Join Hafta-Ichi to Research the article “This was the year Australia restored trust in its politics – and that really is a miracle | Katharine Murphy | Australia news”
It being the season, let’s start with miracles. I’m sure we all remember Scott Morrison’s miracle in 2019 – when the prime minister won an election he was almost universally expected to lose.
But for mine, the real miracle happened in 2020, during one of the most difficult years that many of us have experienced. That miracle was the return of trust to Australia’s political system.
We tracked this phenomenon in the Guardian Essential poll, and striking metrics can also be found in the initial findings from the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion report.
Trust (a bit like miracles) is highly subjective – it’s something you experience on your own terms rather than an absolute. Not all people trust all politicians, and certainly not all of the time. Given we are talking about politics (and in this instance, the federal government), when I say trust is returning to the system, I’m talking about modest majorities, not super majorities.
With all those caveats, the Scanlon survey still tells us something pretty important happened in Australia over the past 12 months. But to illustrate that, we need to roll back in time, back to the last cataclysm that shook the world: the global financial crisis.
Back in 2009, when the Rudd government was mopping up the GFC mess, just under half the Scanlon sample of 3,000 respondents trusted the federal government to do the right thing either “almost always” or “most of the time”.
And 2009 was a high-water mark in the survey. After 2009, sentiment face-planted. Trust slumped for the best part of a decade, bumping around 30%.
This slump correlates with the decade of unhinging in Canberra – the war between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and the slugfest inside the Liberals that saw leadership passed between Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, back to Turnbull, then finally rest with Scott Morrison.
During this period, deep animus infected the parties of government and the polity. As the wise Liberal backbencher and GP Mal Washer told me in 2017, MPs lost the safety of their respective party rooms during the decade of coups and counter coups. Coupled with the ceaseless plots and schemes, Abbott injected aggressive partisanship into the mix. The combination of aggression and instability, Washer felt, put the parliament “on a knife-edge” – with the “paranoid and territorial” occupants of public life plunged into a permanent state of fight or flight.
Given all that, it is unsurprising that voters lost faith in the capacity of governments to do the right thing.
By 2019, the metric in the Scanlon survey recorded a modest improvement. By that point Labor had consigned the civil war to history, and had spent two parliamentary terms with one leader at the helm. Morrison also declared an end to the leadership in-fighting when Turnbull finally fell in late 2018, with a change to party rules.
So possibly the trust recovery began before the pandemic. But during 2020, with adversity crowding in – a public health crisis and the first domestic recession in 30 years – Scanlon’s trust measure moved more decisively, with an improvement of almost 20 points. The measure hit 54%. In November it remained steady at 55%. Support for Morrison’s response to the pandemic stood at 85%, with even higher validation for many of the premiers – results north of 90%.
Now obviously I don’t know why the survey respondents trust Canberra more than they did a year ago, but a reasonable conclusion one can draw from the trend is this is a competence dividend.
Australia suppressed the first wave of the pandemic, and when a second wave broke out in Victoria, that curve was flattened too. Morrison rolled out income support to people who couldn’t work during lockdowns, or lost their jobs.
Apart from the basic demonstration of competence, the other significant thing that happened here was our political system met in the middle.
Partisanship and polarisation didn’t disappear, but crisis management through constructive deliberation became the centre of gravity for Australian governance, particularly during the first six months of the crisis. The vehicle for this was the national cabinet.
When I interviewed Morrison for a Quarterly Essay about the first wave of the coronavirus and the role of the national cabinet, the prime minister bristled at the idea of bipartisanship being one of the key ingredients of success.
Morrison insisted crisis management was a “practical exercise” rather than a constructive synthesis of competing philosophies.
The prime minister was both right and wrong. Morrison was right in the sense that governing during a public health crisis is a series of practical actions. With the division of power and responsibility in the federation, leaders had to work together to manage a common project.
But Morrison was wrong to see no intrinsic value in collaboration across parties. When the governments of Australia chose to manage the pandemic collaboratively rather than mount an elaborate kabuki play for the extremes, part of this compact involved projecting a shared set of facts, and a shared set of values.
The shared facts? This pandemic is serious, and it will be with us until there is an effective vaccine. The shared values? Governments in this country have an obligation to protect lives and livelihoods. Hugging these commonalities allowed important points of detail to be contested – vigorously at times – without the over-arching public health strategy unravelling.
Shared values and facts aren’t abstracts. They glue liberal democracies together.
They create safe zones for productive resolution of conflict.
When there are shared facts and values, and when governments are seen to be broadly competent and connected to the needs of citizenry, politicians lay the foundations of trust, because citizens are bound together rather than occupying detached alternative realities.
Rather than minimising the importance of moments of clarity like this – rather than pretending that government is about synchronising calendars – Morrison should make nurturing these conditions a project of his prime ministership.
Because the lesson of 2020 is democracies are in a larger fight than the transient scrabbles of partisan conflict that define our election cycles.
The crisis of 2020 will pick the world up and set it down in a different place, just as the global financial crisis did before it.
The GFC created the conditions that led Americans to put Donald Trump in the White House. America is lucky that a president with Trump’s profoundly anti-democratic inclinations proved to be incompetent when it came to consolidating his own power; lucky that a leadership of lying and lunacy ebbed rather than escalated.
David Frum – a former speechwriter to George W Bush – pointed out recently in The Atlantic that Trump succeeded during his presidency at moving a suite of terrible acts from the category of unthinkable to the category of possible.
Frum said there would not be a coup in the United States (touch wood) “but we have on record the first ever formal US army repudiation of a coup”. He noted, correctly, that the Trump era has moved the Republican party – a party of government, not some fringe insurgency – “toward becoming a self-consciously post-democratic party – a party that accepts antidemocratic and anti-constitutional methods to advance its goals and protect its supporters’ interests”.
That’s quite an abyss.
America is so broken because of the lack of a viable social contract and the coarse polarisation that shreds shared values and agreed facts – you really wonder how Joe Biden is going to put his riven country back together.
Australia, fortunately, is not America.
But we could drift down that path.
As the custodians of our democratic systems and institutions, our political class needs to face the responsibility of the moment. Leaders need to understand that nurturing truth and trust are the only things that matter.
Source: The Guardian
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