If politicians want more trust from voters, they need to start behaving with civility and respect

If the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow. AAP/Mick Tsikas

This is an edited extract of The Knowledge Solution, out July 2 from mup.com.au.


It is a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction.

In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well educated and prosperous. In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate — or should. So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability. Today’s plethora of opinion polls ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.

Yet much of what should facilitate a smooth-running, engaged political system has helped corrode it. In politics, as in other aspects of life, abundance can be good but excess is often harmful. You can end up with too much of everything, and I think that’s what we’ve got in politics today.

We’re lumbered with what has been dubbed the continuous campaign, and that means, as Hugh Heclo, who was an academic expert on US democratic institutions, wrote in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s The Permanent Campaign and its Future: “[e]very day is election day”.

The leaders never hang up their high-vis vests. This is debilitating for decision-making because, as Heclo notes, there is a difference between “campaigning” and “governing” — and it is exhausting for the public.

Leaders always have to strike a balance between the time they spend with their feet under the desk and the days their boots are on the road, but things seem out of kilter. The permanent campaign encourages short-termism and puts the focus on the immediate media grab and headlines. It fans the politics of negativity, accentuates the adversarial and makes for hyper-partisanship. And it stretches the patience and concentration of voters.

The modern 24-hour news cycle both enables and fosters the permanent campaign, providing platform and spur. Political leaders have given up previous aspirational talk about “not feeding the media beast”. Tony Abbott tried that (for a nano-second) and it did not work too well. Now they argue that if they leave a gap, their opponents will fill the vacuum. Seeing so much of their politicians close up (and often too personal for comfort) has alienated voters, rather than made them to want to involve themselves in the political process.

The ability always to command attention, when there is so much airtime available, also helps small players turn themselves into minor political celebrities. It’s a sign of the times that as voters have increasingly looked to minor parties, these often come with a personal branding. They have been based around individuals, whose names they have taken — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team (subsequently the Centre Alliance), the (now collapsed) Palmer United Party, the Jacqui Lambie Network. “Name” parties fit this age of celebrity. If they had been born in today’s world, the Australian Democrats might have been “The Don Chipp Party”, after their early leading light (and conveniently shortened to “Don’s Party”).

Far from providing a sophisticated channel of community feedback, constant polling has come to be a whip hand over leaders, especially if they are going through a difficult period. This can restrict their room to breathe — that is, to lead — and it is made for the media’s “horse race” coverage of politics.

It means policy is often framed with an eye to how it will go down in the short term, a point that bureaucrats are forced to take account of in their advice to government. At the same time, polling is used as a tool of advocacy, with special interests commissioning polls that seldom fail to get the results they want and will almost always find a market in the media. With the rise of cheap robo-polls, there is a lot more “junk” polling around.

The professionalisation of politics has been building for decades. It has penetrated everything: ministerial offices, messaging, campaigns, the recruitment of candidates, the operation of interest groups and the explosion of a commercial lobbying industry. The more politics is professionalised, the more “insider” it becomes, in the preoccupation with daily “tactics” and in its gene pool of players.

An increased proportion of parliamentarians comes from the political class, having served as staffers to MPs before preselection. The grip of factions within the parties and the shrinking size of the major parties foster the closed shop, giving a leg-up to the insiders when it comes to preselections.

The well-documented decline in the public’s trust in the political system not only makes governing more difficult, but also puts off potential political recruits. When we turn from excess to deficit, what’s lacking — and has been falling for some time — is this elusive but vital quality of trust, the bedrock of a democracy that’s in top health. A recent paper published by the Grattan Institute, A Crisis of Trust, examines the surge in the minor party vote. It concludes:

Culture and economics are insufficient to explain the rise in the minor party vote. The best evidence is that the rising minor party vote is largely driven by declining trust in government: the growing belief that government is increasingly conducted for the interests of the rulers rather than the ruled.

The matter of “respect” is core. From there we can segue to trust. So if we think about what can be done to improve the situation — recognising that it’s only a limited amount and might be beyond the players anyway — let’s begin with the challenge of politicians winning respect, and go to a very basic level.

Politicians behave badly and — thanks especially to the all-pervasive media and that decision all those years ago to allow the televising of parliament — ordinary people see and hear this, and they hate it. In a March 2018 speech, Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb put his finger on it:

I can see on television the people we employ to work in our interests behave in a way we would not tolerate in our own small children. Sadly at a time when trust is so low, contempt so high, it appears they don’t even try to get better. They seem not to understand that trust is what we give them when they earn it, not what they get because they are where they happen to be.

It was notable that when the March 2018 scandal broke around Australian cricketers cheating in South Africa, commentators and members of the public immediately drew parallels with politics, where there is plenty of “cheating” with the truth. Then there is the cricketers’ “sledging” culture and the politicians’ similar practice. Malcolm Turnbull told a news conference:

I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place … on a cricket field.

But when a journalist interjected, “Doesn’t it happen in parliament?” Turnbull let that pass without responding.

It’s a source of perennial wonderment to me that MPs are aware they are disgusting and infuriating the public by often conducting themselves, especially in parliament, like out-of-control adolescents, but they fail to curb this conduct.

Maybe it is the adrenaline of the chamber. Perhaps it is the pursuit of the parliamentary point. And admittedly, we are all living in a world where “anything goes” a lot more than was once the case. Whatever drives MPs, behaving in a manner that would be unacceptable in almost any other workplace is costly to them and to the political process — and could be easily changed by a bit of collective restraint. Sure, parliament will always have its moments, but chaos and insult-throwing should not be the norm.

