The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are two of the greatest challenges facing not only our communities but the people who run them, says Flinders University’s politics and policy expert Associate Professor Rob Manwaring.
The unfolding of recent global issues alongside political party shifts and a push for gender balance in parliament has given Rob much to analyse in his capacity as a politics and policy expert and Associate Professor within Flinders University’s College of Business, Government and Law.
“Both COVID and climate breakdown all seem to require a different magnitude of required political thinking and resources,” he says.
“The kind of existential crisis of climate breakdown is probably one of the greatest challenges to democratic institutions around the world. It requires a new kind of thought leadership and a new set of political institutions to meet that kind of change, and the concern is that the political class is not responding in the way it needs to."
In the shorter term, COVID has upended some of the traditional policy responses of major political parties.
"You find right wing parties doing left wing things and you find left wing parties doing right wing things. It's changed the order," he says.
"So, there's a question there about when will politics return to ‘normal’.”
With communities around the world adjusting to a ‘new normal’ following the outbreak of COVID-19, Flinders researchers are seeking fresh insights into the Australian public’s perception of politics.
Alongside Flinders colleagues Professor Andrew Parkin and Dr Josh Holloway, Rob is leading a democratic audit of South Australia’s political system as part of a wider national audit.
Led by a team from the London School of Economics and the Museum of Democracy and with input from various universities, the Democratic Audit of Australia is set for release in 2022 and will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the political landscape in Australia.
One of the most likely outcomes? A downtrend in the public’s political trust.
“In terms of Australia, the big story is the kind of declining levels of political trust," Rob says.
“So, we're actively engaged in trying to think about what's going wrong or what's causing problems in Australia's democracy because it's not performing particularly well.
“One of the things that would probably make a substantial difference to Australian politics would be a significant increase in female representation of MPs. Having our Parliament look like our population would be a huge step forward.”
In the Australian senate women make up the majority, with 49 women and 37 men, however, a significant imbalance is present in the House of Representatives with 43 women and 108 men.
These numbers, alongside Australia’s comparison in gender equality with other parliaments around the world, prove much work is still to be done.
“I think the last report I read Australia comes in around 57th and Canada is 59th (for gender equality) but pretty much all the other countries we like to compare ourselves with are ahead of us in the game,” Rob says.
Among Rob's other research pursuits include analysing the decline of the major political parties and the rise of independent and minorities.
The last federal election in 2019 saw a record vote for minor parties and independents.
"A lot of scholarly research talks about the decline or the crisis of political parties, and I've been tackling this question in several different ways," Rob says.
"One strand of my research has been looking at the family of centre left political parties. So what is it the centre left stand for now? This is the existential kind of question.
"If the centre left was born out of the industrial revolution and giving a voice to the working class, what does it mean to be a modern centre left political party now? This is what my book The Politics of Social Democracy (2021) looked at in terms of these questions."
The House of Representatives Chamber at Parliament House.
Originally from the UK, the self-confessed “political nerd” says his fascination with politics stemmed from an early age. Studying an arts degree at Swansea University in South Wales he then achieved Master in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London.
Working for the UK's Commission for Racial Equality, Rob worked his way up to being a senior policy advisor before coming to Australia in 2010 and pursuing a PhD in politics at Flinders.
Graduating four years later he graduated and with some luck and good timing, a teaching job became available at the university, sparking a career in higher education.
Teaching into the Bachelor of International Relations and Political Science, Rob also teaches arts students who major in politics, as well as criminology, law and psychology students who take political subjects as first-year electives.
While many of his students go on to pursue careers as political analysts, policy advisers or in areas such as diplomacy, foreign affairs, defence, or humanitarian services – some of them do go on to earn a spot in parliament house.
Flinders University has several political alumni on its records including Greens MLC Robert Simms, Rebekha Sharkie MP, and Deputy Premier of South Australia Susan Close.
Despite a lifelong curiosity for the world of politics, Rob has never considered a stint on the floor of parliament house but instead enjoys observing "power and people".
“I’m not interested in the who’s in and who’s out gossip, but rather the broader questions about how to make a difference in people’s lives," he says.
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