A relationship built on distrust

Posted on July 26, 2010 by

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Immediately after the televised leaders debate on Sunday, the ABC’s Matt Wordsworth asked four voters from Penrith, in western Sydney, for their impressions. The responses were sharply divided, but one theme was common to all: not a specific policy, but the general issue of personal trust.

A middle-aged man said he didn’t trust Labor to stop the arrival of “boat people”. Another middle-aged man spoke almost entirely about his distrust of Julia Gillard. A young woman spoke favourably of Labor’s health and education policies, but ended by saying “I just don’t trust Tony Abbott”. And a second young woman was notable, by contrast, for her apparent trust of Gillard and the Labor party, speaking positively about the national trades cadetships program that Gillard announced last week.

More than any election that I can remember, the 2010 federal election is dominated by mistrust. The parties’ reputations are like white-anted houses, hollowed out by suspicion and cynicism and ready to collapse at a strong enough shove. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the euphoria of the 2007 election, when grand promises were made about all sorts of issues that have not yet been fulfilled. Perhaps the general attitude of optimism was brought down by the global financial crisis; as mild as the effect of the GFC was in Australia compared to other Western countries, it was still a gut punch to many people, especially those nearing retirement age who saw superannuation they had saved up over decades of work burn away in a mere few months. Perhaps the rapid turnover of leaders of both political parties in recent years has exposed the raw mechanisms of these political machines and eroded the idea that they were driven by idealism and the public interests.

The public’s estimation of honesty in Canberra has been massively reduced by the perceived failures of the current government. By the time Kevin Rudd was deposed, the great nation-building projects he had promised in his ascendancy were either yet to eventuate (the national broadband network, the emissions trading scheme) or botched (the home insulation scheme, the school buildings funding). Even Rudd’s charismatic alter ego, Kevin07, seemed to whither away: from the moment he gave his Prime Ministerial acceptance speech, the Kevin that Australia had come to know from his cheerful, jokey appearances on morning talk shows and AM radio was suddenly replaced by an unsmiling, permanently displeased bureaucrat – unrecognisable in body language or rhetoric from Kevin07. It felt like Australia got neither the leader nor the future it had voted for.

Once bitten, twice shy. The strong taste of cynicism is souring this electoral campaign on several levels. Politial enthusiasts are almost unanimous in declaring this a singularly uninspiring election; writing in the Fairfax papers, Waleed Aly declared “the least important election in recent Australian political history.” Anecdotally, relatively few people are talking about this election around the water cooler or the kitchen table. Independent MP Michael Johnson called the debate dull, and Bob Brown pointed out that many important issues were simply “ducked”.

The unwillingness of the party leaders to debate beyond a few narrow issues is a reflection of the cynicism of voters. Neither Gillard nor Abbott thinks the electorate is prepared to believe any grand promises (my last column must have them running scared), so they’re running on personal integrity alone.

Neither leader has an especially strong claim to it. As Deputy PM, Gillard was widely respected across the political spectrum – although she was from the left, even conservative columnists approved of her firm handling of a teachers’ strike in April – but her sudden mutiny against Rudd shocked some people who had thought of her as a loyal and conscientious deputy, and the subsequent string of expedient political deals . Tony Abbott’s lack of self-control was never a secret, but calling himself a liar was probably a misstep.

It’s difficult for a politician to rebuild a healthy relationship with their constituents when the trust is gone. In the few short weeks until the election, it seems impossible. The sort of controlled performance we saw from both Gillard and Abbott in the leaders debate is too anodyne to make their situation worse, but it also won’t touch the hearts of the suspicious and the undecided. If the rest of the election campaign plays out in the same buttoned-down manner – and so far that’s the way it’s going – it’s going to be an unusually passionless affair.

After Australia’s tempestuous fling with Kevin Rudd, perhaps that’s the way both sides want it.

Words – Fraser Allison

Image – Katie Tegtmeyer

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