Cash for trash and the Joyce affair: System trust bites the dust

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Cartoon by Bruce Keogh /

Australia's institutions are among the least trusted in the world — is there hope? Asks Bruce Keogh.

OUR KEY INSTITUTIONS have failed us miserably.

Displacement looms for our wombat population as countless Australians seek out their holes to crawl into.

It is so hopeless that extrication from society seems the only option for anyone with a social conscience. Trust has bitten the dust and politicians are the major culprits.

One could have wistfully hoped that with the start of a new year, 2018 would bring just a modicum of improvement in the standard of federal government. Senator Michaelia Cash put an end to that and now we pessimistically await the next exercise in trashing our Parliamentary system.

The shenanigans surrounding Member for New England Barnaby Joyce and his pregnant ex-staffer were dreadful and the nation cringed in disbelief on many levels — betrayal of family, hypocrisy and appalling judgement. Behaviour behind closed doors was the root cause of Barnaby’s undoing.

Conversely, doors were wide open when Cash shamelessly launched her vitriolic attack in response to Labor Senator Doug Cameron, who had questioned the appointment of Cash’s new chief of staff:

"If you want to start discussing staff matters, be very, very careful. Because I am happy to sit here and name every young woman in Mr Shorten's office over which rumours in this place abound. If you want to go down that path today, I will do it."

Joyce’s below-the-belt misdeeds were in private. Cash’s tirade was metaphorically below-the-belt and in full public view.

IA’s Tess Lawrence wrote

'It was indiscriminate, cruel and unfair. And I consider her remarks verbal assaulting and abusive.'

It was a despicable slur on the women in Shorten’s office –- indeed women generally. It was a verbal assault amounting to slander and it was an abuse of privilege.

The mainstream media was obsessed with the Joyce fiasco for weeks, yet Cash’s attack quickly became yesterday’s news. Where were balance and objectivity? Not in the mainstream!

Barnaby has paid a personal price but Michaelia, having “unreservedly withdrawn” her remarks, seems to have got off scot-free. There’s no hope for our socio-political system, you are thinking? You might gain solace in knowing you are not alone in this distrust.

Released in February this year, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer (by the world's largest PR outfit), documented an "implosion of trust" where one in two countries (including Australia) believe the entire system is failing.

President Richard Edelman said:

"We're talking about a trust crisis that is causing a systemic meltdown." 

Social researcher Hugh Mackay told Fairfax Media:

"The big picture for Western societies, but especially Australia, is that respect and trust for institutions in general is in decline. That's not a healthy attitude for any society."

Australia’s key institutions – government, business and not-for-profit organisations – are among the least trusted in the world. Our trust in the media is now the second lowest in the world, behind only Turkey, at 31 per cent.

Our elected and supposed representatives presumptuously insult us by telling us what we believe and think. “Australians believe in a fair go for all” is a banal corker. The land of the “fair go” is no more. Today, it is the land of the cynic. As institutions fail to give citizens a “fair go”, citizens fail to trust in the system that evades social fairness.

What we really believe and think about key Australian institutions could cynically be summed up thus:

  • We are fed up with politicians lost in their disconnected worlds of farce.
  • We collectively abhor banks, which have behaved so badly that a royal commission is underway, albeit after bitter political debate.
  • We distrust big business which treats us with contempt, avoids paying tax when the honest and hardworking pay their share, while CEO’s sit on million dollar salaries.
  • We are wary of charities that receive well-meaning donations only to feather their own nests with big salaries.

When it comes to the mainstream media, the conundrum is that it influences what we collectively believe and think about institutional misbehaviour, yet it is hardly exempt itself. Hello Rupert!

Politicians rely on the MSM to win votes and the MSM relies on politicians to win viewership. It is a veritable revolving door of complicity. They both have each other by the short and curlies. The cycle must be broken.

We can be selective in our media choices. We can switch banks, telcos, electricity provides or health funds, in search of better treatment. We can opt out of donations if we have doubts about percentage distribution to intended recipients. But all too often, it is a case of fewer bad choices in a system of low credibility — except for independent journalism, of course.

Our democratic system gives us the impression that we have choices. With the emergence of poll-driven populist policy, the major parties scramble for ascendancy with little regard for what used to be core party lines based on principles. Again, a case of fewer bad choices in a system of low credibility.

The Edelman report tells us Australia is not alone in this systemic breakdown of trust. Globally, ingrained disillusionment has led to a tsunami of ill-informed protest votes, culminating most notably in the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson. Populism is fraught with danger. It is rarely based on pragmatic analyses of issues, rather emotive knee-jerk reactions based on mere perception, which is media driven.

And this is the core of the enigma. I would guess that the majority of opinions are based on what the MSM feeds Australians – 69 per cent of whom do not trust the source – yet perceptions are formed. This is a massive credibility gap and perilous for democracy.

Herein lies the answer — a great example is staring us in the face. It is trustworthy independent journalism. Independent Australia and its allies in objective reporting are gaining momentum as the disenchanted seek credible news and opinion sources. Now more than ever we need the likes of IA, whose charter states ' ... ethical, verifiable, fiercely honest reporting and speaking truth to power'.

Imagine if there were no such platforms passionately bucking the system in the name of social and political justice. We would definitely be looking for wombat holes.

Change is possible. The cycle is being broken. Wombats can relax.

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