Never has more data been held about us by government or companies that we interact with. Never has this data been so useful for analytical purposes.
But with such opportunities come risks and challenges. If personal data is going to be used for research and policy purposes, we need effective data governance arrangements in place, and community support (social licence) for this data to be used.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has recently undertaken a survey of a representative sample of Australians to learn their views about about how personal data is used, stored and shared.
While Australians report a high level of support for the government to use and share data, there is less confidence that the government has the right safeguards in place or can be trusted with people’s data.
In the ANUPoll survey of more than 2,000 Australian adults (available for download at the Australian Data Archive) we asked:
On the whole, do you think the Commonwealth Government should or should not be able to do the following?
Six potential data uses were given.
Overall, Australians are supportive of the Australian government using data for purposes such as allocating resources to those who need it the most, and ensuring people are not claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.
They were slightly less supportive about providing data to researchers, though most still agreed or strongly agreed that it was worthwhile.
Perceptions of government data use
Community attitudes to the use of data by government are tied to perceptions about whether the government can keep personal data secure, and whether it’s behaving in a transparent and trustworthy manner.
To measure views of the Australian population on these issues, respondents were told:
Following are a number of statements about the Australian government and the data it holds about Australian residents.
They were then asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed that the Australian government:
could respond quickly and effectively to a data breach
has the ability to prevent data being hacked or leaked
can be trusted to use data responsibly
is open and honest about how data are collected, used and shared.
Respondents did not express strong support for the view that the Australian government is able to protect people’s data, or is using data in an appropriate way.
[think] about the data about you that the Australian Government might currently hold, such as your income tax data, social security records, or use of health services.
We then asked for their level of concern about five specific forms of data breaches or misuse of their own personal data.
We found that there are considerable concerns about different forms of data breaches or misuse.
More than 70% of respondents were concerned or very concerned about the accidental release of personal information, deliberate hacking of government systems, and data being provided to consultants or private sector organisations who may misuse the data.
More than 60% were concerned or very concerned about their data being used by the Australian government to make unfair decisions. And more than half were concerned or very concerned about their data being provided to academic researchers who may misuse their information.
The data environment in Australia is changing rapidly. More digital information about us is being created, captured, stored and shared than ever before, and there is a greater capacity to link information across multiple sources of data, and across multiple time periods.
While this creates opportunities, it also creates the risk that the data will be used in a way that is not in our best interests.
There is policy debate at the moment about how data should be used and shared. If we don’t make use of the data available, that has costs in terms of worse service delivery and less effective government. So, locking data up is not a cost-free option.
But sharing data or making data available in a way that breaches people’s privacy can be harmful to individuals, and may generate a significant (and legitimate) public backlash. This would reduce the chance of data being made available in any form, and mean that the potential benefits of improving the wellbeing of Australians are lost.
If government, researchers and private companies want to be able to make use of the richness of the new data age, there is an urgent and continuing need to build up trust across the population, and to put policies in place that reassure consumers and users of government services.
Australia has not proved immune to the politics of democratic malaise. Australia’s leading institutions, including government, business, NGOs and media, are among the least trusted in the world at a time when Australia has experienced 27 years of economic growth.
The level of democratic satisfaction has decreased steadily across each of the last four governments from 86% in 2007 (John Howard), to 72% in 2010 (Kevin Rudd), 72% in 2013 (Tony Abbott) and 41% in July 2018 (Malcolm Turnbull).
By 2025, if current trends continue, fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions. The result will be ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic well-being. Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency.
Without trust we have diminished capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges. Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government.
This also creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces or other forms of independent representation. Hence the rise of populists such as Pauline Hanson and independents such as Cathy McGowan and Kerryn Phelps.
The reform project
Bridging the trust divide between citizens and government is no easy task. The results of our 2018 survey reveal the connection between the Australian people and their politicians is hanging by a rather tenuous thread. What needs to be done to reverse the decline?
A reform project aimed at bridging the trust divide must be framed by recognition not only of the scale of the problem but also its complexity. There are at least four dimensions to exploring the trust divide, which suggests we are tackling a very puzzling issue.
The first is that there is no one simple explanation for what drives or undermines political trust. The research on the issue of political trust is one of the most voluminous in the social sciences – the issue has been a concern in many countries for decades.
The literature can be loosely organised around demand-side and supply-side theories of trust.
Demand-side theories focus on how much individuals trust government and democratic politics and explore the key characteristics of the citizenry. What is it about citizens, such as their educational background, class, location, country or cohort of birth, that makes them trusting or not? What are the barriers to political engagement? And what makes citizens feel that their vote could deliver value?
