November 23, 2018
The foundation of our culture is less stable than it has been for generations. Failing to repair it will be fatal for our civilisation.
As a farmer, I recognise a serious rainfall deficit when I see one. The drought on our property is on par with the worst on record. As a former politician, citizen and proud Australian, I also recognise another crippling deficit in our land: trust in the system.
We have become so distrustful and polarised that we seem no longer able to engage in the sound, respectful debate that is the only way to forge high-quality, durable policy.
Consider the research conducted at the Australian National University that reveals our traditional healthy scepticism about politics has spilled out into uncharted levels of distrust during the past decade. Never before have so many Australians believed that people in Government look after themselves; never before have so few Australians believed that people in Government can be trusted.
Furthermore, the surge in confidence that used to accompany a new Government –most notably in 1996 and 2007 - no longer occurs. The distrust simply grows unabated.
Recent turmoil in Canberra will hardly have helped rebuild trust in the system. Nor will the Royal Commission into the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, and nor did the child sexual abuse enquiry.
We increasingly lack confidence in the institutions and the people in them that have undergirded our freedoms and our cherished way of life, including the media, academia, even our sportsmen and women and their organisations.
When people lose trust in the system, they seek security over freedom. When they perceive that others will not do what they ought to do without coercion, they will seek to find ways to protect themselves.
We see this writ large in Canberra. When the Australian people elect a Government they then act to prevent it from governing effectively - by jamming the system via the Senate. Why?
We have reached the point where very large numbers of Australians take out insurance against the very Government they elect out of belief that they can’t trust it to do the job they put it there to do.
When the banking royal commission is wrapped up, there will be a political race to see who can place the most onerous restrictions on the financial sector, because we will want laws to make them do what they should have done by virtue of their own moral compass. But those new laws and regulations will almost certainly be expensive and negative for economic growth.
The energy policy mess of the last decade or more provides powerful insights into the breaking of trust. Let me refer to just three reasons.
The first is that Governments have looked incompetent, as though they haven’t known what they were doing. They appear oblivious to the pain their policies were going to inflict on people. Such incompetence undermines trust.
The second is that politicians have plainly been reluctant to explain the real consequences of their decisions, and have consistently tried to deny the obvious truth, which is that there really is no such thing as a free lunch (or renewable energy target). This dishonesty too undermines trust.
The third is that some politicians - supported by many of the so-called elites - have used climate change concerns as a stalking horse for their desire to undermine free enterprise and our economic prosperity.
It should never be forgotten that Christine Milne, while she was leader of the Greens in 2013, explicitly advocated lying as a means to an end. Defending an environmental activist who had issued a bogus press release purportedly from the ANZ announcing withdrawal from a coal-mining project, which caused a dramatic drop in the project's share price when the press release was taken seriously, Milne said criminal behaviour to "highlight something wrong" was , "part of a long and proud history of civil disobedience".
The major point to made here is that, actually, it is quite legal for political leaders to hold to their views and ideologies - but when they don’t level with the electors, they themselves drive the very mistrust that seriously threatens our governability.
If a politician believes that de-industrialising the Australian economy in order to decarbonise it is more important than an Australian’s job, he should go to that person and explain why.
Integrity is integral to trust, and trust is integral to a functioning democracy.
As part of our Paris commitments, will we see even further massive unpredictability in the power generation sector, or will attention turn to other sectors – such as agriculture and transport?
I feel very distrustful myself as a result. Nobody has explained whether these two sectors - both of which I once represented in the Parliament and both of which are of vital importance to me and to the economy itself - may face the very sort of policy debacles that we’ve seen in the electricity space.
Instead we’ve heard endless reassurances that we will not be troubled. Well, I’m sorry, I find myself now in the ranks of the distrustful. Will someone please tell me what it will mean for me and my fellow farmers?
Let me return to the argument that our problem is mainly cultural. I believe that the institutions of a free, democratic and free enterprise society bequeathed us by our forefathers is fully capable of providing us with the machinery we need to secure our future. But I’m not sure that we still have the necessary cultural depth and commonality of purpose to use that machinery properly.
Consider these words from - can I say as a Nat - a great Liberal: Bob Menzies. “Democracy is more than a machine; it is a spirit. It is based upon the Christian conception that there is in every human soul a spark of the divine; that, with all their inequalities of mind and body, the souls of men stand equal in the sight of God.”
Ironically, the almost-complete mocking of God of the public square has left us with a massive hole in the foundational pillars of Western secular government.
On what basis do we now build the respect for the dignity and worth of each of our citizens that is the absolutely critical bulwark against a return to the law of the jungle in place of the rule of law, and the resultant breakdown in trust that will if we are not very careful render a civil society broken?
We see daily the denial of universalism. The celebration of our shared humanity - once a noble goal of Left leaders, even if their policy prescriptions were wrong - has given way to identity politics, new aristocracies and the demonisation of good citizens.
Many of the issues before us are unquestionably difficult from a policy perspective, but in common with David Brooks of The New York Times, I have come to believe that our primary problem is now cultural. In an opinion piece called "How democracies perish" in January, Brooks said: "If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomised, distrustful and divided."
We face an extraordinary battle for the soul of our culture. The only answer to the breakdown of trust is for courageous men and women to be trustworthy, and to be transparently and undeniably trustworthy in the eyes of all who seek trustworthiness.
For I believe that a very large number of Australians are desperately keen to be surprised by authenticity and trustworthiness in our public square.
This will require the most extraordinary courage, especially when those who hate in our society have found such a weapon in social media, a forum so powerful that, according to historian Niall Ferguson, it could lead to the instability and failure of our society.
But the wise understand consequences, and the courageous will speak out about those consequences. They always have, and so each of us now must ask ourselves not what do we want to do, but rather what should we do in every situation we find ourselves in as citizens of this still wonderful country, in order that it might again find its feet.
John Anderson was Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, 1999-2005.