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Trust the issue for all sides of parliament

By Rosemary Aird - posted Monday, 2 December 2013

Now that Australia is 'under new management', it remains to be seen whether the Abbott government is able to make inroads into what appears to be the most serious issue for many Australians – a lack of trust in those who are charged with the responsibility of serving the best interests of the Australian people.

The magnitude of this problem is clearly demonstrated by findings from successive Scanlon Foundation surveys, outlined in a 2013 report by Professor Andrew Markus. This report shows declining levels of public trust in federal parliamentarians "to do the right thing for the Australian people" (falling from 48% to 27% between 2009 and 2013).This same report also reveals that the quality of government/politicians ranks second after the economy/unemployment/poverty as the most serious problem confronting Australia as a nation in the most recent survey in 2013 - ahead of other concerns including asylum seekers, social issues, environmental problems, immigration, health, education, crime/law and order, housing, racism, national security, industrial relations, and Indigenous issues.

The Australian public's concerns about the quality of government/politicians at the federal level are hardly surprising given the turbulent political climate of recent years. Even though the National-Liberal coalition continues to point the finger at Labor for Australia's woes in the present, they share culpability for the growing public distrust of federal politicians.


Anyone who spends time regularly viewing Parliament Time has been subjected to an ongoing slanging match between the government and the opposition for years now, with both sides giving just cause for Australians to feel embarrassed and dismayed – particularly during the period of the hung parliament. Julia Gillard stated that the results of 2010 election brought home to Labor parliamentarians that they needed to focus more on communicating the strengths and benefits of their policies to the Australian people. True to her word, she and her colleagues began doing just this when parliament resumed. Nevertheless, much of Gillard's time speaking in parliament was dedicated to attacking the opposition leader Tony Abbott (mostly about his ongoing negativity and the 'evil' he would do if the Liberal-National coalition won government) and he did likewise to her (for seemingly everything she and her colleagues said or did).

Members of the public who viewed Parliament Time between 2010 and 2013 were, by virtue of their desire/commitment to be informed about federal policy making in this country, forced to watch this ongoing verbal brawl between the leaders of Australia's two major political parties. Their behaviour seemed more akin to that of a scornful, scolding wife and critical, condescending and dismissive husband trapped in an acrimonious marriage than to individuals charged with the responsibility of devising and debating national policies – policies which have serious implications for every Australian.

The playing out of this hostile female-male relationship between the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader (with both being buoyed on by rumbles of support from their respective parliamentary colleagues) provided fertile ground for the triggering of anti-male and anti-female sentiments across the country. The exchanges between Gillard and Abbott (in content, voice, tone, and body language) fit all too well with gender stereotypes of females and males locked in a toxic relationship. Little wonder then that gender was raised as an issue that affected Gillard's leadership. If gender really was an issue, both Gillard and Abbott would appear to have contributed to making it so. It would seem far more likely, however, that their battle had little to do with gender and simply reflected the adversarial nature of party politics and the respective desperation of these two to maintain and regain power to run the country 'their way'.

Most disturbing is that the climate of contempt which has prevailed in the federal political arena in recent years has been accompanied by respect for the office of Prime Minister reaching an all-time low. The derisive placards displayed at the carbon tax protest rally in Canberra in 2011 (forming the background for Abbott's own address to the rally), Australian shock-jocks' ongoing disparaging and personalised comments about Julia Gillard throughout her term as Prime Minister, as well as the outrageous questions asked of her in a radio interview and the sandwich throwing incidents by school students in 2013 form a pattern of overt maliciousness towards the bearer of this office that is unprecedented in Australia.

The worst example must be Alan Jones' throwaway comment following Gillard's father's death, together with Tony Abbott following Jones' lead by repeatedly using the term 'shame' during the sitting of parliament to describe how Gillard should regard her own leadership. These events demeaned us all.

The lack of respect and courtesy shown to those who hold different views from one's own that has characterised the political landscape for years is a cause for major concern. Once it becomes commonplace for name-calling and derision to be substituted for considered, objective debate about an issue by federal politicians (by attacking the person as an individual instead of the argument presented by that person), it would seem reasonable to expect that members of the public are going to follow suit or alternatively, lose both respect for and faith in parliamentarians and the parliamentary process.


There can be little doubt that Kevin Rudd's comings and goings as Prime Minister are a core reason for declining levels of trust in federal politicians observed among Australians between 2009 and 2013. Australians were confronted with a seemingly endless spectacle – one that involved Rudd who had led the Labor party to an election win in 2007 being subsequently ousted by the Labor caucus prior to the 2010 election (with little explanation being given to the public as to why this had happened) and ultimately returned as Prime Minister just prior to the 2013 election.

The clear message that this particular chain of events gave to the Australian people was that the means are justified by the ends, whatever those means might be. Their quest to maintain power (or at least avoiding what was expected to be near electoral annihilation in the 2013 election) led the Labor caucus to seek rescue from the very individual who had been publicly and vehemently criticised by its members just a year before for having characteristics that made him unsuitable for this role. Bad behaviour was seen to be rewarded as a consequence.

Justifications offered by Labor parliamentarians that the Labor caucus decision was made 'in the best interests of the Labor party' and that 'Rudd was a changed man after learning from his mistakes' failed to mask what was a blatant act of gross hypocrisy. If Rudd's behaviour was such that the majority of Labor caucus members felt forced to remove him as leader before the 2010 election and he was actively undermining Gillard's leadership throughout her time as Prime Minister, how is that this same caucus could in all good conscience return him as head of our nation-state?

Had the Labor party been up front with the Australian people (in an objective manner) as to the reasons why Rudd was ousted when this action was actually taken rather than years later - or if Rudd himself had enabled the leadership to be settled by a ballot (thereby giving the Australian people a clear idea of the magnitude of loss of confidence in his leadership among the Labor caucus) - much of the damage done to both Gillard and the rest of the Labor government by the ongoing unresolved issue of its leadership may well have been avoided.

In combination, the above would seem more than enough to give the public good grounds for distrusting that the government/politicians in Canberra will "do the right thing for the Australian people".

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About the Author

Dr Rosemary Aird is Senior Research Associate, School of Design, Social Change at the Queensland University of Technology.

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