In general, the strongest predictors of distrust continue to be attitudinal and are connected to negativity about politics.
Demand-side interventions therefore focus on overcoming various barriers to social, economic or political participation (or well-being). So most interventions tend to focus on dealing with issues of social disadvantage through education, labour market activation, public participation, improved representation, place-based service delivery and other forms of empowerment.
Supply-side theories of trust start from the premise that public trust must in some way correspond with the trustworthiness of government. The argument is that it is the performance (supply) of government that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens, together with its commitment to procedural fairness and quality.
Supply-side interventions therefore seek to enhance the integrity of government and politicians, and the quality and procedural fairness of service delivery or parliamentary processes through open government or good governance. This includes transparency, accountability, public service competence and anti-corruption measures.
A second part of bridging the divide between citizens and government is that reforms that seem to provide part of the solution can sometimes make the problem worse. Offering more participation or consultation can turn into a tokenistic exercise, which generates more cynicism and negativity among citizens.
Providing performance data – the bread and butter of modern government – so that citizens can judge if promises have been kept does not always produce more trust.
Rather, it can lead to government officials trying to manipulate the way citizens judge their performance. Positive data is given prominence, less helpful data sometimes hidden.
On the ground, frontline public servants and many citizens find the claims of success contrasting with their own more negative experiences. Far from promoting trust, the packaging of performance may in fact have contributed to the emergence of populism and loss of trust by citizens.
The implication of this observation is that the reform project needs to focus as much on the issues of democratic practice as the principles. Part of the ambition of the project is to establish mechanisms whereby good practice can be specified, elaborated and shared through learning. This means good practice becomes the norm rather than the exception.
In summary, the quality of democratic practice, as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has argued, is the key measure of the quality of a democratic culture: “formal rules are not enough without good democratic practice”.
A third part of the puzzle is who should be driving the push for change? In any reform movement there must be leaders of change. But are politicians the right group to lead the charge? If they are deeply implicated in the processes that led to the trust divide, can they be leaders of a more positive path forward?
It is difficult to imagine a substantial shift in political practice without politicians’ engagement. Yet the past decade has probably produced more instances of politicians trying to exploit the trust divide to garner support rather than attempts to resolve the issue.
The emergence of a populist trope – in which the hopeful politician presents themselves as the one who speaks the truth, is not part of the corrupt elite and who will get things done – in both established and challenger parties is one of the most dominant political trends of the last decade.
The reform project must therefore recognise that engagement with the increasingly isolated political class will be part of the dynamic needed for reform. But, equally, there will be a need to develop other partnerships with (among others) the public service, the media and the private and community sectors.
Above all, we need to engage citizens in the process. There can be no solution to the puzzle of political trust without their engagement.
A final and tricky part of the trust puzzle is that no-one is clear about what is the right level of trust. The twin enemies of democracy, it could be argued, are citizens who are either too cynical to engage or too naïve in providing support to the political system. What is the equilibrium point between political trust and distrust?
Survey respondents were asked to rate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements on the topic of democratic reform drawn from across the political spectrum and featuring in reform programs internationally.
There was very strong support for democratic reforms that ensure greater integrity and transparency. Examples included limiting how much money can be spent on election campaigning and how much political parties and candidates can accept from donors (73%).
There was also very strong support for reforms to ensure greater political accountability of MPs and political parties to their electorates and members, such as free votes in parliament (60%), the right to recall local members (62%) and internal party reform that emphasises community preferences (60%). In addition, there was strong support for reforms that stimulate greater public participation such as the co-design of public services with citizens (71%) and citizen juries (60%).
The least popular democratic reforms proposed were those that had to do with quotas for demographic representation (such as by age, gender or ethnicity). When broken down by political alignment, Labor and Liberal views on reform are remarkably uniform. The greatest differences between parties on reform ideas can be found between Liberals and Nationals.
Democratic reform is ultimately about creating a space where Australians can reshape their democratic practices in ways that are better suited to the realities and challenges of the 21st century. The good news for political parties that take up the cause of democratic reform is that the citizenry is ready to take up the challenge.
After today’s Banking Royal Commission’s final report it may seem as if it is impossible for banks to regain trust.
But it is possible, as I know from working with prominent British and European banks after the global financial crisis, taking part in policy meetings at the UK parliament about how to restore trust, and researching cases of trust repair.
Here are the six most important questions our banks will need to answer for their stakeholders to regain trust:
1. What went wrong and why?
When a major breach of trust occurs, it is often unclear what caused it and who is responsible. It is essential to get a shared understanding of what happened.