This awareness should be extended to entitlements. The rules for these have been tightened in recent years after various scandals, and there is now an oversight body. But there is still an inability to understand the sniff test. The companion who accompanies Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to functions around Australia has been sponsored by the taxpayer to the tune of $35,000 over three years, which is within the parliamentary rules. Yet his assets do not appear on the MPs’ register of interests, as would those of a spouse or partner, because she has not defined him as her “partner”.

Parliamentarians should be paid well and have reasonable entitlements. But they should not try to have things every which way, and the public would respect them more if sometimes they, or those attached to them, put their hands in their own pockets.

Politicians’ reputations would also be enhanced if there were a better balance between partisanship and bipartisanship. It’s hard, made more so by the continuous campaign. But MPs will point out that behind the scenes — in committees, parliamentary special interest friendship groups and the like — there’s quite a bit of constructive working together.

It’s usually a different picture in the public arena. Voters would like to see some acknowledgement from time to time that the other side has had a good idea, and more co-operation on worthy projects. This would not at all diminish robust partisanship on core differences, and would improve the chances of achieving desirable reforms.

Politicians could alter the tone, as I have argued above. And they could better organise their workloads, and those of their offices. I appreciate how ministers have to keep up with the fast news cycle, but do staffers routinely have to be up at 4.30am? Do ministers have to make as many media appearances as they do, especially when often they are repeating the same “lines” that have been issued to them, or answering questions on someone else’s portfolio about which they have no personal knowledge? Is it necessary in non-election times to run around the country quite so much?

Excepting the positions of prime minister and treasurer, the job of most ministers is not bigger than that of a CEO of one of the top Australian companies. I suspect they could pare back their workload and their travel by say, one-fifth, and nobody would be saying they were not working diligently. They might even be more efficient.

When we consider how political parties should change to improve our democratic system, the answers run into vested interests, as well as the nature of modern society. Few people want to join the major parties. It’s not just that they are discouraged by factionalism and the powerlessness of the membership. More fundamentally, they have many other calls on their time, and (except for the truest of believers) organisations such as political parties have gone right out of fashion. When they want to be politically engaged, people nowadays tend to be more interested in specific issues, and limited activism or gestures (such as donating to GetUp), than in committing to what is often the drudgery of party membership.

Nonetheless, the withering of the major parties has dangers. Two examples make the point. It contributes to narrowing the sources from which parliamentary candidates are drawn. And with the ALP rank-and-file now having a 50 per cent say in the choice of party leader, a reduced base which is down to the hard core of that party could tilt the vote towards a candidate who has limited appeal to the broad electorate.

These parties will never be what they once were. But their leaders should try harder than they have for some improvement. Neither Bill Shorten nor Malcolm Turnbull has distinguished himself in this regard. An obvious step is to reduce the factional grip on pre-selections. But this must be genuine: it’s no good having “democratic” pre-selections effectively undermined by branch stacking.

There are other obvious, related, areas for change to improve faith in the system, such as more accountable, transparent and timely disclosure for political funding. Some attention is being given to these and they shouldn’t be particularly difficult.

Much talked about is the decline in the share of votes that major parties get, and the rise of the minors, whether they are born out of an issue (the Greens), or they are fundamentally a vehicle for protest and often based on a “name”. At one level, this can be seen as part of the fragmentation of modern life, that is also reflected in areas as diverse as the media and the industrial relations system. The fall in the vote for the major parties also reflects the “detribalisation” of politics and social mobility. People don’t “inherit” their vote from their parents as so many once did.

While the big parties (including here the Nationals as part of the Coalition) are diminished, we should remember that they are not dead. Federal electors still strongly support them. In the three most recent state elections — Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia — the outcomes were majority governments. For some voters, their decision is a choice between a desire for stability (represented by a vote for a major party) versus the urge to express their disenchantment (through an “insurgent” party).

There is no miracle cure for the lack of political trust that is now such a problem. That reflects not just political behaviour, but the more general cynicism of the times and an absence of faith in government. We seem as a community to be in a more bleak frame of mind than in some other periods. Contrast the mood now with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when voters were turning to Labor, optimistic that an ALP government would effect important change. If the polls are to be believed, Labor is well-placed to win the next federal election, but people aren’t thinking of a new government in anything like transformational terms.

Leadership can be an antidote to cynicism, though in contemporary politics perhaps only a partial one. Take the example of Bob Hawke as prime minister. People liked him and related to him, and he to them. And remember the commitment to reconciliation in his “reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction” mantra for the 1983 election.

Voters want both an agreed framework within which the political arguments are conducted, and where possible consensus around some of the paths forward.

The reader might well ask why I am putting the weight for spearheading reform on politicians, rather than, for instance, advocating as the priority that the media get its house in better order. I accept some will see this as a cop out, coming from a journalist. The reason is that I think in practical terms it is a fairly hopeless cause to look to the media as the lead agent of change that will promote trust and put our democracy into healthier shape. The collapse of the old business model in the media industry, fragmentation of the market, the nature of news in the modern world, the celebrity culture — all work against that. But if the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.

Our democratic system is resilient but under strain. As we view it, the critical thing is not to let cynicism get the better of us.

Become a friend of The Conversation with a tax-deductible contribution today.