Confucius say: no trust woman with hair of rust
According to Confucius, the three things necessary for government are weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold onto all three, Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust must be jealously guarded for “without trust we cannot stand.”
Although written over two thousand years ago in a vastly different culture to the modern west, the advice remains pertinent. More than any other system of government, democracy is built on a broad consensus of values and duties, without which the rights of individuals are endangered.
Central amongst these values is trust. Without it, the consent of the governed is frayed or destroyed as a culture of suspicion and distrust develops.
I recalled this Confucian advice as I pondered the fall from grace of Prime Minister Gillard and her government in recent months. Aside from the polls, attitudes towards the Prime Minister were graphically portrayed in a word-cloud that the ABC audience constructed this past week.
A word cloud gives prominence to those words most used by respondents to a question about a person or issue. Prominent amongst the words chosen by the audience about the Prime Minister were ‘disappointing, incompetent, and liar’. They conveyed a loss of trust in her.
Most significant was frequent use of the words ‘dishonest’ and ‘deceitful’ by the contributors to the word-cloud. The sense of deception was palpable.
As the Cambridge philosopher, Onora O’Neill, said in her Reith Lectures, deception is the real enemy of trust. “Deception is not a minor or marginal failure. Deceivers do not treat others as moral equals; they exempt themselves from obligations that they rely on others to live up to. “
O’Neill lists the many situations where deception undermines trust, including those “who promise commitments they have no intention of honouring.”
The word cloud reflects the polls. Even the online poll in the Wyndham Weekly, the local newspaper in the Prime Minister’s electorate reflects widespread disillusionment with her. As of Wednesday, only 22 per cent of respondents agreed that Ms Gillard was performing well as PM, while 63 per cent said she was not. Significantly, another 15 per cent responded that they could not warm to her.
While online polls have their limitations, this is an alarming result from an electorate which gave her 64 per cent of the primary vote and 72 per cent of the two party preferred vote just over six months ago.
From time to time, there is a ritual death dance played out in modern Australian politics. It involves the slow but sure demise of a political leader once his or her colleagues realise that the objective of winning or retaining power must be replaced with the objective of not losing badly.
It is complicated for Labor because it follows the removal of their former leader and the absence of a clear replacement.
It may take weeks or months. It will be resisted by calls for unity, discipline and a need to take the long view. The hope of a better poll next week or next month will prolong the drama.
If history is any guide, the death dance will culminate in the replacement of the current Prime Minister. Trust is an irreplaceable value in politics. Leaders can take a long time to gain it, but when it is lost, it is rarely ever regained.
Even in interpersonal relations, broken trust can only be restored painstakingly over an extended period of time. Rarely is politics so forgiving.
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