Almost everywhere you turn, from the streets to social media, it seems is Australians have never been more divided. Picture: AAP
Almost everywhere you turn, from the streets to social media, it seems is Australians have never been more divided. Picture: AAP

How Australia became divided

FACEBOOK melts down after a telecommunications company changes its profile picture in support of same-sex marriage.

A speaking tour by a far-right figure from America sparks violent clashes between opposing groups, who far outnumber those who've bought tickets.

After a television appearance, a politician receives a specific and violent threat about her daughter, allegedly made by a policeman.

And a radio shock jock's fiery interview with the boss of a public building leads to boycotts, protests and a week or fierce debate online and in the media.

Has Australia ever been more divided than it is now?

"I don't think it has - it's absolutely staggering," Andrew Charlton said.

Dr Charlton, an economist, author and former senior adviser to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, said the tone of discourse lately was troubling.

A constant simmering anger and increasing polarisation in the community isn't just unpleasant - it could have a damaging, long-term impact on democracy, Dr Charlton believes.

"The warning lights on the dashboard of our democracy are blinking red. It's very hard to constructively govern in an electorate that is so divided," he said.

In the United States, there is a chasm between Americans socially and politically, which has created a powder keg across the country.

There is a concern that Australia is going down a similar path.

"It's not yet on the same scale of the United States but it's heading in the same direction," Dr Charlton said.

"It remains to be seen whether we're on the same curve or whether we're on a different trajectory. I fear we're on the same curve as the US but a bit behind."

POLES APART

Since 1996, the Australian Electoral Study has analysed voting trends and ideological positions among voters.

Over two decades, it shows political polarisation has increased significantly and the moderate middle - people who consider themselves either left or right of centre - has evaporated.

And the data indicates that the widening polarisation between the two major parties, Labor and the Liberals, kicked off between the 2001 and 2004 federal elections.

"There's been a very significant rise of the minor party vote in Australia, which some might call a protest vote but I think is more a sign of disillusionment with the major parties," Dr Charlton said.

"That minor party vote is higher than it has been in many, many decades. The combined major party vote at the last election in the House of Representatives was at its lowest point in decades."

 

Experts say minor parties like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation are seizing on growing division and a polarised electorate. Picture: Anna Rogers
Experts say minor parties like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation are seizing on growing division and a polarised electorate. Picture: Anna Rogers

A range of measures show that faith in politics among many Australians has slumped to dangerous lows.

In addition, people are switching off from messages out of Canberra in growing frustration.

Jill Sheppard from Australian National University's School of Politics and International Relations said Aussies had never cared intensely about politics.

"But the change we've seen is that they care less than ever," Dr Sheppard said.

"Fewer Australians think about and talk about politics, which is a bad sign. There's a real stalemate in terms of voters being angry, parties not caring and no one really knowing what to do. It's not sustainable indefinitely."

As people lose faith in major parties, they look for an alternative that looks and feels different to fill the void, Dr Charlton said.

Many of those alternative figures take a more emotive approach to selling their policy messages, which can fuel division - especially on contentious issues from climate change to migration.

 

Advertising and marketing expert Arvind Hickman wrote that fringe politics was often wrongly dismissed by the mainstream, but it was "savvy" at marketing their brand and views.

Whether via the internet or breakfast television appearances, figures such as Pauline Hanson had been able to widely distribute their messages.

"It's almost an 'Aussie lite' version of the sort of media attention that Donald Trump attracted," Mr Hickman wrote in a feature for AdNews.

The potential to inflame divisions in the wider community grows as people turn away from the centre and towards the fringes - left or right.

Dr Charlton said political polarisation such as this typically occurred when economies suffered and inequality was growing.

"Australia has had 26 years of uninterrupted growth and is one of the wealthiest countries in the world," he said. "By global standards, inequality is relatively low. Things aren't perfect but the reason for our division is not economics - it's much deeper than that."

What is the cause of our worsening division?

A GROWING FEAR

Fear has long been an effective tool in political campaigning.

Whether during times of war, domestic terrorism or financial market uncertainty, parties have made use of unease countless times throughout history.

And it works. Whether here or in the US and United Kingdom, there has rarely been a change of government when a country has troops on foreign soil.

The difference now is that fear is being more effectively used by fringe parties, commentator Warwick McFayden wrote in an analysis piece for Fairfax Media earlier this year.

"Throw fear into a person's mind and it takes root and spreads until it sublimates reason," Mr McFayden said. "It clouds judgment. It can direct a person's behaviour towards an outcome that promises the removal of that fear."

 

Carol Johnson, a professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, said fear and anger had made it increasingly hard to have a rational and reasoned debate about issues.

"Politicians do have genuine, heartfelt, ideological differences over what is best for society," Ms Johnson said.

"However, politicians can also encourage fear and discriminatory attitudes for party-political purposes without sufficient concern for the impact on broader Australian society or vulnerable minorities.

"At its best, adversarial party politics fosters crucial debates and expands the democratic choice for voters. At its worst, it mobilises prejudice and undermines the possibility of parties working together for the common good."

Dr Sheppard believes those with megaphones are the main culprits for many recent outbreaks of fury.

"When we noticed a downward turn in the civility of discourse in Australia, it tends to be because certain voices are amplified, like when we talk for a week about Alan Jones and the Opera House," she said.

LIVING IN A BUBBLE

The rapid rise of social media platforms has given people the ability to curate an information experience by choosing who to follow or friend.

