Social media and the new electoral lethargy.

Reading this article in The Age today, titled ‘Decline in voters ‘a threat to nation’s democracy’‘. It strengthens the case for a new approach to testing community opinion on national policy issues and, just as importantly, local governance. If the electoral system is not assessing community will effectively then who or what is?

A summary of the article goes something like this:

  • Participation in this year’s federal election is down compared to 2007
  • When Australia decides on its next government on August 21, 14 million people will be eligible to attend a polling station
  • When population growth is factored, the overall participation rate will be down for this election.
  • Declining enrolment participation had the “potential to erode perceptions about the legitimacy of election results”
  • Young people are not as interested in electoral politics, and this a trend found in other countries
  • Issues like population growth, mining taxes and border protection may not excite young people
  • 90,000 new voters joined the electoral roll in the two-and-a-half days between the election announcement and the deadline

The first question that comes to mind is how do you get around a quarter of a million young, seemingly disenfranchised voters to enrol given, once called, they have only 2 and a half days to get through the jammed AEC lines and get on the list (the $20 fine is not much of an incentive). I mean these guys are supposedly only interested in iPods not population growth right? And before we argue they had months to enrol, let’s agree we’re all guilty of the last minute rush. It’s the AEC vs. human nature.

Young people have the most to lose by not choosing a government – the decisions made now will have ramifications affecting young adults much more than the pollies who conjure and affect them. Think housing crisis and climate change. The reasons for voting lethargy go a bit further than disinterest in mining taxes.

First there’s a decline in trust (missive from St James Ethics centre). Then there’s the lack of differentiation between major parties. If you read Waleed Aly’s Quarterly Essay ‘What’s Right’ you’ll have a good understanding of how conservative politics is in the midst of an identity crisis because conservatism is a claim of Labor and Liberal – and the latter is reeling from the demise of neo-liberalism. So, if you are in your twenties, who do you pick? The Greens? It’s looking more likely. But not all Greens policies and messages resonate with young Australian adults.

Are we facing a long term trend here? If a distinct political offer cannot avail and deliver on its promise during a global economic crisis, then when? Polls put Australian trust in governments as high – much higher than business (Edelman poll). So we do feel we can rely on the machine of government to do its job.

Let’s not get into a debate about the effectiveness of our democratic system. Let’s just say that it’s looking like it needs a service. What we need to consider are the alternative methods of getting a credible response to policy propositions (national, state and local)? And must we wait four years to have our say or, conversely, pay expensive polling companies that tend to question with an answer in mind?

I believe the way forward is now staring us in the face from smartphones, TV screens and PC monitors. Australians are one of the world’s most active groups of people online. Australia leads the world in social media engagement. We’ve also been promised the fastest broadband network around. What this means is Australians are accessible and used to conversing online. A lot of that conversation takes the form of opinions over fashion, sport, friends and work. Why not the issues and responding policies guiding our lives – from changes to local streetscapes to whether our diggers should be in Afghanistan?

Ellis Jones is developing an approach to local government communications that is internet based, gets rapid and reprehensive responses to issues facing municipalities and the decisions being made to manage those issues. All the evidence points to the fact that genuine engagement – asking people about something that matters to them and presenting it clearly – will elicit a useful response, establish relationships and build trust between politicians and the people they represent. As the Edelman survey clarifies, independence is important – the need for a professional, articulate and ethical provider is paramount.

On an additional note, one group The Age article doesn’t cover is all those Australians who are not citizens – my wife is one – who call the nation home but choose permanent residency (often because their country of origin demands they relinquish their passport if they become an Australian). These are often the most engaged community members, passionate about their new land, and surely number in the hundreds of thousands. Do they want Julia Gillard for PM? You only have to look around to see how many have iPhones or use the internet for communication, often with family overseas.

image credit: Rosaura Ochoa