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National life is influenced, not just by material qualities such as economic output, health and education, but also by many intangible qualities such as the quality of our public life, the fairness of our society, the health of democracy and the extent to which citizens of Australia participate actively in their communities or cooperate with one another.
For a long time these qualities, although often publicly agreed to be of critical importance, were seldom measured statistically. This was partly because they were harder to measure than more concrete statistics, e.g. the value of goods produced or the rate of infant mortality; and partly because they were regarded as more controversial.
More recently several projects from academics and national and international organisations including the United Nations, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the European Union, have been trying to measure this area of progress.1
Australia is a democracy. Democratic government has been characterised as having two underlying principles: popular control over public decision making and decision makers (through democratic elections); and equality between citizens in the exercise of that decision making.2 But the strength and health of our democracy in practice is the product of many factors, such as the effectiveness of political institutions like Parliament, fair elections, an independent judiciary, equal laws and a free press. Other important factors include the trust that citizens have in government and public institutions, and the degree to which they participate in civic and community life and value and understand their rights and duties as citizens.
Whilst democracy is supported globally, there are many different views about the ways to measure progress in this dimension. There are many possible indicators that relate to governance, democracy and citizenship. We have drawn on a framework developed over the past five years by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) to organise and select the indicators that follow (see box opposite).2 IDEA is an intergovernmental organisation, associated with the United Nations, and with 21 member states including Australia. The framework has been applied in practice in nine countries.
The following material covers:
The discussion that follows needs to be read with some qualification. It is not intended as a comprehensive discussion of all the elements of democracy set out in the IDEA framework (partly because data are not available for some elements, and others are not regarded as significant issues for Australia). It is intended only to illustrate some issues where reasonably good data already exist; it does not imply that these issues have a higher priority than others not discussed. Issues such as corruption in public life, and the availability of social and economic rights are also important.
Nationhood and citizenship
Citizenship is a common bond which brings together the people of Australia. It also brings rights and responsibilities. Citizens have additional rights beyond those offered to permanent residents of Australia, including the right to vote, the right to stand for public office, and the right to hold an Australian passport. But they also have additional responsibilities: citizens are, for example, required to enrol on the electoral register and vote in elections, and expected to defend Australia should the need arise.
Only Australian citizens can vote in elections, and so the proportion of those people living here permanently who are citizens is one measure of support for democratic decision making in Australia (although people become citizens for many reasons, not necessarily to vote in elections).
In 2001, about 95% of the people living in Australia were citizens. The number of people taking out Australian citizenship each year between 1992 and 2002 ranged between 129,000 (in 1998) and 71,000 (in 2000), but these data are influenced by the number of non-citizens eligible to apply for citizenship as well as whether they wish to become Australians.3
When considering progress it is more informative to consider the changing proportion of Australian residents who have lived here for a least two years (those generally eligible for citizenship) that are citizens. In 1991 about 65% of overseas-born residents were Australian citizens. This had risen to just below 73% by 1996 and by 2001 almost three quarters of overseas-born residents were Australian citizens.
Proportion of overseas born residents(a) who were citizens, 1991 to 2001
Political theory recognises three powers of government: the legislative power to make laws; the executive power to carry out and enforce laws; and the judicial power to interpret laws and to judge whether they apply in individual cases.4 Powers are separated to prevent oppressive government by ensuring three bodies - the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judiciary - act as checks and balances on each other.
Also, as in all democracies, regular elections are held to give society control over governments and the policies they make. Elections make government accountable to the electorate through offering the sanction of dismissal.
Participation in elections is important to the functioning of a democracy. And statistics on voter turnout, the extent to which those entitled to vote do so, are often used to shed light on how representative governments are of the electorate.
It has been argued that a healthy democracy needs citizens who care, are willing to take part, and are capable of helping to shape the common agenda of a society. And so participation - whether through the institutions of civil society, political parties, or the act of voting - is seen as important to a stable democracy. That said, while there may be a widespread belief that participation in political life is good for the workings of democracy, there is less agreement on what constitutes a 'good' or 'democratic' level of turnout. Low turnout might represent a weak democratic system. But it might also represent widespread contentment among voters.5
In June 2003, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) estimated that about 95% of eligible Australians were enrolled to vote. There were, however, differences in the proportions enrolled among different age groups and the AEC estimates that about 76% of eligible 18-25 year olds were enrolled.6
Voter turnout has not dropped below 94% since the general election in 1955 (when it was about 88%). But in Australia, where enrolment and voting in State and Federal elections is compulsory, it is perhaps more informative to consider the proportion of informal votes cast.