This can be arrived at through inquiries and investigations which are most effective when timely, comprehensive, and independently conducted.
But banks also need to conduct their own investigations and explain what happened to their customers and shareholders.
The paradox is that such a “warts and all” investigation is likely to lower trust in the short term as the true extent and scale of the misconduct is revealed.
But without it, it is hard to “draw a line in the sand” and move on.
2. Have the banks learned their lesson and made amends?
Social rituals and symbolic acts – such as apologies, fines, punishments and compensation – play an important role in repairing trust.
They signal that the organisation understands its conduct was wrong and has “paid a price”. They can help resolve negative emotions and restore a sense of equity and justice in the relationship between the organisation and its stakeholders.
Apologies are usually more effective when combined with substantive actions – such as offering compensation – to avoid appearing as “cheap talk”. They are also more effective when offered voluntarily. Unfortunately, Australia’s banks have often been reactive, issuing public apologies only after damning evidence has emerged, and being slow to offer compensation.
3. Can future violations be prevented?
Given what’s been revealed at the royal commission, stakeholders want to see evidence that the banks have “got their house in order” and won’t let it happen again. This will require comprehensive reforms to their strategies, cultures, incentive schemes, and formal control mechanisms (such as revised accountability and governance structures, procedures, rules, policies, and codes of conduct).
4. Is trustworthiness embedded in their DNA?
Banks are typically good at formal controls. The more difficult task is bringing about cultural change. Yet it is absolutely necessary, because cultural values and norms powerfully influence behaviour.
Ensuring that trust-inducing values and decision making are role modelled and embodied by leaders and managers and embedded in everyday routines will require the banks to challenge firmly held beliefs and assumptions that lead them to prioritise short-term profits and returns to shareholders over a more balanced multi-stakeholder perspective grounded in a broader purpose and responsibility to society.
5. Do others believe the banks are trustworthy?
Transparently sharing information about their conduct over time (through for example corporate reporting and monitoring) and having it verified by credible independent third parties (such as auditors) can help restore and maintain trust. It signals the bank has “nothing to hide”.
Over the past four years, we have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia.
Our latest research, conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill), includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 20 focus groups and 1,021 Australians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. We understood political trust in this survey as “keeping promises and agreements”.
Our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.
Democratic decline and renewal
Australians should rightly be proud of their hard-won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government, which has delivered social and economic well-being for its citizens.
The majority of Australians dislike the conflict-driven politics of the federal parliament, but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government.
When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order):
“Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”
“Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”
“Australian elections are free and fair”.
Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living, but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.
Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics
Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86% in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72% of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31%) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50%).
Just 31% of the population trust federal government. State and local governments perform little better, with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21%, while more than 60% of Australians believe the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.
The three biggest grievances people have with politicians are:
they are not accountable for broken promises
they don’t deal with the issues that really matter
big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).
The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions. Only five rate above 50% – police, military, civic well-being organisations (such as Headspace or community services), universities and healthcare institutions.
Trust was lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%). Trust in banks and web-based media has significantly decreased since the last survey. This reflects the impact of the banking royal commission and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
People who are more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal parties. They are more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native-born.
Those who are most likely to be unhappy are Australian-born, female, aged in their 40s (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation, Centre Alliance or independents.
The perfect storm for independents
Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50% for the first time to 47%. A majority, though, still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47%).
Four attitudinal shifts are on display here.
First, many voters care more about effective and competent government than promises of more dollars in their pockets.
Second, there is a group of voters who are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP.
Third, we can identify an increasingly large group of Australians who are deeply critical of the main political parties and are looking for an alternative across the ideological spectrum.
And fourth, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons, either to secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two-party system.
Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong
Our survey revealed a significant appetite for reform. Nine out of 15 proposed reforms received net agreement rates above 50%. The top five reforms favoured in the survey were:
limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections
the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs
giving all MPs a free vote in parliament
co-designing policies with ordinary Australians
citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.
Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There was also strong support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support.
Remarkably, accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding, revealing the importance of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.
We are at the tipping point
Liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Our survey findings suggest we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia, which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.
Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system, even if the lack of political trust means they doubt its ability to deliver, especially on more challenging policy issues.
Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we believe an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models, but finding linking arrangements between them.
Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order. Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march.
Yet, it takes global collective action, and hence trust, to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, address climate change and uphold human rights. It takes trust across political parties and across generations to create a durable consensus to reduce economic inequality and poverty.
