It was Arthur Augustus Calwell, Federal Leader of the Australian Labor Party before Gough Whitlam, who believed that fear was the most potent political weapon. He ought to know: he lost three elections because of it.
The political correlative to fear is another emotion – the appeal to “trust me”. Creating or eroding trust is the common task and challenge of individuals and institutions in Australia, home to the most testing and suspicious populace in the world.
It’s a tried and tested tactic in Australian public life – Paul Keating in his attack on Fight Back; the way the ACTU got Work Choices to be the millstone around the Howard Government’s neck; the mining companies on the profits tax; and Tony Abbott’s campaigns on asylum seekers coming by boat whom he still calls “illegals”.
Maybe it’s our convict origins or the Irish instinct to bring everyone down to size or just the inherently secular nature of life in Australia where no orthodoxy has sway or hierarchy prevails.
But individuals and institutions in Australia aren’t granted or allowed to assume trust and credibility simply in virtue of their office or proposed function. Australians are and always have been suspicious of authority and pretentions to it. Trust and credibility have to be earned.
As we move into electioneering mode in the lead up to September, it will again become clear that politics is more about emotion and perception than it is about platforms and policies. That’s why trust and fear are so important to register and gauge, to recognize and manage.
And so, as the litany of bungled policy initiatives and dumb promises about budget surpluses add to the popular suspicion that the Gillard Government is illegitimate – getting there only through back room deals among Labor politicians that showed scant regard for any popular mandate – the correlative emerges from the Coalition.
“Trust me” because we won’t do anything stupid. We’ll develop a White Paper on the Carbon Tax before doing anything; we’ll get the Productivity Commission to review industrial relations before acting; we’ll review the GST with the States and have an external review of Treasury see why they got revenue predictions so wrong; and, the old chestnut, we’ll get an external audit of all government programs.
The potent weapons of fear and trust can operate in at least two ways: use by agents and political practitioners to prosper their advancement and the demolition of their opponents or they can end up backfiring on the proponents and practitioners who first deployed them. And the play is already underway in Australia as can be seen in accusations of “unworthiness for office” because of past abuse of trust.
Or so it seems to be going with appeals to trust him by Tony Abbott and accusations of untrustworthiness levelled at Julia Gillard. Trust and fear are rich currency for politicians to trade in, but it’s one where they can’t control the exchange rate.
What is so important about registering the use and abuse of trust and fear is to recognise what it does to us, the electorate. Someone might invite us to trust, for example. But no one can claim to be trusted until others entrust themselves to you. The essence of trust, and fear for that matter, is that they are relational experiences.
Political power and its legitimacy are essentially social because they only occur when I and we entrust ourselves, our prospects and our fortunes to those people inviting the trust.
Australians have good reasons for suspecting politicians’ promises – from John Howard’s promise not to introduce a GST to Julia Gillard’s promise not to introduce a carbon tax.
Long before Shakespeare adopted the phrase, we were all well advised to take a long spoon to sup with the Devil. Appeals to trust and accusations of untrustworthiness unlock the most ambivalent human energies from hope and expectation to contempt and despising.
While we all should follow the warning of buyer beware, politicians, indeed all office holders, should take note too.
Michael Kelly SJ