The price to our democracy of the politics of distrust
Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked, some two centuries ago, on the tendency for politics that begin in fear to end in either folly, or failure. And today we find ourselves in the midst of a political climate increasingly dominated by fear. Not fear of an external enemy, but a fear felt by many in our political class of an open contest of ideas. And these politics of fear, rooted as they are in some politicians’ lack of trust in the judgement of the people, and lack of faith in their own convictions, carry within them the seeds of failure. Although in the current climate of cynicism about politicians it may seem absurd to say so, trust is at the heart of functioning democracies.
I have spoken before of the corrosive effect on our democracy of the increasing distrust of politicians and the increasing cynicism about politics. Individuals who are accused of transgressing – recent examples are Peter Slipper and Craig Thompson – are seen by many as representatives of the rest. And the assumption that our politicians are motivated entirely and solely by the basest of motives diminishes the ability of politicians and political parties to successfully argue for policy and for change. The damage this does to our political discourse has its average impact on progressive parties – like the ALP – because change through policy reform is our motivation, is indeed our very reason to exist.
But there is a deeper form of trust on which democracies depend, until recent years a bedrock that enabled our democracy, and others around the world, to negotiate competing interests, resolve differences, and solve the problems we face as a community, as a nation, and as global citizens.
That trust is not - or not necessarily - trust of any particular individual involved in the political process, but trust in the political process itself. Trust that elections produce governments, even if they are not the government of our preference; trust that in the balance between the executive government, the parliament and the courts, each fulfils a specific and necessary role; trust that even where we disagree with policy, it is shaped and delivered by our representatives, and that those representatives make informed judgements based on sound advice.
On that consensus of trust rests the operation of our government: the ability to make decisions, even where they may not be popular; the ability to pass laws, even where they constrain or disadvantage some members of the community; the ability to assign finite resources to certain priorities only, making those limited resources unavailable for other areas or interests. On that consensus of trust has been built some of humanity's most courageous efforts to transform the world in which we live.
In 1945, representatives of the governments of the world crossed the globe to San Francisco, to attend the United Nations Conference on International Organization. The leap of faith they made dwarfed the length of their journey. They believed that men and women of goodwill could, through democratic processes and legislative frameworks, “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.At that Conference, they created the United Nations. And despite the currently fashionable criticisms of the United Nations, nearly 70 years into the atomic age, we have avoided the cataclysmic wars that convulsed the world in the first half of the last century, and which, if repeated with current technology, would put our very survival as a species at risk.
The optimism and the courage of the delegates to the Conference has been vindicated: their faith in the ability of governments to grapple with, and resolve, the most pressing and difficult problems facing us all has been borne out. The United Nations and its agencies have not only minimised armed conflicts, but also eradicated diseases such as smallpox, and substantially improved the living conditions of millions around the world.
The foundation of the United Nations rested on the energy and intellect of the conference delegates, not least amongst them our own Doc Evatt. But those delegates were able to carry out their work because they were there to represent nations whose citizens, by and large, shared their faith in the power of law and the rigour of process. And they were able to carry out their work because their nations gave them the authority and the flexibility to reach agreement, trusting them – not as individuals, but as office-holders – to negotiate and compromise in the interests of their nations.
I doubt such a conference could succeed today. Not that the world is devoid of politicians of energy and intellect. But very few democratically-elected representatives could carry with them to such a discussion a broad consensus from their country that politics can solve problems and government and inter-governmental actions can substantially improve human life. And few would be entrusted with the authority needed to engage in such a discussion.
Australia has had for most of our national existence a broad consensus that government should take responsibility to provide a far greater range of services and regulate a far larger number of practices than in many other countries. But in recent years that consensus has begun to deteriorate: instead of belief in the potential of co-operation and the role of government in creating and guiding that collective effort, there is distrust – distrust fuelled by some members of the political class, for their own short term electoral gains. Arguing policy, debating national direction, proposing solutions: these take real effort, and success is never guaranteed. But the politics of distrust are easy: why challenge your opponent's ideas when you can instead simply assert your opponent’s illegitimacy?
