We have lost trust in our governments and in mainstream political parties. Politicians, the media and corporate interests have been responsible for alienating governments from the people who elect them, creating fertile ground for populists.
I’ll start with three graphs that tell much of the story from an Australian perspective. They’re easy to read, unless you’re so deeply involved in the political “club” that you don’t want to see what they so clearly reveal.
They are based on House of Representatives election results since 1940, when the present two-party system became established. (The final data points are taken from the most recent Essential poll.) The Senate trends are even stronger: the major party groupings won only 65 percent of first preferences in the 2016 election.
There is an obvious turning away from the two parties, and at no time over this period has a government in office won 50 per cent or higher support in its bid for a second term. (Menzies almost made it in 1966 with a 49.9 percent primary vote for the Coalition.)
In the US long-term time series show Americans have been losing trust in government for 70 years, with the decline sharpest for the federal government, milder for state governments, and less so for local governments.
We don’t have such long time series in Australia, but what evidence we do have, including that from the most recent Australian Election Study, reveals similar trends here – falling trust in government (a strong trend since 1969), falling satisfaction with democracy (separate polling by the Lowy Institute finds only 39 percent of young people agree that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”), a strong and growing belief (now 56 percent) that “government is run for a few big interests” while fewer and fewer people (now only 12 percent) believe that “government is run for all the people”.
When Trump promised to “drain the swamp” it was not clear what creatures he wanted to remove, but Americans and Australians alike would welcome the swamp to be drained of corporate lobbyists and other influence peddlers. There is strong public support for reform, including a requirement for all politicians to disclose meetings with lobbyists, company executives and unions, immediate disclosure of political donations, and bans on donations by corporations and unions.
Special Minister for State Senator John Faulkner proposed a set of reforms along these lines in 2008, and while they certainly met with public approval they sank under a load of bipartisan resistance from the main parties.
The Australian Election Study finds declining attachment to political parties and less loyalty in voting intention. That’s confirmed by the increasing tendency for governments, state and federal, to survive only one term, and for election results to swing widely.
Some people don’t want us to trust our governments
Trust in government hasn’t fallen of its own accord. There are many business interests with a stake in the public idea that government is untrustworthy and incompetent. Promoting that view eases the path to privatization, leading in turn to lucrative corporate profits and high executive salaries, as has happened with water and gas utilities, toll roads, technical education and employment services. Now the corporate sector is reaching its tentacles into health care, where there is a growing and secure “market”.
And political parties of the right are wedded to the idea that small government is good government. In Australia the Liberal Party goes so far as to encode the notion that government is worthless in its statement of beliefs, where it says “businesses and individuals – not government – are the true creators of wealth and employment”.
As Noam Chomsky said, it serves the corporate sector if people can be conditioned to hate government. People have to break from the old-fashioned idea about government as a provider of public goods and the custodian of the common wealth, and come to see government as some “alien force out there that’s stealing your hard-earned money”. That’s a long way from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ statement, carved above the doorway of the Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington: “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society”.
It’s hardly any wonder that people are turning away from the main parties because they seem to be engaged in a war of mutually assured destruction. In the Commonwealth Government, the ruling Coalition approaches politics as if it’s a life-or-death struggle between themselves and Labor. In fact Coalition politicians often define their role as “keeping Labor out of office”, as if they are the ordained protector of all that is good and wholesome in Australia. (Labor doesn’t define itself in such terms, but it takes only one side to start a MAD war.)
To take a commercial metaphor, could we imagine the management of Coles, rather than promoting its own supermarkets, going all out to trash their competitor Woolworths, or vice-versa? They don’t, of course, because to do so would be to trash the whole market of established supermarket retailing, to the benefit of IGA and Aldi.
And the media have not helped
The press finds it difficult to break out of the two-party model. So-called “crossbenchers” – a term implying some lessened legitimacy than members of proper parties – get media attention, but that attention is much more likely to be about their internal party scandals, and the gamesmanship in passing legislation, than about the policy issues they are bringing to the table. Consider, for example, the negotiations in late 2016 about the so-called “backpacker tax” and the Australian Building and Construction Commission bills. How much did we hear about any policy principles guiding these negotiations?
For the most part the press treats elections as a two-horse race, and as Don Watson says, “in a horse race no one cares what horses are thinking”. Labor National Secretary George Wright, before he quit politics to join BHP, used football metaphors to describe the political contest. It’s a telling metaphor, for to the detached observer (rather than the partisan fanatic), all football teams are much the same, and they certainly don’t exhibit differences in their ideologies or Weltanschauungen.
In the 2010 election campaign, when recently-deposed Kevin Rudd was sniping at Julia Gillard, ABC journalists focussed almost entirely on those leadership tensions, saying to the listening and viewing public that Gillard was unable to get her policy message out – without realising that they themselves were responsible for choosing to let the leadership tussle take precedence over policy issues. It was a subtle form of censorship.
Similarly in 2015, when Turnbull made two bids for leadership, successfully displacing Abbott on the second attempt, the focus was on the voting numbers rather than the contenders’ policy differences. To the public seeking to know about policy, either out of broad interest or to know how their own lives may be affected, it was like hoping that watching Shakespeare’s Richard III may give some insight into the Plantagenets’ fiscal and education policies.
It’s as if policy doesn’t matter, and that the political contest isn’t about ideas, but rather that it’s about the popularity of party leaders and the tensions and strategies in party politics.