Surveys of people’s trust in politicians and governments generally show a long-term decline, especially in the United States which has surveys dating back to 1958. As President Trump thrives on distrust, this trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon.
Decline of trust is not uniform in all democracies, but, if you ask people whether they trust politicians, the answer is likely to be negative, even in countries like Norway. Furthermore, voter turnouts are in decline – another symptom of distrust. But, if we lack political trust, then we lack the foundation on which to negotiate collectively any sustainable solutions to the world’s most urgent problems.
In western political thought, trust is traditionally seen in two closely related dimensions. In John Locke’s version, trust is a gift from the people to those who rule, conditional upon powers being used for the people’s security and safety. In John Stuart Mill’s version, the elected representative is regarded as a trustee who acts on voters’ behalf rather than a delegate acting only at our behest.
Room for scepticism
In general, people who vote are more likely to express higher levels of trust in politicians and in government. But some may vote in order to defeat a candidate or party regarded as untrustworthy (on an “anyone but” basis) while others may not bother voting because they are highly, if not naively, trusting.
In any political system, it is not prudent to trust completely, however. We have constitutional checks and balances precisely because we trust no one at all with absolute and unaccountable powers. In a democracy, whether one votes or not, we have little choice but to entrust a relatively small number of representatives with powers to pass laws and to govern, but we are not called on to abandon scepticism or to have blind faith.
The big issue, though, is how to develop greater trustworthiness in the individuals whom we do elect, and how to build greater popular trust in decision-making systems, even when we disagree openly and strongly over particular concerns.
Trust in politics
Trust is not a thing that one can literally build, break and then rebuild. Political leaders cannot simply approve a policy and a budget to rebuild trust in the way that we rebuild worn-out infrastructure.
If we demand trust from people, they are likely to react with scepticism. Sledge Hammer’s famous “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” was funny for good reason.
Political and economic systems that are “rigged” (when they produce unfair outcomes or are downright corrupt) are unlikely to be trusted, moreover. Many people in affluent countries are finding that hard work for long hours is not providing a standard of living sufficient to achieve reasonable life goals.
Electoral systems often deliver disproportionate results. Politicians attack one another for short-term gain rather than work for the good of the country. Reducing economic inequality and reforming electoral systems or campaign finance laws may help to address the problem of political trust.
But there is a deeper “bootstraps” problem, as it takes political trust to gain the consensus to take the actions needed for such significant reforms. It takes trust to build trust. It would be morally unacceptable, however, to give up on the project of restoring political trust on the grounds that it’s too hard.
We need first to understand clearly the kinds of actions entailed in trustworthy conduct – for example, abstaining from taking advantage of the vulnerable, paying heed to people’s complaints, promising no more than one can deliver. If we adopt these characteristics in our own behaviour, then we are in a much better position to expect them of others.
Beyond individual conduct, we need to examine carefully our economic and political systems. The world will never be perceived by all as completely fair. But the difficult task of restoring political trust is inextricably entwined with the tasks of critically reflecting on our own behaviour as leaders in our communities and then working for significant reforms to social and economic policies and electoral systems.
The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.
In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.
So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.
Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.
It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.
Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.
In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.
In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.
A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.
Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.
This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.
Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.
It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.
It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.
The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.
A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.
The key passages stated that:
the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members
full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor
the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.
The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.
Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.
Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.
Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.
But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.
Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.
It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.
It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.
If editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.
This is an edited extract of The Knowledge Solution, out July 2 from mup.com.au.
It is a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction.
In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well educated and prosperous. In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate — or should. So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability. Today’s plethora of opinion polls ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.
Yet much of what should facilitate a smooth-running, engaged political system has helped corrode it. In politics, as in other aspects of life, abundance can be good but excess is often harmful. You can end up with too much of everything, and I think that’s what we’ve got in politics today.
We’re lumbered with what has been dubbed the continuous campaign, and that means, as Hugh Heclo, who was an academic expert on US democratic institutions, wrote in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s The Permanent Campaign and its Future: “[e]very day is election day”.
The leaders never hang up their high-vis vests. This is debilitating for decision-making because, as Heclo notes, there is a difference between “campaigning” and “governing” — and it is exhausting for the public.
Leaders always have to strike a balance between the time they spend with their feet under the desk and the days their boots are on the road, but things seem out of kilter. The permanent campaign encourages short-termism and puts the focus on the immediate media grab and headlines. It fans the politics of negativity, accentuates the adversarial and makes for hyper-partisanship. And it stretches the patience and concentration of voters.
