Opinion

Why Australians no longer trust our governments

Public trust in governments will continue to wither until they start governing for all, writes Bishop George Browning

Many Australians have lost faith in the nation's institutions - particularly the government

By George Browning

January 24 2017The 2017 Trust barometer by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, has documented a worldwide ‘implosion’ of trust. Ominously, Australia has experienced one of the biggest falls.
 
While lack of trust in the Church, the Unions, and the Banks is clear and deserves exposure, I want to talk here about the Australian Government.
 
What is the role of government and why do we need it?  The reason we need it is because we are social beings whose lives depend upon negotiated outcomes in the interest of common good, in the interest of us all.  My interests are valid, but they must always be responded to in the context of wider society. So it is for everyone.  The role of government is therefore to negotiate outcomes that are in the public interest.  Debate about what is in the public interest is both fair and right. There will always be a variety of opinions about emphasises and priorities. What is clearly unacceptable is a government that negotiates outcomes not in service of the common good, but out of personal or political self interest, or out of the interest of a wealthy or powerful support group.
 
Sadly that is now apparently the norm. One of the fastest growing industries is that of lobbyists.  I am in the Federal Parliament building two or three times a year. What most strikes me is the time allocated by politicians to lobbyists, not the needs of their constituents. As is well known, retired politicians more often than not find a new role as lobbyists.
 
We are told that just 8 people have accumulated wealth equivalent to 50% of the world’s population.  Australia is no different. It is a fact of life that the wealthiest have the greatest lobbying power. Disparity of wealth on its own is not the greatest threat to the world’s harmony and peace; it is the power that is exercised with it that is the greatest threat. 
 
Today Australians do not believe government negotiates outcomes for the common good, but perceives that outcomes are negotiated for the wealthy who lobby. The mining industry has enormous lobbying capacity, but it is clearly in the public interest that their self interest is not massaged. Australia and the rest of the world need to move quickly to renewables, for environmental and economic reasons.  The banks have great lobbying capacity and so far have managed to restrict reasonable requests for transparency. We do not simply have an expenditure problem, we have a revenue problem.  The big end of town has been very successful in their capacity to minimise taxation and maximise ‘creative’ concessions.
 
Another cause of the lack of trust in government is the factionalism which besets all parliamentary parties.  Clearly deals are done to satisfy factional power rather than negotiate outcomes for the public good.  Factionalism for the party in government is always more serious than for the party in opposition, because it is only in government that policies can become law.  It is abundantly clear that the present government is riven by its factional loyalties, particularly loyalty to the hard right faction which appears to have power out of proportion to its numbers.  Unless or until the government governs without giving way to the conservative rump, trust will continue to wither.
 
What can or must be done.
 
1.      Financial gifts to politicians or political parties from individuals or institutions must be outlawed immediately. Funding of political parties should come from the public purse on a pro-rata basis, administered by an independent body.
2.      No retired politician should be allowed to become a lobbyist for at least five years after their retirement.
3.      Democratic process must take the place of factionalism in political appointments.
4.      Retired politicians should not be able to ‘double-dip’ the public purse. Salary associated with appointment to a public position by a former politician should be their only remuneration while that appointment lasts.
5.      CEOs should be restricted to a salary without bonuses. This salary should be set at a specific percentage of the basic wage.
 
Trust is the oil that enables human interaction in both private and public life.  Its absence creates dangerous friction. One of the outcomes of a lack of trust in public life is a rise in populism. Populism in politics is like teenagers being given charge of the family home. Teenagers are usually quite clear about their preferred options, but seldom think through the medium to long term consequences of those preferences. Such is the danger of giving populism power.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 20 January 2017. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au