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Australia’s political leadership: best influenced by elites or the people?

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 28 October 2011

The key to successful political leadership in a liberal democracy is to bring the people with you, in terms of major policy reform, at least as much as possible given that most policy decisions will adversely affect some Australians.

This is despite past American political scientists arguing that political elites are more likely to exploit the moderately informed who are more willing to adopt new ideas compared to more politically attentive people who are more likely to resist messages. For example, Walter Lippmann in 1922 argued that political elites could 'manufacture consent' by the use of data and information to help inform the public about the need for certain policy decisions.

I have faith that extensive debate can help shape or temper a policy agenda through the role played by public opinion. While there is some concern about the "tyranny of the masses," I believe that a good policy mix can be achieved as long as a society remains well educated and well informed by a variety of media sources. In other words, while US society remains divided on many issues, a reality reflective of its own unique historical development that has resulted in severe and unnecessary social cleavages, Australians have generally supported policies that minimises possible social division.


In general economic terms, recent Australian governments have played a sound leadership role in terms of meeting the demands of the international economy. With the rules of the international economy defined by international agreements, and largely influenced by more powerful nations, Australian governments have adopted policies that have encouraged high levels of economic growth, at least by developed nation standards. While some are still concerned at lower taxation rates for companies and high-income earners and greater labour market deregulation, the wider population has agreed to such policy reform in recent years. Over 80 per cent of Australians still give their primary vote to Labor or the Coalition.

Further, both major parties still give considerable attention to various social-welfare needs to help the most vulnerable (including Aborigines), although there are increasing fiscal difficulties for governments to meet a variety of old and new policy needs.

This is not to suggest that such policy decisions by Australian governments have been perfect. I, for one, have long argued for more public housing. I also believe that the amount paid to the unemployed is ridiculously low.

Recent general policy trends initiated by Australian political leaders have been understandable. I will not lampoon the recent efforts by Australian political leaders over recent decades as a mere example of neo-liberalism with a blind faith in markets. I would argue that it is a bit more complicated than that, and that it is all too easy to criticise government policy in such a competitive world struggling for the right answers.

But, as policy trends occur it remains important that public opinion should continue to have significant influence in these difficult economic times when governments are struggling for answers.

Under the Howard government, there was considerable evidence to indicate how many of its policies were influenced by public opinion. Take the GST which ultimately excluded its impact on basic foods after extensive debate led Labor and the Democrats to use their mandate in the Senate to force change. Further, the Howard government initially cut immigration numbers in response to major public concern, before levels again increased as public opposition waned in response to an improving economy.


Not all measures of public opinion about Australia's democracy are positive. According to a regular ANU publication (Australian Election Study), trust in government has remained poor since the 1970s with over half of those surveyed believing that people in governments looked after themselves.

However, the same publication highlights some more optimistic indicators given an increasing belief that satisfaction about Australian democracy improved from 71 to 86 per cent between 1996 and 2007, although again declining to 72 per cent in 2010.

Even the Howard government's bid from 2004 to introduce more radical industrial relations reform was influenced by public opinion, first through the Coalition's desperate attempt to back-down and then later in its defeat at the 2007 federal election. While most Australians have accepted considerable industrial relations in recent decades, the majority were not prepared for a government to quickly destroy hard won conditions, such as penalty rates and so on.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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