The modern 24-hour news cycle both enables and fosters the permanent campaign, providing platform and spur. Political leaders have given up previous aspirational talk about “not feeding the media beast”. Tony Abbott tried that (for a nano-second) and it did not work too well. Now they argue that if they leave a gap, their opponents will fill the vacuum. Seeing so much of their politicians close up (and often too personal for comfort) has alienated voters, rather than made them to want to involve themselves in the political process.
The ability always to command attention, when there is so much airtime available, also helps small players turn themselves into minor political celebrities. It’s a sign of the times that as voters have increasingly looked to minor parties, these often come with a personal branding. They have been based around individuals, whose names they have taken — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team (subsequently the Centre Alliance), the (now collapsed) Palmer United Party, the Jacqui Lambie Network. “Name” parties fit this age of celebrity. If they had been born in today’s world, the Australian Democrats might have been “The Don Chipp Party”, after their early leading light (and conveniently shortened to “Don’s Party”).
Far from providing a sophisticated channel of community feedback, constant polling has come to be a whip hand over leaders, especially if they are going through a difficult period. This can restrict their room to breathe — that is, to lead — and it is made for the media’s “horse race” coverage of politics.
It means policy is often framed with an eye to how it will go down in the short term, a point that bureaucrats are forced to take account of in their advice to government. At the same time, polling is used as a tool of advocacy, with special interests commissioning polls that seldom fail to get the results they want and will almost always find a market in the media. With the rise of cheap robo-polls, there is a lot more “junk” polling around.
The professionalisation of politics has been building for decades. It has penetrated everything: ministerial offices, messaging, campaigns, the recruitment of candidates, the operation of interest groups and the explosion of a commercial lobbying industry. The more politics is professionalised, the more “insider” it becomes, in the preoccupation with daily “tactics” and in its gene pool of players.
An increased proportion of parliamentarians comes from the political class, having served as staffers to MPs before preselection. The grip of factions within the parties and the shrinking size of the major parties foster the closed shop, giving a leg-up to the insiders when it comes to preselections.
The well-documented decline in the public’s trust in the political system not only makes governing more difficult, but also puts off potential political recruits. When we turn from excess to deficit, what’s lacking — and has been falling for some time — is this elusive but vital quality of trust, the bedrock of a democracy that’s in top health. A recent paper published by the Grattan Institute, A Crisis of Trust, examines the surge in the minor party vote. It concludes:
Culture and economics are insufficient to explain the rise in the minor party vote. The best evidence is that the rising minor party vote is largely driven by declining trust in government: the growing belief that government is increasingly conducted for the interests of the rulers rather than the ruled.
The matter of “respect” is core. From there we can segue to trust. So if we think about what can be done to improve the situation — recognising that it’s only a limited amount and might be beyond the players anyway — let’s begin with the challenge of politicians winning respect, and go to a very basic level.
Politicians behave badly and — thanks especially to the all-pervasive media and that decision all those years ago to allow the televising of parliament — ordinary people see and hear this, and they hate it. In a March 2018 speech, Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb put his finger on it:
I can see on television the people we employ to work in our interests behave in a way we would not tolerate in our own small children. Sadly at a time when trust is so low, contempt so high, it appears they don’t even try to get better. They seem not to understand that trust is what we give them when they earn it, not what they get because they are where they happen to be.
It was notable that when the March 2018 scandal broke around Australian cricketers cheating in South Africa, commentators and members of the public immediately drew parallels with politics, where there is plenty of “cheating” with the truth. Then there is the cricketers’ “sledging” culture and the politicians’ similar practice.
Malcolm Turnbull told a news conference:
I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place … on a cricket field.
But when a journalist interjected, “Doesn’t it happen in parliament?” Turnbull let that pass without responding.
It’s a source of perennial wonderment to me that MPs are aware they are disgusting and infuriating the public by often conducting themselves, especially in parliament, like out-of-control adolescents, but they fail to curb this conduct.
Maybe it is the adrenaline of the chamber. Perhaps it is the pursuit of the parliamentary point. And admittedly, we are all living in a world where “anything goes” a lot more than was once the case. Whatever drives MPs, behaving in a manner that would be unacceptable in almost any other workplace is costly to them and to the political process — and could be easily changed by a bit of collective restraint. Sure, parliament will always have its moments, but chaos and insult-throwing should not be the norm.
This awareness should be extended to entitlements. The rules for these have been tightened in recent years after various scandals, and there is now an oversight body. But there is still an inability to understand the sniff test. The companion who accompanies Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to functions around Australia has been sponsored by the taxpayer to the tune of $35,000 over three years, which is within the parliamentary rules. Yet his assets do not appear on the MPs’ register of interests, as would those of a spouse or partner, because she has not defined him as her “partner”.
