When I ask Australians about their political opinions, from city-siders to region-dwellers, one answer dominates.
I even heard it in an interview with “egg boy,” the teenager who became an international star after throwing an egg at a far-right politician.
“I don’t know much about politics,” he said. Many Australians seem to want nothing to do with it; politics, they say, is confusing, tiring, boring, and while Americans often can’t stop talking about the subject (even before President Trump), many Australians seem to prefer disconnection.
But why are they feeling this way?
As the May 18 election looms, politicians are facing off for a chance to change the ideological balance of leadership for the next three years. And yet, in a country with compulsory voting, many Australians feel that overall, the system isn’t working.
According to a survey conducted just before last year’s change in prime minister, fewer than 41 percent of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy is working. It’s a stark drop from 2013, where 72 percent were satisfied with democracy.
More than 60 percent of respondents said that the integrity of politicians was very low, and experts say the turbulence of the last twelve years — which has seen the country hold five different leaders — has only amplified discontent.
It might make sense then, that Australians don’t feel a personal connection to politics.
But does that necessarily mean that people don’t care about what happens to the country?
On a recent reporting trip, I received the same answers from Australians on feeling ambivalent about politics. But as the conversation continued, that ambivalence seemed to mask deeper concerns. One university student worried about the environment. Another woman wondered whether there would be enough funding to afford school supplies for her two children. Others said they brooded over the rising cost of living.
Since the 19th century, Australians “have always been fairly skeptical about their politicians in general as a class,” said Judith Brett, an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University and author of the book “From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.”
Still, even if voters aren’t entirely plugged in, the compulsory voting system on the whole makes for a “engaged electorate,” Professor Brett said. “They may not know who their member is, but they’ll have some view of parties.”
Not only does the system add legitimacy to the elected officials, she added; it also means that unlike the United States, Australia’s political parties are less tempted to run highly emotive campaigns to motivate people to vote.
While it may make for a calmer election, perhaps it’s that lack of emotion, coupled with a distaste for the culture of Canberra, that will send many Australians to the polls next weekend with a sense of duty rather than pride.
So where do you stand on this? Are you feeling lackluster about voting next week? If so, why? What could help you feel more engaged?
Also, in the lead-up to Election Day, we’re excited to bring you “Voter Snapshots” — a special series of daily Australia Letters, running Monday to Friday next week, in which we’ll get to know five Australians across the political spectrum.
Yes, we’re asking them who they’re voting for — but we’ll also discover what keeps them up at night, what kind of Australia they dream of, and what a good life means. It’s an intimate insight into five different slices of this country’s vast electorate.
Look out for the first edition in your inboxes on Monday!
Now, on to the biggest stories of the week.
• It’s Time to Break Up Facebook: It’s been 15 years Chris Hughes co-founded Facebook at Harvard. But in this opinion article, he writes that he feels a sense of anger and responsibility.
• Harry and Meghan Name Their Son: Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor: The baby, wrapped in a cream-colored blanket and wearing a knit cap, slept through his first interview.
And Over to You
We asked you for your favorite stories in honor of our second birthday last week…
“I’d have to say the one I enjoyed the most was the article: “Has Australia Abandoned the Salad Sandwich?”
It had never occurred to me that the salad sanger was something uniquely Australian (or at least our own specific take on it).
Just the thumbnail image with the article made me both hungry and nostalgic for the ridiculously stuffed salad sangers mum would send me to school with.”
— James Tapscott
… And one of you noticed an odd usage of phrasing — odd at least to Australians — at the end a section in our evening briefing that focused on tree rings. “Have a rooted night,” the text wished readers.
“In Australia, to have a root has the colloquial meaning of to have sex. To be rooted is to have had sex. Or it can be exhaustion from a good root or a tiring activity. To root all night is a great night of passion. Or a tremendous one.
It would be awkward to say ‘have a rooted night’.”
— Peter Wilson
I guess that would be awkward. Maybe we should just embrace it as a new saying.