While the Australian Election Study finds that the voting public has an increasing interest in policy – interest in policy issues having risen from 47 percent to 59 percent over this century so far – that rising interest has not been matched by a rise in policy reporting by the mainstream media. Even though people are turning to the Internet rather than newspapers and TV to keep themselves informed, sites operated by the mainstream media remain the dominant Internet-based resource.
Journalists, for all their expertise, seem to go to water when it comes to interviewing politicians on policy issues. Typically they will pose a question, but only on rare occasions do they re-present the question when the politician fails to answer it. Even experienced ABC journalists, who may be well-briefed, tend to stick to scripted questions, and almost always allow government politicians to have the last word. It’s almost unknown for a journalist to ask a minister to explain one of their throwaway lines, such as Finance Minister Cormann’s frequent references to the “budget mess that Labor left behind”.
It’s a game, and politicians and journalists both know the rules, which have little or anything to do with informing the public.
This is not to deny the existence of some excellent journalists in Australia, particularly in the Fairfax papers and the ABC. But the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age reach only around seven percent of the population of NSW and Victoria. And the ABC is constrained by its charter of “balance”.
Orwell and the Australian political language
Political spin, of course, is as old as the Code of Hammurabi and sophistry in Ancient Greece. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and his essay Politics and the English Language are all about political spin. “Fake news” didn’t materialize out of nothing in 2016.
But spin has been elevated to a new level, as politicians have been through media training courses, and as their myrmidons prepare carefully-crafted speaking notes and answers to possible questions, with words and phrases tested through focus groups, all with the purpose of making sure that the politician has to create an impression rather than actually conveying anything useful. (If our political parties had policies based on clear and consistent principles, rooted in shared values, politicians would be able to speak with conviction without the need to speak verbatim off prepared scripts.)
Every stratagem – sophistry, casuistry, convoluted logic, selectively chosen statistics, unfalsifiable statements, vague words – is used, short of what constitute outright lies in terms of formal logic. “We don’t want people in this country who throw their children off a boat” (meaningless – of course we don’t want such people). “The deficit will always be higher under Labor” (untestable). “Education spending has risen 80 percent under our government” (meaningless – no adjustment for inflation or growth in number of children at school). “Most terrorist attacks have been by immigrants from Lebanon” (easily misread as “most immigrants from Lebanon are terrorists”). And so on.
There is never an admission that a policy has failed, even when failure is glaringly obvious to all disinterested observers. The standout example is Australia’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the basis of the supposed existence of “weapons of mass destruction”. There never were such weapons, and much of the present chaos and misery in the Middle East can be traced to the invasion and its aftermath. Yet those Australian politicians who made the decision have never admitted their error.
Other examples include policies on climate change (“direct action”) and housing prices. And most recently, there has been the issue of Centrelink debt notices: both senior management and the Minister are refusing to admit there is a serious problem with the data-matching system. But the media is complicit in this, because any policy change is portrayed as a “backflip” (to use an overused cliché) or “giving” in to the opposition. But we never hear business journalists criticizing companies for dumping dud products.
The language of government is straight out of advertising, and like most advertising it’s unconvincing.
It’s understandable that in today’s ultra-competitive environment over-worked journalists, in both commercial media and the ABC, go for the easy option of playing by the rules. Policy analysis is hard work, sometimes involving a great amount of mathematical analysis, and is often unrewarding. But journalists do themselves no credit when they simply re-present politicians’ protective cordon of spin. They contribute to growing distrust of the media.
And the politicians do themselves no favour either, for those cordons cut themselves off from the people with whom they should be communicating. Machiavelli, in his handbook of political advice for the Medicis, warned about the danger when those with political power surrounded themselves with sycophants and flatterers, but that is just what politicians do when they put out the welcome mat for lobbyists.
It’s telling that in response to all the evidence of mounting discontent, the Turnbull Government has not wavered from its economic agenda of further spending reductions (with only minor moves to improve revenue), and cuts in corporate taxes. It’s still the “rising tide lifts all boats – eventually” model. Instead of a long-term policy path, all we have is the slogan “jobs and growth”, and there is no indication of how these vague goals will be achieved.
It’s hard to see the rationality of this defensiveness – they’re like business executives who in response to consumer rejection of their product, spend more and more on advertising and marketing gimmicks until they go broke. Thomas Kuhn, in his work on scientific change, observed such behaviour in various realms. He reminds us, for example, that the more Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo challenged the geocentric model of the universe, the more stridently did the adherents to that model defend it. Perhaps, in Australia at least, our political system is in a similar standoff.
Through evolution or as a gift from their creator, many people have been endowed with a bullshit detector, and a bias towards scepticism. They’re essential assets in a complex society. People can tell when a politician is reading from a script, when a newspaper article is a cut-and-paste from a government press release, when a lobbyist is spouting unqualified and unashamed self-interest. But like the last of the old absolute European monarchs, our politicians seem to be blissfully unaware of the extent to which they have cut themselves off from the communities they claim to represent.
It’s telling that in this season of political disillusionment the National Gallery has chosen to mount an exhibition of bric-a-brac (“treasures”) from the indulgent mob of supernumeraries who hung around the court of Louis XVI in Versailles, living in superb isolation from the French people. The exhibition opened on 9 December last year, exactly a week after the government, with full support from the opposition, announced that it was going to erect a security fence around Parliament House.
Fortunately for our politicians, in 2017 there is no guillotine erected in downtown Canberra, there is no Robespierre leading crowds of bloodthirsty Jacobins. They will ride out of Parliament House in a Commonwealth car rather than in a tumbril.
But there are populists waiting to take their place.