Parliamentarians should be paid well and have reasonable entitlements. But they should not try to have things every which way, and the public would respect them more if sometimes they, or those attached to them, put their hands in their own pockets.
Politicians’ reputations would also be enhanced if there were a better balance between partisanship and bipartisanship. It’s hard, made more so by the continuous campaign. But MPs will point out that behind the scenes — in committees, parliamentary special interest friendship groups and the like — there’s quite a bit of constructive working together.
It’s usually a different picture in the public arena. Voters would like to see some acknowledgement from time to time that the other side has had a good idea, and more co-operation on worthy projects. This would not at all diminish robust partisanship on core differences, and would improve the chances of achieving desirable reforms.
Politicians could alter the tone, as I have argued above. And they could better organise their workloads, and those of their offices. I appreciate how ministers have to keep up with the fast news cycle, but do staffers routinely have to be up at 4.30am? Do ministers have to make as many media appearances as they do, especially when often they are repeating the same “lines” that have been issued to them, or answering questions on someone else’s portfolio about which they have no personal knowledge? Is it necessary in non-election times to run around the country quite so much?
Excepting the positions of prime minister and treasurer, the job of most ministers is not bigger than that of a CEO of one of the top Australian companies. I suspect they could pare back their workload and their travel by say, one-fifth, and nobody would be saying they were not working diligently. They might even be more efficient.
When we consider how political parties should change to improve our democratic system, the answers run into vested interests, as well as the nature of modern society. Few people want to join the major parties. It’s not just that they are discouraged by factionalism and the powerlessness of the membership. More fundamentally, they have many other calls on their time, and (except for the truest of believers) organisations such as political parties have gone right out of fashion. When they want to be politically engaged, people nowadays tend to be more interested in specific issues, and limited activism or gestures (such as donating to GetUp), than in committing to what is often the drudgery of party membership.
Nonetheless, the withering of the major parties has dangers. Two examples make the point. It contributes to narrowing the sources from which parliamentary candidates are drawn. And with the ALP rank-and-file now having a 50 per cent say in the choice of party leader, a reduced base which is down to the hard core of that party could tilt the vote towards a candidate who has limited appeal to the broad electorate.
These parties will never be what they once were. But their leaders should try harder than they have for some improvement. Neither Bill Shorten nor Malcolm Turnbull has distinguished himself in this regard. An obvious step is to reduce the factional grip on pre-selections. But this must be genuine: it’s no good having “democratic” pre-selections effectively undermined by branch stacking.
There are other obvious, related, areas for change to improve faith in the system, such as more accountable, transparent and timely disclosure for political funding. Some attention is being given to these and they shouldn’t be particularly difficult.
Much talked about is the decline in the share of votes that major parties get, and the rise of the minors, whether they are born out of an issue (the Greens), or they are fundamentally a vehicle for protest and often based on a “name”. At one level, this can be seen as part of the fragmentation of modern life, that is also reflected in areas as diverse as the media and the industrial relations system. The fall in the vote for the major parties also reflects the “detribalisation” of politics and social mobility. People don’t “inherit” their vote from their parents as so many once did.
While the big parties (including here the Nationals as part of the Coalition) are diminished, we should remember that they are not dead. Federal electors still strongly support them. In the three most recent state elections — Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia — the outcomes were majority governments. For some voters, their decision is a choice between a desire for stability (represented by a vote for a major party) versus the urge to express their disenchantment (through an “insurgent” party).
There is no miracle cure for the lack of political trust that is now such a problem. That reflects not just political behaviour, but the more general cynicism of the times and an absence of faith in government. We seem as a community to be in a more bleak frame of mind than in some other periods. Contrast the mood now with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when voters were turning to Labor, optimistic that an ALP government would effect important change. If the polls are to be believed, Labor is well-placed to win the next federal election, but people aren’t thinking of a new government in anything like transformational terms.
Leadership can be an antidote to cynicism, though in contemporary politics perhaps only a partial one. Take the example of Bob Hawke as prime minister. People liked him and related to him, and he to them. And remember the commitment to reconciliation in his “reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction” mantra for the 1983 election.
Voters want both an agreed framework within which the political arguments are conducted, and where possible consensus around some of the paths forward.