"We're not quite sure what platforms like Facebook and Twitter are having on discourse and political engagement generally, but I think it promotes a perception that things are getting worse," Dr Sheppard said.

"Inside that social media bubble, there's a sense that society is becoming crueller and less civil and we start looking for signs of that."

 

More people are living inside ‘digital bubbles’ where different views are rare.
More people are living inside ‘digital bubbles’ where different views are rare.

Despite the volume and intensity of fury that social media is often associated with, Dr Sheppard isn't convinced it reflects the "real world".

"When you step outside, I think you'd tend to find that most people are going on with things as they always have," she said.

"Too many of us get stuck in our capital city experiences, surrounded by like-minded people, in (digital) communities that we choose, and we get what's called confirmation bias.

"Everyone feels the same way as us and they're angry like us … when you get out into most parts of the country, you'll find people have other and much bigger worries."

The concern is that those in the "bubble" are isolated from opposing views and new or different ideas, she said.

That can have a real impact on the civility of discourse.

Observers of Australia's so-called "culture wars" have noted a tendency for people, regardless of which side they take, to be increasingly uncompromising.

 

Andrew Charlton said dramatic shifts in how Australians consume information and interact with the community are having an impact on polarisation.
Andrew Charlton said dramatic shifts in how Australians consume information and interact with the community are having an impact on polarisation.

It's a view that Dr Charlton shares - and he thinks the disperse media landscape is to blame.

"We all used to sit down and watch the same six o'clock news at night, wake up in the morning and read the same newspapers or get our information from the same radio bulletins. It was a great centric little force," he said.

"It didn't mean everyone agreed with each other but we all kind of had the same set of facts from which to form an opinion or viewpoint.

"Now, people can now live in their own little Facebook and Twitter bubbles."

Broader social changes, including the "postcode divide" and cost of living pressures, coupled with a more narrow community involvement by many, has also contributed to dwindling harmony, he said.

WHO'S TO BLAME?

The mood in Australia when it comes to politics and politicians has become increasingly negative over the past decade.

"For a lot of Australians, and I can't really disagree with them, the choices on offer are pretty unpalatable and it makes the idea of participating in democracy pretty disappointing," Dr Sheppard said.

"Politicians have lost our trust and voters are starting to wonder that if their best choice at an election is what's currently on offer, there might not be much point.

"People have stopped caring and that's turning into anger directed towards the system."

 

Figures with megaphones, particularly polarising ones, whip up anger and division in the community. Picture: Jake Nowakowski
Figures with megaphones, particularly polarising ones, whip up anger and division in the community. Picture: Jake Nowakowski

A revolving door of PMs - the last one to serve a full term was John Howard in 2007 - has had a profound impact.

"The leadership churn is unprecedented," Dr Charlton said.

"The average tenure of an Australian prime minister, up until the final day of John Howard, was eight years. Since then, it's been 22 months."

Following the 2013 election, Professor Barry Jones from the University of Melbourne - who also served as a minister in the Hawke Government, said politics needed to be redefined.

"Political life in Canberra has become toxic," he wrote.

"With a breakdown in personal relationships, recourse to personal attacks, wild exaggeration and the endless repeating of slogans, the practice of debating with ideas and sentences with verbs having been abandoned."

As a result, the importance of politics had been diminished among the public and attempts to engage the electorate was confined to the narrow window of an election campaign, he said.

 

It doesn’t take much to make Australians angry these days, with a decline in civility in our social discourse.
It doesn’t take much to make Australians angry these days, with a decline in civility in our social discourse.

However, Dr Charlton believes putting all of the blame on politicians for the decline in the "quality of debate and discourse" isn't entirely fair.

"I think we should look in the mirror," he said.

"Politicians respond to the electorate. A lot of the partisanship we're seeing in Canberra is a reflection of a growing partisanship in the electorate."

Even the most virtuous politicians want to win - the goal of politics is to remain in office and, in the case of the government, in power.

"I don't think you can blame the increasing partisanship and division on politicians - they're responding to an electoral opportunity."

NOT AS BAD AS IT SEEMS?

We are witnessing a "worrying" polarisation of the electorate that shows no imminent signs of slowing down, Dr Charlton says.

Many of those disillusioned with the major parties hold out hope for a saviour - the kinds of figures from times past that had a lasting legacy, he said.

"A lot of Australians think the problem is the current crop of politicians and all we need is another Hawke or whoever to come in, fix all our problems and make politics OK again," he said.

"I just don't think that's the dynamic. I think there's a problem in the electorate and, until we find ways as a community to reduce the sense of anger and polarisation, I don't see anything changing in Canberra.

"That is a deeply depressing thought."

 

Can’t we all just get along? It depends on the community’s willingness to fix the current problems with how we interact. Picture: Daniel Wilkins
Can’t we all just get along? It depends on the community’s willingness to fix the current problems with how we interact. Picture: Daniel Wilkins

For her part, Dr Sheppard doesn't think people are as divided as they seem and the risk of Australia emulating America's political and social issues is minimal.

Our system of compulsory voting means major parties at least were less likely to use divisive tactics to mobilise support, she said.

"In the US context, parties are trying to mobilise and engage their supporters and light a fire under them. Here, the parties don't have an interest in that outcome. They would prefer we stay relatively relaxed.

"We're going to show up and vote because we have to, and we'll probably vote for one of the major parties; even if we don't the minor party votes will trickle through to the major parties, so the two parties don't really care.

"They're happy to kick along as they are. I'm not sure it's dangerous. We shouldn't be overly panicked. But I think the political parties have some kind of responsibility to respond to it."



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