EVA COX. Now markets have failed, let’s talk about social wellbeing(The Guardian 15.1.2020)

We need to address the distrust epidemic among voters and return to the reformist urge to offer a better vision splendid

Being asked to write on a single change that would make a serious difference to Australia isn’t easy, but in a few minutes I came up with the increasing trust deficit as the underlying but rarely discussed issue. In an era when the dominant paradigm has been materialist competition, trust – as verb or noun – mainly describes feelings about other people and systems.

In economics it is called an externality, something not materially measurable so not related to homo economicus (self-interested rational “man”), who typifies human behaviour in too many algorithms. So voters, feeling ignored by this focus on solely economic values, are adopting nasty populisms and political divides are growing.

Addressing this distrust epidemic among voters would create major improvements in legitimating democracy, as data on the diminishing trust show too many voters feel that they are neither being heard nor are their needs being met. The past decade has seen too many royal commissions, scandals and coups that increase voter anxieties. The continuing privatisation of assets and services, the cuts to funding of public services and the growing conditionality of welfare have all contributed to government lack of positive visibility. Re-creating some social policies that affirm the role of the government is to create equity, not just facilitate GDP growth. These could reassure distrustful voters of the benefits of social democracy.

The Australian National University’s recent Australian election survey shows distrust of politicians rose from an already high 63% in 2014 to 76% in 2016. Another question found 56% think the federal government is run for a few big interests and only just over half think politicians know what people want. Little on the current agendas address the distrust that influences the quality of societies and their relationship to good governance.

Distrust gets reinforced by developments like the ethical sins of minister Bridget McKenzie’s funding for political benefits, recently uncovered by the auditor general. So far, her choices have been supported by cabinet peers and leaders, reinforcing the popular image of those in power.

Eva Cox
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 Eva Cox: governments ‘need some new ideas’. Photograph: David Fanner

Trust has been my long-term research interest, as it covers social wellbeing and the effectiveness or otherwise of our governance. I first explored the quality and value of trust relationships in my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures, called A Truly Civil Society, where my six lectures offered alternatives to the market model by restoring social wellbeing as a core value of society and government. However, despite being popular, these had little political effect, as markets had not yet failed

Despite both major parties losing their “rusted-on” voters, they don’t seem concerned. They continue to woo voter self-interest and assume GDP growth and materialism are all that matters. However, the reaction to bushfires and drought damages are showing generous concerns of voters that should make governments aware they need some new ideas, such as addressing environmental damage in conjunction with social needs. However, we need to push them to add social goals like trust and fairness to the mix.

So how can we address the trust deficit? A good starting point would be reviving the social contract concept that was part of developing the nation. Despite the very serious sins of colonising, other aspects of our history show commitments to innovative social reforms, also appearing in the UK. We had votes for all men in the 19th century, for women in the early 20th, the basic wage and some early pensions. So we need to return to the reformist urge to offer a better vision splendid of social possibilities.

Restoring trust could start with agreements in a new social contract that recognises our equity failures and lack of government interest in the social needs of voters. A suggested agenda could include social equity: improving and reclaiming community and public services back from inappropriate for-profit sectors, good affordable power that is environmentally sound and an income support system that rewards unpaid work. This should include voluntary firies, domestic and community labour and caring for country, as all are needed to benefit societies.

 Eva Cox is a sociologist and social commentator

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6 Responses to EVA COX. Now markets have failed, let’s talk about social wellbeing(The Guardian 15.1.2020)

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    Eva, despite my comments below, I have so admired your pursuit of female cultural liberation over the last 40 years. I look forward to more of it.

    Two points. Firstly, you do not justify your assertion that “markets have failed”. I suggest that is a devastating omission.

    Secondly – why merely occupy a secular pulpit?

    Why not cite (and build on) recent research into the increasing monopolisation of critical political roles by ‘Dark Triadists’? And the attendant paradox so well vocalised yesterday by Tim Costello at Lismore’s Ngara Institute’s public forum? (Namely that if politicians are going to have shit thrown at them, they need to have a personality to suit.)

    Come on – this debate is much more complex that the one you helped pioneer 40+ years ago. I look forward to your reflective contribution in a future article.

  2. Kathryn Kelly says:

    Thanks Eva for a very important contribution to the discussion on trust. We certainly do need a new vision splendid and equity and care for the environment should be top of the priority list. Also, as you say, reclaiming community and public services from the for-profit sector and stopping further privatisation of important government functions and public services, such as the public health system and the visa system is crucial. The recent revelations about the privatisation taking place of the NHS in the UK is an important a warning sign.
    The highest priority is the need to decarbonise the economy and protect people and the environment from the adverse impacts of climate change, including the many species facing extinction.
    I think we also need to look to our institutions and agencies which are responsible for protecting citizens, regulating the market and assisting in transparency. The Human Rights Commission and similar commissions which are being starved of funds, along with the ABC and ASIC, should be given more funds to do their jobs properly. A human rights bill and legislation for protect whistleblowers and journalists – the list is long of protection agencies which are critical to trust in our society and which need to be given higher priority.
    The need for a federal ICAC with teeth and a cap on political donations and political advertising so that our democracy can’t be subverted by the likes of Clive Palmer spending $83m on an election is obvious.
    And with the ongoing natural disasters – the drought, then fires, then floods, and there will be more – I think the need for a Universal Basic Income system is becoming clearer, so that people have a safety net in place for when they need it most. The UBI could do away with the need for Newstart and the bureacracy and humiliation that goes along with it.
    We need multinational and big (and all) corporations to pay their taxes, and a more progressive taxation system which we used to have before the flat taxers started chipping away at it. Another leak in the budget bucket is ‘defence’ spending – as an example, using most of the money designated for the soon-to-be-obsolescent submarines for the vision would go down well, I believe.
    If the priority is people and the environment, we can find the money to pay for the new vision.
    A lot to ask for, but a new vision would demonstrate that everything is connected. We need a new society based on equity, truly valuing the environment and all creatures, as well as the values of kindness and no-one being left behind.

  3. Andrew Glikson says:

    The issue of trust originates from the SYSTEM, namely once elected MPs enter parliament, their votes are dictated by their political party, rather than refelct their conscience or their elctorates.

  4. Rob Stewart says:

    Eva, markets not failing until 2008? They failed way before that. Try 1929 for a start. Capitalism wants markets to fail – that’s where the money is. As every good capitalist knows competitive markets are for losers and mugs. Why don’t our politicians care? Because they don’t have to as the political market place has been turned into a monopoly, that’s why.

    Sociopathic capitalism has won. Mont Pelerin has won. Proof of that was the 2008 GFC. Capitalism should have been brought to heel then, like FDR did it in the 1930s. It wasn’t. Far from it, instead the criminally corrupt system had riches thrown at it at the cost of the blood and lives and misery and penury of the masses, facilitated eagerly by the “governments of the people.” Democracy is antithetical to capitalism, democracy has gone.

    Trust and new social contracts in this world order? Impossible, but hope can burn eternal – or at least until oxygen is privatised. Capitalist utopia is human dystopia. We’ve had fire, drought, flood and maybe pestilence (COVID-19) this year. All we need is famine and maybe a little nuclear holocaust to complete the project. This will happen before capitalism yields even the tinniest little bit. There’s no trust no social contract.

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