In 2008, Barack Obama won the US Presidential election. John McCain did not. Unsurprisingly, those who had supported Obama were pleased; those who had voted for McCain, unhappy. However, instead of settling in for four years of criticising the new President’s policies and performance – the traditional strategy of those on the downside of the democratic process – many of those opposed to Obama took refuge in fantasy. In their fantasy, John McCain did not lose the 2008 Presidential election, because Barack Obama was not even eligible to be a candidate. In their fantasy, Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and was subsequently the beneficiary of a vast conspiracy involving his parents, his grandparents, the Hawaii State Department of Health, American Customs and Immigration, and Hawaii state officials, all designed to enable him to run for President 47 years later. In this fantasy, the conspiracy has continued to this very day, without a single leak or whistle-blower.
It’s easy to laugh. Actually, it’s very hard not to laugh. But in the United States of America, 13 per cent of all adults – 23 per cent of Republican voters – believe it’s true. In some states, such as Virginia, only 32 per cent of Republican voters believe Barack Obama was born in the United States. ‘Birther’ ideas, as the fantasy of the President’s secret overseas birth are known, are not just the crackpot rantings of a lunatic fringe or one more wacky conspiracy theory shared between a lonely coterie on the fringes of the internet: they are deeply embedded in America’s political discourse. And I believe they are emblematic of a growing trend in western democracies for political parties on the right-wing of the political spectrum to respond to defeat with the politics of distrust, denial, and de-legitimacy.
Distrust – distrust of the institutions and agencies of government, of expert testimony, of the integrity of the democratic process. Denial – denial of the verdict of the people at the polls, of their own failure to gain popular support for policies, and of the mandate of their victorious opponents. And de-legitimacy – attacks not only on the policies, politics and actions of an opponent, but on the legitimacy of their victory, and by extension on the legitimacy of the democratic processes that saw them emerge the winner of the electoral contest.
And ladies and gentleman, we have seen the emergence of just such politics here in Australia. In 2010, Australia went to a federal election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate – a reasonably common event that has been interrupting the Saturdays of Australians every two or three years since 1901. The outcome was less common, although not unprecedented: neither the Labor Party nor the Coalition won enough seats to command a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives. Fortunately, our Australian Parliamentary democracy is robust and enduring, and so it proved in 2010. As we all know, the Leader of the Labor Party, Julia Gillard, and the Leader of the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, entered into negotiations with independent and minor party MPs, and sufficient of those MPs determined to support the formation of a Labor Government.
The Governor-General, informed of this fact, issued the appropriate commissions in accordance with our Westminster system of government, as Governors-General have been doing since Federation. And yet, we hear constantly from the conservative coalition and their allies in the media that Prime Minister Gillard is 'unelected' and the government she leads is illegitimate, because it is a minority government: as if the normal operation of Parliamentary processes – which were designed to cope with not just one, two, three or four parties, but any number – are some sort of sneaky underhanded trick.
Australia is now experiencing its 14th period of minority federal government since federation. Prime Ministers – Barton, Deakin, Watson, Reid, Fisher, Hughes, Scullin, Menzies, Fadden, Curtin and now, Julia Gillard, all led minority governments. Minority national governments are common place in other Western democracies: Canada from 2004 to 2011; New Zealand since 1996; the United Kingdom had six minority governments and four coalition governments in the 20th century, and their most recent election of May 2010 resulted in a hung parliament, no party has come close to having a majority in the Dutch House of Representatives since the introduction of proportional representation in the Netherlands in 1917, and in Sweden and Denmark majority governments are a pipe dream.
These governments, past and present, were and are governments determined by the electoral and parliamentary processes of the nations they led. Their citizens, and the international community, found no reason to question their legitimacy. I do not think it is a complete coincidence that such questions of legitimacy, such vitriolic attacks on the very right of elected officials to hold their office, are directed against America’s first black president and Australia’s first female prime minister.