In most countries an 'invalid vote' is used to describe a vote where the ballot paper was completed incorrectly and so not included in the final count. In Australia the term 'informal vote' is used to describe this. An informal vote may be cast for several reasons. These include the complexity of the electoral system, confusion between state and Federal voting systems and the deliberate casting of an informal vote as a form of protest or expression of disillusionment under a system of compulsory voting.8
The proportion of all votes cast in Federal elections that were informal remained at about 2% during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984 a new method of voting for the Senate was introduced, which appeared to cause confusion among voters and led to a rise in the proprotion of informal votes to 6.8%. It has since declined but still remains at levels above those seen at the beginning of the period. In the 2001 Federal election, just less than 5% of the vote was informal.
Voting in local government elections is not compulsory in all states and it is interesting to note the differences in voter turnout rates in such elections. In New South Wales and Queensland, for example, where voting is compulsory, turnout rates were more than 85% in recent elections. But in other states, where voting in local government elections is not compulsory, turnout rates were much lower. For example, only about 58% of enrolled people voted in Tasmania's 2002 local election and only 38% in Western Australia's May 2001 local election.9
% Proportion of Federal parliamentarians that are women
One of the principles underpinning democratic government is that parliament should represent and express the will of the people. It is not clear how best to judge how effectively this occurs. An aspect of particular interest to the United Nations when agreeing on the Millennium Development Goals was the representation of women in parliament.11
The proportion of Federal MPs who are women has risen over the past 20 years. On 1 January 1984 fewer than 5% of the House of Representatives were women, as were about 20% of the Senate. By the start of 2004 these proportions had risen to 25% and 29% respectively. At the end of 2003 there were 12 female ministers in the Federal parliament (representing 30% of ministers). About one-quarter of shadow ministerial positions were held by women.
Civil society and civic participation
Civil society has been defined as 'the groups and organisations, both formal and informal, which act independently of the state and market, to promote diverse interests in society'.12
Civic participation describes activities reflecting interest and engagement with governance and democracy, such as membership of political parties and trade unions/professional associations, or serving on committees of clubs and associations. It has been defined as a two way communication process between the government and citizens. The overall goal is for better decisions, supported by the public and fostering the increased wellbeing of the population.13
Some people suggest that active citizen engagement is important for better government. Researchers and commentators, such as Robert Putnam, argue that civic engagement is associated with better government in two ways: citizens in civic communities expect better government, and (in part through their own efforts) get it, and that the performance of representative government is improved by the social infrastructure of civic communities and by the democratic values of both officials and citizens.14
Volunteering rates for management, committee, and coordination work.
Civic participation involves both collective and individual activities, including the membership of civic organisations, such as political parties and trade unions, and serving on committees of clubs, voluntary organisations and associations. More recent forms of civic participation include support for global or local advocacy groups or campaigns, email networks, or one day activities such as 'Clean Up Australia' events (680,000 people signed up for Clean Up Australia day in 2004).15 These activities extend social networks of those participating, and help people develop important skills for participating in democracy and governance.16
In 2000, some 11% of adults reported volunteering for management work, to sit on committees or manage a service or program (the sorts of voluntary work often most closely linked to civic participation). This was about the same level as in 1995.17
In 2000, people aged 35-44 reported the highest rates of such voluntary work at over 16% (this age group also reported the highest rate for all voluntary work, see the commentary Family, community and social cohesion for more information). The higher volunteering rates among this group were associated with volunteering among people with children younger than 15.
People with higher levels of educational qualifications, such as a bachelor degree or higher (18%), were most likely to volunteer for this sort of work, as were people in management (21%) and professional (20%) occupations. These tended to be the same groups of people best represented among volunteers in general with over 40% volunteering rates.17
Links to other dimensions of progress
This dimension is linked to many others. In particular, the growth in the use of the Internet has helped people to access information and register opinions with government and so the use of 'e-government' also sheds light on people's engagement with government. This is discussed in the commentary Communication.