In the last few months I’ve noticed, with increasing concern, the worsening division in our communities. On Gaza, the Voice referendum or immigration detention, there’s a constant pressure to take a side. Our adversarial political system allows issues to be freely debated, but our leaders also have a duty to support social cohesion.
Ms CHANEY (Curtin) (12:30): In the last few months I’ve noticed, with increasing concern, the worsening division in our communities. On Gaza, the Voice referendum or immigration detention, there’s a constant pressure to take a side. Our adversarial political system allows issues to be freely debated, but our leaders also have a duty to support social cohesion. But we consistently see division and pointscoring in this House, which does nothing to rebuild trust in our politicians. Faith in democracy is waning. This is not a uniquely Australian problem. In fact, globally, there is declining trust in democratic governments, and today I want to talk about why this is and what can be done about it.
Loss of trust can be attributed to a number of factors, and this polarisation is only one of them. Voters are worried about the influence of money on their democratic systems. Citizen engagement is declining. The structure of media and social media incentivises this same polarisation. Governments have too much power; legislators have too little power; and democracy is failing to deliver on the promise of broad economic prosperity. So what can be done to rebuild trust and protect our fragile democracy?
In August, I introduced a restoring trust bill. Over the last 20 years, only 21 per cent of private funding to major parties was disclosed as donations, and we don’t find about those until months after an election. We must fix this so voters know, before they vote, who’s funding their politicians. We need to reduce financial influence and increase accountability so we can trust governments to make decisions in the best interests of the country. Donations from social harm industries and government contractors should be banned. Voters showed in the last election that they want more political choice. At the moment, 99.6 per cent of Australians are not a member of a major political party, but many of our electoral laws make it harder for these people to elect a representative outside of the major political parties. We must be careful to ensure that any electoral reform preserves competition in politics and doesn’t embed the two-party oligopoly.
On misinformation, until now we’ve been willing to mandate strong protections for consumers against lies and deception in business but not in political communications. Voters deserve protection from lies in politics too. Banning lies in political ads has broad support. The focus of any truth in political advertising framework must be on regulating purported statements of fact, rather than opinions or ideas in contested areas. Taking this approach will ensure we balance voters’ rights to not be lied to against the right to freedom of political communication.
We also need to focus on increasing citizen engagement. Democracy only works if people are informed and involved. The community Independent movement mobilised about 20,000 volunteers before the last election, most of whom had never been involved in politics before. That’s about a third of a major political party’s members nationally, but in only a handful of seats in a matter of months from a standing start. In the context of declining involvement in so many aspects of public and community life, this was a beacon of hope. In my electorate, as a community Independent I hold community events at least every few weeks. We develop community submissions to feed into committee processes, and my advocacy is informed by what I hear from my community, not what a party tells me to say. To strengthen democracy in Australia, we must inspire Australians to become active in our political system. We need to apply this lens to any electoral reform and ask: will this reform inspire more people to get involved and build trust that people are being represented?
Our democracy is fragile and precious. We must be vigilant and continue to adapt and evolve it so it can continue to function effectively in a changing world. Improving transparency, reducing financial influence, banning lies, maintaining competition in politics and inspiring citizen engagement are all important ways we can buck the global trend in order to rebuild trust and safeguard our democracy against the decay we see in so many other countries. The crossbench has driven democratic improvements for some time. Listed on the Notice Paper right now are three such bills the government could implement: my restoring trust bill, the member for Warringah’s voter protections in political advertising bill, and the member for Kooyong’s lobbying reform bill. I urge the government to implement these reforms to improve our democracy.