In Australia, since federation – even in 1975 when the Liberals used the senate to block supply to the Whitlam Government in an unprecedented abuse of parliamentary and constitutional processes – no opposition has gone as far as the current opposition led by Tony Abbott to undermine public trust in electoral and parliamentary process through their political rhetoric. Tony Abbott has sunk to new depths.
But the pervasive miasma of the modern politics of distrust go far further. We have seen also an increase in political parties and career politicians hypocritically hanging their political campaigns on the denigration of politics, claiming to be ‘above’ the process, as if failure to engage in negotiation and deliberation is either virtuous or possible. Such purity, as Gough reminded us, can only be the province of the impotent. And those who clothe themselves in claims to it – many minor parties in Australia have mastered this art – create an atmosphere in which any actual progress or achievement becomes seen as evidence of cynical manipulation and grubby deals.
We see also a continual distrust of the processes of government decision-making - of expert advice, of our public service departments - creating a climate in which no decisions or policies carry authority because the legitimacy of their basis is undermined. The absolute classic example of this has to be the so-called ‘debate’ on global warming. There is overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that the earth is warming, the climate is changing, and that human activity is responsible. Yet, if you listen to certain sections of the media and certain members of the opposition, you get the impression that scientific opinion is evenly divided or even on the side of the climate-change deniers. The motives and methods of the most reputable climate scientists around the world are attacked and impugned - despite the rigour of their science and the reliability of their results – to posit wild conspiracy theories and extremist claims.
We also see it in how so much political commentary in Australian mainstream media has devolved into endless opinion polling, and speculation and analysis of its findings. Detailed examination and explanation of policy, coverage of political debate beyond the issue – or scandal – of the day, are largely absent. Why unpack the intricacies of government policy or opposition alternatives, why interview experts in the field, when you can poll just a handful of randomly selected citizens and fill your column inches with their opinions? The specialised knowledge of policy professionals, and the expertise of the best in the press gallery and universities, gets short shrift.
Despite the incredible potential of the internet, social media, and citizen journalism to democratize decision-making and spread information, it is undeniable that the internet also contributes to the de-legitimization of political process and of expertise. As well as communities of interest, the internet also creates communities of ignorance. And debate on internet forums, blogs, and social media has developed a tendency to move rapidly to uncompromising and often abusive and bullying extremes: entrenching positions, limiting compromise, and often curtailing engagement with information that challenges or conflicts with the reader's own views.
There is, I believe, a corresponding general disinclination developing in our own, and other, democracies to accept that government requires compromise, and to understand that perfection never happens. Ironically, this discourages the kind of ambitious policy that people say they want – the lack of which is often cited as the reason for cynicism. Any over-arching statement of vision will inevitably become a rod to beat the maker in a climate where anything less than perfection is defined as an absolute failure.
It is no surprise, then, that the politics of personality have become so dominant. Hollowing out policy from political discourse and presenting electors with a collection of 'convictions' loosely attached to certain cultural mores is easier. It certainly avoids the difficulty of negotiating legislative change and substantive reform in a diverse community, and it provides significant electoral advantage in the current climate of distrust. Those elected on the back of such strategies, however, are likely to find themselves in government with neither an agenda, nor a mandate, for reform. Political parties trading in the currency of distrust and de-legitimacy should be aware that they are selling the possibility of progress to purchase the pursuit of power.
Politics can be better than that. Politics has been better than that.
We have in Australia a great heritage of politics begun, not in fear, but in passion. Doc Evatt and his confident, ambitious, visionary journey to rid the world of war is one, but only one, of many who have struggled and worked in parliament and on the hustings – struggled and worked and yes, negotiated and compromised as well – in a contest of ideas. We in the Australian Labor Party can look back with pride on the courage and pragmatism of Chris Watson, of Andrew Fisher, of Curtin and Chifley, of Whitlam, of Hawke, of Keating.
Ladies and gentlemen, their legacy to us is not only their conviction but also their courage. The politics of fear do lead to failure, but we can find their antidote in the politics of passionate belief. If we draw on our Labor heritage, we can not only look back with pride, but also look forward with optimism.
Author: John Faulkner
John Faulkner is a Senator for New South Wales