Aussie youth not that enamoured by democracy

Rowan Callick and Sophie Gosper, in The Australian, 5 June 2012, here the title is “What’s democracy done for me lately, asks Generation Y”

WINSTON Churchill probably said it best: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The great statesman knew a thing or two about the value of political freedom, having fought for it on occasion. But it seems the lessons of the past are fast being forgotten, with a new Lowy Institute survey showing that many Australians, particularly the younger generation, do not believe democracy is paramount.

Just 39 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 say democracy is better than other forms of government. Almost a quarter, 23 per cent, believe that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”, while 37 per cent say non-democratic rule can be best.

They also favour importing skilled workers when there are shortages in Australia.

Lowy Institute executive director Michael Wesley said yesterday he was surprised by “how lightly we take our democracy”.

He said he thought it could be because Australia did not have to struggle for its freedom – or because of “the execrable behaviour of our parliamentarians”.

Melbourne University music major Belinda Dalton, 22, said it was extreme to suggest democracy was the only form of government that worked, but she conceded it did have some positives.

“We don’t live in a utopian society where everyone has the best intentions. People are still fairly power hungry,” Ms Dalton said. “But I suppose democracy is the best way to ensure that people’s interests are heard . . . it’s not perfect, but nothing ever will be.”

Fellow student Pierre Trioli took a harder line, saying non-democratic government might work for some cultures.

“China is a society and a state that functions without democracy, so is it bad?” Mr Trioli said. “You can’t just judge it (because it’s not democratic). It’s whatever works for that culture.”

Overall, Australians are less supportive of democracy than Indonesians, with only 60 per cent viewing it as preferable, compared with 62 per cent of Indonesians.

More Australians – 23 per cent – than Indonesians also say that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”. Only 16 per cent of Indonesians surveyed last year agreed.

The President of Melbourne University’s first Indonesian student association, Briano Kawenang, 21, said some Australians undervalued democracy because they didn’t understand how good they had it.

“This is the kind of thing you have to live in; you can’t just understand by reading books or seeing it in the news,” Mr Kawenang said.

“Although Indonesia is a democratic country, unfortunately law enforcement is not as good as in here and democracy there doesn’t always perform well.”

The survey, conducted by phone between March 26 and April 10, finds Australians have clear views against allowing foreign companies to buy Australian farmland – with 63 per cent strongly opposed and 18 per cent somewhat against.

But 62 per cent are somewhat or strongly in favour of allowing short-term workers to come from overseas if Australia cannot find enough skilled labour.

After work and English language skills, they most want permanent migrants with “similar values to Australians”, well above educational attainment. Religion and race are not deemed nearly as important.

Positions have changed sharply on climate change action. Now, 63 per cent are strongly or somewhat opposed to the carbon tax – with the dominant reason being that it will result in job losses.

Six years ago, 68 per cent said that because global warming is “a serious and pressing problem”, Australia should take steps immediately. Today, only 36 per cent support that view, while 45 per cent say global warming should be addressed gradually, through low-cost steps.

Five years ago, views were evenly split at 46 per cent about Australia’s role in the Afghan war. In the survey, which was taken before the Gillard government announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, 65 per cent said the army should pull out.

Seventy-four per cent are in favour of the deal announced last November under which up to 2500 US marines will train in Darwin. But only 46 per cent would favour a bigger deployment – unless China or Indonesia objected, in which case a majority would change their position and back more marines.

Seventy per cent strongly attribute Australia’s success at avoiding recession to China’s demand for resources, 41 per cent to good government policies.

The government allows too much investment from China, according to 56 per cent, with the principal reasons being that Australian mining and agriculture companies should be kept in Australian hands, and that “China has so much money to invest, it could end up buying and controlling a lot of Australian companies”.

Australians feel warmest towards New Zealand, by far, followed by the US, Japan, Fiji, Greece, Papua New Guinea, South Korea and Malaysia.

China comes next, up 11 per cent from last year. It is now in the top half of the list of 19 selected countries. Least favoured is North Korea.

The findings are contained in a Lowy Institute poll of 1005 people published today, which also concludes that Australians strongly oppose the carbon tax, foreigners buying farm land, the Afghan war, and selling uranium to India.

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