EVA COX. The trust deficit – a seriously neglected election issue

Apr 24, 2019

At the forthcoming election the Coalition will be asking Who do you trust, Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten? Morrison repeated it yesterday many times. This seems odd for a leader who most reminds me of another salesman, Donald Trump. But that aside, the issue of trust in our politicians and our political institutions is a major national concern. (John Menadue,’ We need a national summit to promote trust in politics‘.)

Yes, we have serious trust problems, but since these are internationally widespread, they clearly derive from more than local incompetence. I suggest we need more than a summit to remedy the local ill effects of international political trends that threaten the future of good democratic governance. The widespread damage correlates with, and largely results from, the effects of market-based paradigm shifts, post the eighties. The expansion of liberalised and privatised economic models of policy making have undermined the ability of the nation states to retain their social equity roles.

The effect has been growing distrust of democratic rule, with populism rising as a response to the individuated overemphasis on material growth and little else. These effects are visible in Brexit, the support for Trump, and a range of local secession movements, as well as the growing number of elected ‘strong men’ leaders who promote nationalism and devalue the links needed for international treaties and peace., Often UN driven, the post war change policy direction which was seen as necessary to avoid the fractured democracy that created 30s Fascism and WW2 e.g. the establishment of state welfare policies, and Keynesian government interventions to counter the damage of free market failures.

The widespread changes to policy priorities also affected Australia which now shares the high distrust evident in local and international surveys (see Edelman). However, our responses are differentiated by our location and our foundation history of democratic governance as a settler nation (excluding our terra nullius views of the original First Nations people). Our assumptions of the role of government derive from a long history of high equity expectations and democratic intentions of those we elect to be the leaders of our country.

            The evidence includes suffrage for men, then for women (but not for the original inhabitants),  early social contracts evident in the introduction of the age pension, the basic wage and introduction of compulsory voting as a means of inclusion in decision making. So we are more likely than the Americans, for instance, to be angry when our elected governments fail to continue to enact fair social contract policies.

The rising lack of trust has been exacerbated by the high turnover of prime ministers, the many inquiries exposing gross behaviour by once respected institutions, including banks, cricketers, churches and establishments for children, the aged, and those with disabilities. Both public and private institutions have failed to act ethically and responsibly, let alone for the common good.

Damage to local trust is exacerbated by the growing absence of government and funded community services, as non-market providers. These social services and communal utilities are replaced with for-profit groups and large agencies, thanks to decades of privatisation and contracting out. The lack of visibility is trust-reducing but parties do not  rate this as an election issue. Yet there is visible voter concern as costs of living rise under the mainly commercial providers of energy, transport, personal care and other necessities. We have become ‘customers’, deemed to have ‘choices’, and to be responsible for our good or bad purchases. This essentially distrust-based relationship is replacing citizen/social contract expectations!

Rebuilding trustworthiness requires restructuring the relationship between government and citizens by re-establishing social goals that meet needs of interdependent people, not just individuals. These changes to political priorities are necessary to counter the populist anxieties that seek security in nostalgia for mythic pasts, and increase the resilient social trust essential to strong diverse democracies. The current Ipsos Issues Monitor (SMH 21/4) shows increased concern regarding crime and immigration, both populist indicators.

Yet the current election campaign offers a mercantile media coverage of cash bribes for votes, a  Woolworths-vs-Coles bargain, e.g. tax cuts and funding grants. Voter-customers are asked to choose self-interested options. The targets are those ‘that have a go’ or are in low paid work ,and dismally fail to address less ‘respectable’ targets – the non-employed, the outgroups, and the marginal earners. Welfare is stigmatised by increasing surveillance and distrust, indicating that the political parties themselves don’t trust most people to do the right thing.

In my 1995 Boyer Lectures, I identified the need for policies that encouraged social capital, i.e. trust of  strangers and how we elect power. Well functioning societies need our leaders to recognise that good lives, both private and public, depend on relationships which establish our sense of who we are and how we feel about the world and ourselves. Policies that develop social resilience and communal wellbeing are essential to make diverse democracies functional and able to deal with difficult decisions.

Good social capital is essential when governments face serious issues like climate change. When courageous decisions are required, the ability to take voters with you needs high voter trust to accept risk-taking. and makes it easier to legitimate serious changes, as well as reducing the need for complex rules and regulations. While more procedural transparency and participation of voters in decision-making may have some positive effects, current high distrust levels require more than procedural fixes. Given our history, voters will need not just money and material growth, but a revised social contract with equity goals to recreate electoral  trustworthiness.

So some questions as a starting point. How do we establish trustworthy criteria for selecting public and private providers of goods and services?  Which should be government providers, and which given to not-for-profit community-based local services and charities? What roles should business, big and small, be able to fill? As market models are proving not to be optimum, what are appropriate roles for private providers? Given growth creates environmental damage and  technology reduces demand for paid labour, what changes do we need to consider? How do we value contributions of unpaid work that are crucial to our wellbeing?

If we are to be responsible citizens with responsive parliaments, we need more civil societies that are based on generosity, not just self interest.

Eva Cox AO is a sociologist, with strong commitment to A Truly Civil Society (her 1995 ABC Boyer Lecture topic). As a refugee from Hitler, she wanted to know how to stop  totalitarianism and injustices. She is an Adjunct Professor at Jumbunna, UTS,  once researcher, political adviser, public servant plus, and is still advocates ideas for good changes!

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