The reader might well ask why I am putting the weight for spearheading reform on politicians, rather than, for instance, advocating as the priority that the media get its house in better order. I accept some will see this as a cop out, coming from a journalist. The reason is that I think in practical terms it is a fairly hopeless cause to look to the media as the lead agent of change that will promote trust and put our democracy into healthier shape. The collapse of the old business model in the media industry, fragmentation of the market, the nature of news in the modern world, the celebrity culture — all work against that. But if the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.
Our democratic system is resilient but under strain. As we view it, the critical thing is not to let cynicism get the better of us.
Intelligence doesn’t have to be, and rarely is, James Bond-esque. Indeed, 007 is the world’s worst spy: everyone knows who he is, meaning he is compromised, exposed and susceptible to blackmail before he even arrives to save the day.
But the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the all-encompassing “war on terror” that followed, did have a major transformative impact on the handling of secrecy and surveillance activities in government programs.
One impact has been the growth of executive authority in national security. This has exacerbated demonstrable tensions between civil liberties, trust and secrecy. As noted by former ASIO chief David Irvine, the public will always have some degree of suspicion regarding the secret function of intelligence agencies.
There is much to be gained by having an electorate better educated in the work of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). An informed public is better placed to question or accept the need for Australia’s intelligence agencies. This extends to the merits of expanding budgets, powers, oversight and responsibilities.
A war of choice
In the botched hunt for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles in 2003, the “slam dunk” assessments used to build a preemptive war rationale corroded public confidence in political leadership and the intelligence industry.
It is now widely accepted that Iraq has been a strategic disaster. Yet many core public debate points remain conflicted and uncertain. To what extent should an intelligence “failure” be traced back to failings in domestic leadership, a selective approach to intelligence estimates and a culture of political spin that seeks external scapegoats?
His imagery of a corrupt, rogue and monolithic intelligence bogeyman out to topple him is downright bogus. But its rhetorical simplicity plays into the public’s pre-existing fears about a shadowy political world.
At the same time, push-back against Trump’s political tactics and self-serving showmanship doesn’t mean the intelligence community should be immune from criticism and accountability.
The CIA, for instance, has a lengthy history of pushing or breaking moral and legal boundaries in locations such as Latin America. Ditto the Iran-Contra affair.
US intelligence has also been accused of monitoring human rights workers and harassing civil society groups and social dissenters engaged in legitimate political activities.
Likewise, in Australia in 1977, the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security unearthed deep-seated problems with principles of propriety, including legality, within ASIO.
The end result of inquiries into the actions of the intelligence community often raises more questions than answers, which feeds public mistrust and anxiety about intelligence and the function of government.
As we have matured, successive Australian governments have extended and deepened the responsibilities of the intelligence community. It is imperative that future boundaries set for our intelligence agencies are not crossed. For example, we should ensure that the AIC collects information as needed, not just because it can.
Unnecessary snooping is just one area that speaks to the broader importance of oversight, accountability, and an educated and understanding electorate.
Sunlight as disinfectant
The overall mandate of the AIC is to provide the government with “information” to better enable it to understand the issues confronting it. This, in turn, is meant to facilitate coherent policymaking.
However, good intelligence will not automatically guarantee good policy. Intelligence, after all, is an imperfect science and just one of the tools available to policymakers.
The task of intelligence agencies is not an easy one. Indeed, large budgets, hardworking staff and all the expertise in the world cannot ensure that a threat, or opportunity, will be recognised or acted upon in a timely fashion. Connecting the dots will rarely result in an end-product of absolute certainty.
At the same time, the demands of policymakers should not distort or corrupt intelligence – intelligence must inform policy (not visa versa). Intelligence agencies must “speak truth to power”. Integrity and candour, rather than ideological or personal loyalty, remain core prerequisites in dealing with political leaders.
Yet, the appearance of accountability does not necessarily de-politicise national security. Nor does it prevent overt political pressure, or the manipulation of intelligence operations to justify preordained political conclusions.
Checks and balances on government error and excess should remain a vital trademark of a healthy democracy. In this sense, a number of the proposed reforms should be applauded. This includes boosting the role and resources of both the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, as well as Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.
These changes also attempt to resolve questions about whether the boundaries and operational principles between agencies can be more clearly drawn. There are hopes the establishment of a new Office of National Intelligence (in place of the Office of National Assessments) will assist in greater co-ordination and complementary cross-agency efforts.
Of course, much of the devil remains in the detail. And a number of oversight gaps remain, including how to best protect whistle-blowers who expose unethical or illegal behaviour. We are also yet to see the implementation, execution and performance outcomes stemming from this major reform exercise. Further, the simultaneous announcement of new Home Affairs arrangements will demand equal critical scrutiny.
