourne University’s School of Social and Political Science.

The survey found that:

  • While 43 per cent of voters said they usually took “a good deal” of interest in elections, only 36 per cent were similarly interested in the 2013 election;
  • Conversely, those taking little or not interest in politics measured 36 per cent compared to 28 per cent usually.
  • Majorities of voters said they had next-to-no faith in the press (73 per cent) or TV (71 per cent).
  • Voters, nevertheless, are optimistic that their vote can make a difference. When asked to nominate a number on a five-point scale, where one meant voting made a big difference and five meant no difference, the average score was 2.5.

The Citizens’ Agenda will target the electorates of Melbourne and Corangamite (Victoria) Bradfield and Fowler (NSW) Longman and Oxley (Qld), Brand (WA), Grey (SA), Denison (Tas) and Fraser (ACT).

They were chosen based on location, political incumbency, Internet usage and demographic diversity.

The chief executive of OurSay, Eyal Halamish, was positive about the potential for constituents to enact change.

“We want to see people driving the agenda in the months leading up to the election. Let’s not let this be another Seinfeld election, the election about nothing,” he said. “Let’s make this election about something, something the people care about.

“We want people in our 10 electorates to reflect on the issues they care about and mobilise their friends and family to support them in presenting these issues to the people who will be making big decisions about their lives.” 

OurSay was founded in 2010 in Melbourne and has built a dynamic national online presence, as social media increasingly becomes a key driver of political and social debate across the globe.

What is less clear is how social media can breathe life into a near-comatose electorate. While Australians have warmed quickly to social media, the public has yet to harness it fully for political discourse.

Mr Halamish said he did not expect the OurSay method to be hijacked by interest groups or political parties.

“Our electorates are quite a cross-section, so if a particular group wants to tackle all 10, that will be quite interesting,” he said. “Either way, this is a research project to see how social media influences political reporting and public engagement during an election.

“If we find out that local electorates are targeted by a particular interest group, that will be interesting.”

Adam Bandt, the Greens member for Melbourne has already confirmed he will attend the Melbourne town hall debate on September 10. Darren Cheeseman, Labor’s member for Corangamite, which runs west from Geelong and is the nation’s most marginal seat, likewise, has committed to the public meeting in his electorate on August 29.

He said he was committed to ensuring that the event was not just another political talkfest with no action.

“I will act on the issues asked and do my best to follow up,” he wrote in an email exchange with The Citizen. “I will resolve the issues I can, and work to lobby those who can provide an outcome.”

* The survey was conducted by telephone among a stratified random sample of 1000 people across Australia who were eligible to vote. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 per cent. Fieldwork was carried out between mid-March and mid-April by Australian Fieldwork Solutions, using a questionnaire devised by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism and School of Social and Political Sciences. The Centre for Advancing Journalism commissioned and paid for the research. 

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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