Even in politics it has always been a matter of trust
It is hard to argue against the fact that Australian politics is currently in disarray. What we have are two major parties that spend more time formulating insults to hurl at each other than negotiating decent policy outcomes.
While Australian politics has always been adversarial – a direct result of our Westminster system – good policy outcomes have often risen above party politics.
There are many examples that highlight this: from the opening up of the Australian economy in the 1980s, to John Howard’s gun reforms in the 1990s, and the joint response to the HIV/AIDS crisis as a health issue rather than a moral panic. Each one of these went beyond party politics as the two major parties ‘trusted’ each other’s intentions.
Today, however, the formulation of a decent policy offering by one party is never credited or adopted - rather, it is ridiculed and dismissed even if it offers a superior solution. Tony Abbott’s superior paternity leave policy, for example, has been dismissed by the government as economically reckless rather than negotiated on grounds of equity.
The Government’s Mining Resource Rent Tax provides another case in point. The mining tax represents a way of ensuring we and future generations have sustainable wealth from a finite resource, but the Opposition are making ridiculous claims that mining companies will ‘go elsewhere’ and the economy will collapse (exactly where, no one knows but ‘Africa’ is often touted as an alternative even though the security and insurance costs are likely to far outweigh any ‘tax savings’ - but we can save that one for another article).
The reason for this mess is not, as many politicians have claimed, a result of the 24 hour news cycle. Rather, it is a collapse in ‘trust’: not only of us lacking trust in them, but they now seem to not trust themselves.
While we never really think about it, ‘trust’ is one of the most important elements of our society. In an age where we have no understanding about how most things work, we simply trust ‘experts’ to get things right.
For example, few of us are aero-engineers and have very limited understanding of how planes fly. Despite some nerves during take off or moments of turbulence, we trust those who built the thing, trust pilots to fly the thing, trust the Civil Aviation Authority to inspect the thing, trust management, landing crews and so on.
In our society, the things that we do not understand are endless: from elevators, to the construction of buildings, from the ‘ABS breaking system’, to the dentists scraping 12 months worth of plaque off our teeth.
Trust is linked with eventuality and carries connotations of reliability. In this way, trust is derived from the link between experiences and confidence. We gain trust in something when we experience it working. The more it does what we think it should do – like our car stopping at the red lights when we press the brakes – the more our trust and confidence grows.
In a functioning democracy, we should also trust our politicians. Like the management of those who build planes or cars, we essentially trust politicians to put the interest of our country and communities ahead of their own self-interest. Sure, they are human and make errors, and there are many whose personalities irritate, but there should be a sense that they are inspired by the public good, rather than personal gains.
I have been researching trust in our society for a number of years and have come to understand how fragile a thing it is. The key issue about trust, however, is not simply its fragility, but what happens when we lose it. That is, the opposite of trust is not simply mistrust, but a deeper sense of disbelief. In fact, British sociologist Anthony Giddens concludes that the opposite of trust is a sense of ‘dread’. What Giddens is describing is a sense of anxiety, fear and alarm.
The first problem that we are facing in our democracy is a lack of trust in our elected representatives. The lack of trust is that we increasingly feel that they are in it for themselves. This is probably not true for the vast majority of them, but there is no doubt that we now believe they are putting personal gain ahead of good policy formation.
The key reason for this collapse in trust has not got to do with us, the citizenry, but rather, the politicians themselves. And this brings me back to my opening point: our sense of disbelief is driven by the indication that they seem to lack trust in each other.
So we are left with a policy agenda hamstrung by this lack of trust. While I could draw on any number of examples, here are some policy areas that are screaming for our politicians to work together:
• The recent Austrlia21 report on the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ does not advocate a free for all, but does encourage a new political debate. A lack of trust means that the two major parties are not even discussing it.
• The response to the humanitarian crises around the world that lead to a few thousand refugees is all about undermining each other’s credibility around ‘border protection’ – even though it is impossible to seal off borders and they all know it.
• The Henry Review listed a series of reform proposals, from the mining tax, negative gearing to inheritance taxes – such an important document has now been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Until they begin to rebuild the trust that we expect from them, then these debates will go nowhere and the community will remain polarised.
If the ALP and Coalition do somehow manage to come to the table, then we all win. The citizenry gets a better policy outcome, the Gillard Government will leave us with positive legacy, and the Abbott Opposition will look like a government-in-waiting (rather than that rabble which is preferred to the other rabble).
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