In private and public conversations, on talkback radio and other media, and in all the polls the same sense emerges of deepening alienation from party politics.
In itself this is no bad thing. To recognise the problem is a necessary first step towards resolving it, if not immediately, then over time. But any proposed cure will flounder if it does not rest on careful diagnosis of the ailment.
The symptoms of our democratic deficit provide a useful starting point.
The juvenile shadow boxing that passes for debate in federal and state parliaments is one such symptom.
Political corruption is another. In NSW, the Independent Commission Against Corruption has revealed what many have long suspected - that the parliament had been infected by widespread corruption, and that the infection had engulfed both major parties. Parliaments in other states have not been immune to the disease. Not surprisingly, a recent Transparency International survey found that 58 per cent of Australians believed political parties to be corrupt or extremely corrupt.
The money-politics nexus has other, less sensational but no less troublesome dimensions. Foremost among these is the growing dependence of political parties on private gifts and donations for electioneering purposes. And with this comes increasing reliance on paid advertising in which the political message centres more on advertising technique than policy content.
What these various symptoms indicate is a more general but disturbing trend: the inability of our leading politicians to articulate a thoughtful let alone imaginative approach to policy.
On taxation, the future of manufacturing, employment, the quality of education, climate change, refugees and asylum seekers, our relations with China and security policy we are habitually treated to a stream of repetitive cliches.
On these and other areas of policy, the major parties seem unwilling or unable to lead a serious conversation that can engage the nation. The net effect is the steady corrosion of public discourse, with most of our mass media serving as willing accomplices.
If the symptoms are as unmistakable as they seem, we have to ask the question: ``Why is it so?'' Some have sought the answer in the changing profile of our political parties. They point to the rise of the career politician, or more accurately put, the political careerist.
A growing cohort of apparatchiks is said to have risen to the top on both sides of parliamentary politics. These are people who from a young age have pursued a political career, in some cases by joining university Labor or Liberal clubs or other party connected organisations, and soon make their way to the staff of MPs, before laying their own claim to a parliamentary seat. In this highly incestuous environment, the gaining of organisational leverage is the primary consideration, with policy development, in so far as it gets attention, very much a means to an end.
This reading of recent trends is no doubt helpful, but it does not fully explain the current impasse. Sharper questions are needed if we are to get to the nub of the problem.
First, if the ailment is purely the making of the political parties, why is it that other elements of society - business, the media, the professions, our educational institutions and the public at large - have not acted to stem the tide of political careerism?
Secondly, how do we explain the fact that the symptoms of democratic decay are by no means confined to Australia?
Much the same pattern is evident in the US, Britain and much of Europe. In each case, conventional party politics is viewed with rapidly rising cynicism, resulting simultaneously in the politics of protest and the politics of withdrawal.
The short answer to both questions is that the trend line in Australia reflects a multifaceted worldwide phenomenon with deep currents that insert themselves into economy, society and culture in mutually reinforcing ways within and between countries.
What are these currents? The first, perhaps the most important, is economic and technological globalisation.
Economic activity, including patterns of trade, financial flows, technical innovation, and the periodic relocation of industries to lower cost environments, now operates transnationally in ways that no single state can easily tame let alone control.
Countries such as Australia, with fragile manufacturing sectors and extractive industries that are highly exposed to fluctuating prices on the world market, are especially vulnerable, and governments have limited capacity for decisive or effective intervention.
The second current, also global in origin and scope, is the neo-liberal agenda that has gained ascendancy in the western world and has managed in just over three decades to set a new economic and political orthodoxy.
Its principal tenets are well known: the rule of the free market understood as the free flow of goods, services and capital; the emphasis on deregulation to allow market forces to act as a self-regulating mechanism; privatisation of public enterprises to reduce inefficiencies; and lower taxes and balanced budgets which require periodic curbs on public spending, whether in health, education, social security, environmental protection, or support for the not-for-profit sector.
Parties in government, regardless of their ideological preferences or election promises, are expected to conform to these strictures.
They are assisted in this by elements of the bureaucracy well schooled in the new orthodoxy. They in turn regularly consult with and are monitored by international organisations, be it the OECD or the International Monetary Fund, credit-rating agencies and audit firms. Addressing stark inequalities of wealth and income or enhancing human security find little place in this discourse.
As a consequence, governing parties, having to operate within a highly restricted political space, find solace in the perks of office, occasionally breaching the boundaries of ethical or even legal conduct. Electorates displeased with the outcome feel they can do no more than punish the party in office and elect their opponents, and so the cycle continues with little prospect of significant change in either policy direction or political culture.
Is there a way out of this impasse?
Diverse possibilities for reform are certainly available to us, but they all ultimately hinge on our ability to initiate a sustained national and international conversation about how we are to govern ourselves in coming decades.
The conversation needs to address policy options but also institutional arrangements and ways of expanding public participation in decision making.
A sustained and multi-dimensional dialogue is needed in which not just the various arms of government, but business, in particular innovative sectors of the economy, media, professional associations, civil society organisations and educational institutions are full participants.
The dialogue needs to be international in scope and inspiration. In the global age, the notion of ``democracy in one country'' is no longer feasible. Political reform in Australia cannot proceed in isolation from the rest of the world.
Fortunately, the communications revolution is making it possible for political parties and other players in the public sphere to internationalise their discussion of policy options. New forms of collaboration in education and community engagement are also emerging locally and internationally. Can we seize these opportunities to fashion a new understanding of citizenship and with it institutions and practices better equipped for effective and humane governance?
Joseph Camilleri is an Emeritus Professor of Politics.
This story was originally published in The Age.