Happy new decade!

Arguably the best gift any of us could receive this new decade is to have our elected representatives restored as role models.

It has been an unfortunately long time since communities regarded their elected representatives, generally, as exemplars of good behaviour. While this is lamentable the truly sad aspect – and what we need to be on guard against – is the threat it represents to our democratic system of government. How viable can democracy be if we exhaust our reservoir of trust, respect and admiration for those we elect to govern us?

With market research indicating that nearly 90% of people in the world’s leading democracy (USA) have lost faith in their elected representatives, free societies around the world face a real threat to customary lifestyles. Once genuine belief in government is dissipated, anarchy tends to reign. The thought that this could happen here in Australia would strike many as spurious or even inconceivable because it is almost too challenging to consider. Yet it would be foolhardy to ignore the potential. The adage that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance is profoundly apt in these circumstances.

What has caused this lamentable situation and can anything be done to retrieve it?

The decline of respect and trust directly corresponds with the rise of populism and the epidemic of populist governance emanates from exposure. The greater the publicity focused on our elected representatives, the more they have attempted to win acclaim from the great majority of their constituents. Trying to please everybody is as frustratingly futile as a dog chasing its tail. It may keep our so-called leaders exercised but it doesn’t deliver anything of value to those watching the unseemly display.

Many are eager to blame the media for this situation but while their allied sins are numerous and distressing, they are not actually at fault in this scenario. It is their legitimate role in a democracy to scrutinise fully and fearlessly the activities and outcomes of elected representatives. It is the politicians themselves who have been subverted by the attendant publicity. In their hope of ever more fully engaging their constituencies, politicians have been seduced by the lure of reach and frequency. This has created many very deficient tendencies:

  • the temptation to speak on any topic in the hope that it will secure coverage
  • the fatal attraction of the photo opportunity
  • the shabbiness of image over substance

In summary, superficiality reigns supreme. The consequence is that we now see our elected representatives as facile, shallow creatures who, if their lips are moving, must be lying to us. It is a distressing decline in the quality of our public life.

Retrieving this situation requires a marked change of attitude by elected representatives. Their performance and behaviour must dramatically improve. Equally, we electors must dissipate our near-automatic tendency to cynical condemnation of their every action. This is a compromise that will be enormously difficult to achieve but it should be a collective goal for everyone who values our democratic way of life. While both sides must bear responsibility equally, it is elected representatives who need to make the first move. It is their chosen challenge to secure our approval. They cannot continue to ignore the reality of our displeasure and disaffection. The fabric of our society is being unravelled and our politicians must weave a new cloth that will bind us together again. The first decade of a new millennium has already passed and we have, sadly, witnessed only a further decline in public trust of our institutions. It must be halted and quickly.