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Poll captures public’s shifts in attitude towards government

Widespread misconduct within Parliament House has been exposed, leading to workplace changes

Widespread misconduct within Parliament House has been exposed, leading to workplace changes Photo: AAP/TND

Fewer Australians believe the government is needed to provide essential services and see the role of government as much smaller than before the pandemic, Australian National University research revealed on Thursday.

The research on Australians’ attitudes towards government paints a mixed picture.

Confidence in the federal government has recovered and is high; the number of Australians who think the country is going in the right direction is high; and satisfaction with democracy is high.

Just over 51 per cent of Australians have quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the federal government (up from 35.6 per cent during the final month of Scott Morrison’s prime ministership) and just under three in four of us think the country is going in the right direction.

What has changed is what the researchers call “belief in government” – or what parts of life Australians consider to be the government’s responsibility.

That has “declined substantially” in the past year, according to Professor Nicholas Biddle.

The January 2023 survey collected data from 3370 Australians.

A declining role

Australians believe the role of government is much smaller than before the pandemic and, over a longer period, more of them have become ambivalent about social services, the survey found.

The research records declines measured across the four-and-a-half years to this January in those saying it was “definitely” the job of government to:

  • ‘Impose strict laws to make industry reduce their environmental harm/impact’ (from 54.5 to 33.7 per cent)
  • ‘Reduce the gap in living standards between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the rest of the Australian population’ (from 43.9 to 27.9 per cent)
  • ‘Provide a decent standard of living for the old’ (from 67.4 to 54.5 per cent)
  • ‘Promote equality between women and men’ (from 38.2 per cent to 29.4 per cent).

A majority of Australians now believe it is “definitely” the responsibility of government:

  • To provide a job for everyone who wants one (73.1 per cent)
  • Keep prices under control (63.7 per cent)
  • Provide health care for the sick (55.6 per cent).

“Belief in government […] declined quite substantially between 2022 and 2023,” Professor Biddle said.

“A plausible interpretation is that [the decline is] driven by people who feel that the government maybe had too much of a role during the COVID period, or at the very least that there needs to be a slight correction.”

Growing ambivalence

For 44.5 per cent of Australians the economy is the most important issue, and 27.9 per cent are finding it difficult to get by on their current income.

However, one policy area bucks the trend towards a belief in smaller government, seen in a comparison of voters’ views between 2008 and 2023.

The number of Australians who think that more should be spent on unemployment benefits has more than doubled (from 17.8 per cent to 39.6 per cent).

Long-term trends suggest Australians’ faith in public institutions has held up better than in other countries, and than was feared amid predictions of greater partisanship and social media use, Professor Biddle says.

The number of Australians “very satisfied” with democracy has fallen by 9.8 points (to 14.2 per cent) and the number “not very satisfied” is up by 5 points (19.8 per cent) but 77 per cent of people remain fairly or very satisfied.

Ambivalence is reflected in long-term changes in responses to questions about whether the government should spend more on social services (down to 42.8 per cent from 59.4 per cent).

When asked if the government should cut taxes or spend more on services in 2008, only 3 per cent of people were ambivalent – “it depends” – but this year just under one-quarter of Australians were.

Jim Chalmers wrote an essay over summer about confidence in democracy, and said he saw the role of government was to reform the economy and institutions to “make communities more resilient, and our society and democracy stronger as well”.

The authors of a report into the poll say the findings suggest the Treasurer might be swimming against the tide of public opinion – but conditions are also favourable for a discussion.

“More work needs to be done to convince the public that more substantive changes are warranted, though the high levels of confidence in the government that he serves in suggests that the Treasurer will at least have an audience with a somewhat receptive ear,” the authors conclude.

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