Trust is the first casualty in time of plague

Aug 1, 2021

Who are the people who marched in Melbourne and Sydney at the weekend, chanting about freedom and demanding an end to lockdowns? One answer is obvious. They are people whose idea of freedom seems to mean being free to put the lives of others at risk by dismantling controls on the transmission of covid-19.

And yes, they behaved selfishly and irresponsibly, as the state premiers and – belatedly rather more reluctantly – the prime minister have said. But acknowledging this to be so does not answer the question of what drives people to act in such a way. Why do their slogans equate public health measures with dictatorship?

The rhetoric used by the marchers and their leaders suggests that it is not only the public health regime that makes them so resentful. Their anger was directed at the government itself, which they do not see as representing them or acting on their behalf.

Protests against lockdowns and vaccination programs are not only an Australian phenomenon. They have also happened in other democracies around the world with which we usually compare ourselves, and they are the latest eruption of populist politics. Populism is not a doctrine of how to govern, like liberalism or socialism. It is an attitude towards government. Sometimes it is expressed on the left of the political spectrum, but in recent times it has mostly found a home on the right, especially the far right. Populists define government as the enemy because they believe it is the vehicle of elites who are separate from, and contemptuous of, “the people”.

It is easier to see the problem with this attitude than to respond to it. The organisers of the so-called freedom marches aren’t part of “the people” any more than the hated elites are. They are activists seeking to manipulate the resentment of those who feel alienated and powerless because they believe government no longer works for them. There were many such activists in the anti-lockdown marches: anti-vaxxers, covid conspiracy theorists, libertarians, and more than a few far-right extremists.

They say they are planning more public protests, and are acting in association with similar groups overseas, as part of a so-called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom”. Those who followed these fringe activists, responding to their messages on Facebook and Instagram, are people who for various reasons have lost trust in government. Perhaps they had lost their livelihoods during lockdown, and they may have already been part of what has been called the precariat – people dependent on precarious, insecure work. Many will be experiencing extreme stress in their personal and family lives.

This combination of activists and the alienated is a potent one, and in some other countries, it led to political upheaval even before the pandemic. It was present in the agitation that led to Brexit in the UK, and in the continuing discontents unleashed by the Trump era in the US.

There has not yet been an upheaval of similar scale in Australia, but populist messaging on social media was one of the influences on the 2019 election result. In the wake of the election, the Senate announced a committee inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy. The inquiry was prompted by the rise of populist politics, but the Senate was aware that the decline of trust in government had been present for a long time.

As the committee’s report notes, the decline is measurable. The Democracy 2025 research project, based in Old Parliament House in Canberra, has tracked a fall in public satisfaction with democracy from 78 per cent of survey respondents in 1996 to 41 per cent in 2018. It has not been a relentless downward plunge. As the Chair’s foreword observes: “Democracy 2025’s surveys record peaks and troughs in public satisfaction. But it is clear that increasing numbers of Australians feel disconnected from democratic institutions and processes; they do not feel they are full participants in, or beneficiaries of, a system that works for them”.

The committee’s work, like so much else in public life, was disrupted by the pandemic, and the report was not tabled until February this year.

One consequence of the pandemic, at least in the early stages, appeared to be a renewed confidence in the ability of the Commonwealth and the states to keep Australians safe. The Chair’s foreword commented that whether this return to trust would last was still an open question; the weekend’s marches perhaps indicate that it has not lasted. If that is so, the need to overcome the loss of trust is now even more urgent than it appeared to be in 2019. It is the most pressing political task of our time.

The committee’s report offers no easy solutions and contains relatively few policymaking recommendations. But two steps could be taken to help restore confidence in parliamentary democracy, the institution that populists love to hate.

As a social democrat, I believe that the committee system, through which Parliament invites ordinary Australians to guide it in its deliberations, should be preserved and extended. And Parliament must reclaim its authority and resist the increasing amount of delegated legislation i.e. rule by executive decree, rather than by bills scrutinised and debated in the House and the Senate. Nearly half of all legislation is now delegated to the executive, and some of it cannot be overruled by a disallowance motion in Parliament.

If fixing these things seem a long way from the demands of protesters, it is because real freedom requires a lot more than a shout in the street. Upholding and protecting freedom is hard work, and it is time we started.

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