Flat White

Australia: apathetic or activist?

28 July 2022

4:00 AM

28 July 2022

4:00 AM

A commonly-held view is that we are living through diabolically fractious times. Indeed, even a cursory reflection on the recent riots, protests, and related events like our defaced statuesrenamed suburbs, and all the other instantiations of the Culture War, seem to confirm this to be the case.

Yet there’s another equally-arresting aspect of our epoch that eludes our attention – the sheer number of us who have dropped out of communal life almost entirely: neither volunteering, nor voting, nor having any real engagement at all with the wider culture. Is a profound majoritarian apathy a far more serious threat than vociferous minority advocacy?

To this end, there are clear causes for concern. The most striking of which is politics itself, with the recent federal election confirming a range of disquieting trends.

Most obvious of these is the slide in support for the major parties. Albanese and the ALP were elected with a mere 32 per cent of the vote. It is a figure only marginally less than the Coalition and represents the worst result for both majors in over eighty years.

Various cultural trends have fuelled the rise of the minor parties to the point that a third of us are so thoroughly disenchanted with the traditional duopoly we’ve abandoned it entirely.

Yet this doesn’t completely capture our wider malaise.

Without compulsory voting, we’d have up to half of the electorate not bothering to vote at all. This stance was evident at the last American election where, in certain states, only around half of those eligible turned out. This lowly figure is up to 10 points worse among the young.

Sentiments toward democracy are similar here.

Over 10 per cent of the vote in some Australian electorates was rejected due to inadequate English or deliberate informality. As Melbourne University’s Sarah Maddison noted, ‘There are huge numbers of Australians that don’t know how to vote correctly.’ Adding that, ‘There are a significant number…who are disengaged or thoroughly p*ssed off with contemporary politics. They might cast an informal ballot by drawing on their ballot paper…or otherwise registering their disaffection with the process.’

Such events are happening globally. As American academic Joel Kotkin recently observed: ‘In the world’s democracies, voter turnout has dropped from an average 80 per cent in the 80s to closer to 60 per cent today.’ In France ‘barely 40 per cent of the electorate voted in the recent election’ while in the UK things aren’t any better, with ‘none of the above’ the most-popular recent choice to replace Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister.

Downstream of politics, these currents are also felt such as those seen in sport. The AFL, for instance, has lost the support of much of the public with crowds at their lowest levels in 25 years, and junior participation and free-to-air TV figures also down. These trends that are somewhat ironic, given the league’s newly-found ‘uber-Woke’ posturing. Similar sentiments are evident north of the Murray, with NRL participation down slightly since 2015.

This is mirrored in the cultural domain. TV ratings have decreased by around a quarter over the last decade, including falls in once-emblematic programs of the ‘old Australia’, like the breakfast shows and the nightly news. Even once-mighty endeavours like the AFL Footy Show are no longer; axed in 2019 due to low ratings.

Other indicators tell a similar tale. Volunteering is down. Trust in institutions has collapsedAnzac Day figures at dawn services have fallen by 70 per cent in recent years, largely due to ‘the fading relevance of past wars to younger, more diverse demographics’. A development that reflects ‘broad community disinterest’ and that is occurring despite the sums of money the ‘Australian government has spent on…engaging with the Anzac tradition’.

Similar scenes are witnessed right across the West. In America, engagement in news and current affairs has plummeted as Americans retreat to what the Californian classicist Victor Davis Hanson has dubbed their ‘Monasteries of the Mind’. With ordinary Americans tiring of the uber-liberalism inflicted on them in events like the Oscars and the Superbowl. It is a sentiment tapped into here with the triumph of Scott Morrison’s ‘Quiet Australians’ back in 2019.

The economic data also shows a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. There is an underemployment rate of 6 per cent and a participation rate of two-thirds providing a more accurate illustration of economic affairs than our current closed-border induced unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent.

These earlier figures provide a better reflection of the economy and the labour market, particularly as it pertains to men. Indeed, unlike women who may have children and familial commitments, there is an epidemic of Australian men who have disappeared from our workplaces almost entirely. A 2017 study by Gideon Rozner at the IPA reveals a ‘silent crisis’ in male employment where over a fifth of our working-age men are uninvolved in any form of work. This figure was less than 5 per cent in the 1950s and has grown ever since records began in the 70s.

These figures also reinforce a Productivity Commission report from a decade earlier which found ‘over 2.2 million or nearly 30 per cent’ of Australian men ‘outside the labour market – neither working nor looking for work’.

Such a state is partly brought about by the ephemeral and uninspiring nature of work in much of the gig economy, but it’s also amplified by misguided government schemes and the lassitude they often engender (think the recent NDIS rorts and other missteps like Jobkeeper). 

What has brought this malaise into being? A major cause is clearly economic. Even though 40 years of free-market reforms have made us richer, such reforms have not been without fault, chief among them is the share of profit accruing to capital over labour.

This figure may seem arcane and disconnected from daily life, but it is reflected in our stagnant GDP per-capita and in the myriad ways our lives have deteriorated over the Neoliberal era: think crowding and congestion or the extra exertion now required in light of the corporate culling of labour costs, like having to buy your own burger or pack your own produce at the supermarket (and pay for a bag in the process).

Economics is the prime mover behind American discontent leaving the once-fabled American Dream dead for almost all intents and purposes. To take one example, a ‘2016 study [found] that since the early 80s, the chance of middle-class earners moving up to the top rungs of the earnings ladder dropped by approximately 20 per cent’. This circumstance worsens in light of America’s 2030 wealth projections, when the much-maligned Boomers, then in their 80-90s, will control almost half (45 per cent) of the national wealth. In Australia, a large share of our wealth tied up in property, the amount of that held by our own Boomers and the decline in the number of Aussies owning their own homes

Yet the main impulse behind our angst is mass discontent with democracy. This is evident in the decline of major parties. There is are strong signs that the populace is fed up with politics as it’s come to operate. A major cause of this democratic abandonment is the inability – nay, the deliberate unwillingness – of the political class to address the demands of the electorate. If just and consistent calls from constituents are ignored by their representatives, then widespread apathy – ‘Why vote? It won’t change anything?’– is an understandable and even axiomatic response. Left unchecked, it is a situation liable to future conflagration, as anyone familiar with the French or American Revolutions will note.

Immigration is listed as chief among these issues. As poll after poll has shown, immigration has been one of the most pressing issues facing Australia and other locales. A recent UK poll showed that ‘immigration is the second-most important issue for Tory voters’. Yet it’s an issue that’s ignored by the establishment, who have moved to accelerate it and broaden its scope. It can be argued that immigration was the main (albeit tacit) rationale behind the rise of Donald Trump, as well as that of Boris Johnson and Brexit. Aris Roussinos noted that Trump and Johnson were propelled to their role as ‘tribune of the proles’ due to the prior unwillingness of the establishment to address the issue. 

Political changes are needed to sate our apathy and atomisation. These need to be in the form of labour market reforms and include the opportunity to own a home or form a family, ideally on one income. They are, as Roussinos suggests in a striking piece on the need to rethink our Thatcherism: ‘The basic building blocks of [society, and of] a conservative worldview.’

If such reforms aren’t enacted, then we’ll simply slouch towards a variation of Kotkin’s America: an idle and anaemic place where the masses never work, own a home, nor procreate:

Rather than working, people can live in subsidised apartments and spend their time feeding their cats, losing themselves in the emerging metaverse, drinking, and smoking pot as they grow old without ever starting a family.’ 

As apathy-inducing a remark as you’re ever likely to see, and one which we should aim to avoid at all costs.

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