It’s been mooted that intelligence successes are often overlooked, while intelligence failures are widely broadcast. Popular misconceptions, polarisation and arguably excessive secrecy arrangements mean that the AIC will continue to operate in, and need to be responsive to, a backdrop of public misgivings, political point-scoring and conspiracy theories.
It also doesn’t mean we can forget the accountability of governments, officials and service providers. Nor does it mean we should abdicate responsibility for our own actions.
In thinking about terror and other aspects of national security, we need to consider how increased citizen surveillance affects our trust in government institutions and their private sector proxies.
Respect for privacy – essentially freedom from inappropriate interference – is what differentiates liberal democratic states from totalitarian states and terrorist groups. That respect is a fundamental value. It requires trust by ordinary people and officials alike that government and their proxies will abide by the law, remain accountable and not mistake what is expedient for what is necessary.
That trust has been eroded in recent years by the national security philosophy endorsed by both Labor and the Coalition.
The view from the bunker
National security policymakers and operatives, along with many privacy analysts, have a bleak view of the world. We recognise that Australia spies on friendly and unfriendly countries alike. They spy on us. That’s a function of being a state. Non-state groups also seek to harm or gain advantages – that’s not new.
The challenge for legislators, courts and the wider community is to look outside that bunker and ensure any interference with privacy is minimal, rather than merely lawful. At the moment, we are not doing well. It is unsurprising that law-abiding people are emulating Malcolm Turnbull by embracing privacy tools such as Wickr and Snapchat.
Lawmaking in Australia over the past two decades has involved a step by step erosion of privacy. The scale of that erosion has not been acknowledged by bodies such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which consistently fails to rebuke bureaucratic opportunism.
The former Victorian Privacy Commissioner notably stood up to the premier and officials in his state, which is what we would expect from a privacy watchdog. Sadly, his willingness to speak truth to power was exceptional.
Protection against invasions of privacy has been progressively weakened in the name of “national security”. This can be seen in the removal of restrictions on the sharing of information by agencies, pervasive biometrics such as the government’s new facial recognition system and mandatory retention of telecommunications metadata. We see the militarised Home Affairs Department seeking to co-opt ASD – our most important spy agency – for warrantless access to the electronic communications of every Australian, rather than just ‘hostiles’ overseas.
Privacy is not contrary to national security. It is a matter of balance, rather than an absolute.
Australian law (like that in the UK) has always allowed data collection, potentially on a mandatory basis – such as the Census. The law has always allowed overt or covert surveillance by officials, such as the undisclosed opening of mail or recording of conversations.
But such invasions must not be arbitrary. They must be restricted to those rare circumstances where disregard of privacy is imperative, rather than merely convenient. They must take place within a framework where there is some independent oversight to prevent abuse. Oversight fosters trust.
Such oversight might, in the first instance, consist of the requirement for a warrant, given our trust that courts will not rubber-stamp official abuses. It might involve systemic oversight by specialist bodies such as the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM).
Asking the right questions
Australia does not have a discrete Bill of Rights under the national Constitution, although there have been cogent proposals from experts such as Bede Harris.
Privacy law is incoherent, with significant variation across states, territories and Commonwealth, and major holes in data privacy. Some states do not have a discrete Privacy Act, an absence that would be understandable in 1850, but is disquieting in 2018.
As a society, we expect officials will always do the right thing. Trust is fostered by laws that are necessary, transparent and properly implemented (for example, through the independent oversight noted above).
In thinking about these social objectives – more than just “winning” a conflict that may last across generations – we need to ask some hard questions about public and private responsibility.
The first question we must ask, as citizens, is whether privacy – and law – is something that should always be sacrificed when there is a perceived threat to national security. We should acknowledge that not all threats are equally serious. We need informed public discussion about the need for and appropriateness of governments restricting use of private encryption tools and requiring that service providers offer law enforcement officials secret back doors into private communications.
Another question is whether officials should access private communications simply by asking service providers, without the discipline provided by a warrant. Can we tell if there have been abuses of our privacy? Watchdogs such as the OAIC and the INSLM need stronger protection from political pressure) and more resources, on the basis that an underfed and frightened watchdog is ineffective.
What’s more, we need to question to what extent we should trust governments and officials that are hostile to public disclosure. This hostility is exemplified by the Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner’s characterisation of FOI as “very pernicious” and the two years the OAIC spent in budgetary limbo, following efforts by the Abbott government to shut it down.
There are times when it is in everyone’s interests not to share secrets. That isn’t always the case, and we must ensure our governments, which exist to serve us, are accountable.