Our civil obedience is a strength, not a weakness


I despair of those who wring their hands at this behaviour as evidence of a deterioration in the brave Aussie spirit of independence and rugged individualism. Obedience is exactly what should happen in a democracy, from the ancient Greeks onwards. When people trust their government, they don’t need a police state with guns in their backs to do the right thing; they trust it and then do as they’re told.

I despair of those who wring their hands at this behaviour as evidence of a deterioration in the brave Aussie spirit of independence.

The mystery at the heart of democracy is solved; that heaving ant-mass of individuals apparently running in haphazard circles as they stuff their papers into the ballot box, is bound together, in remarkable unity, by trust. It’s not a trust built, as in days of yore, on the self-proclaimed linkages between kings, queens and God, but upon competence, decency and a leadership which, for well over a century of elected government, has been there to serve. The predictable outrage and sound rejection of those in elected office who show any signs of corruption or incompetence, let alone self-service, are constant reminders to those who stand for Parliament that nobody fools all the people all of the time. You will be found out.

As Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, said when he celebrated the reopening of Frozen in Sydney; NSW has a “functioning” government, one which Disney, with its millions invested in every production and losses mounting from worldwide theatre closures, felt it could trust with its most important brand. You can only see Frozen in Sydney, literally.

So, what earns trust? Electorates fortunately don’t expect much. Competence and to know what’s going on. Traditionally, Labor – despite presiding over essentially Labor-leaning public services –has not done as well in the competence stakes but is a great deal better at communicating it than the Liberals. Dan Andrews’ mastery of epidemiological detail is a case in point. Conservatives have traditionally struggled to even see the need to explain that whatever they’ve done is for the best.

As politics has become increasingly professionalised, the electorate has moved a jump ahead; now it judges leaders by not only their competence but by their authenticity, by the sense that the person wagging their finger at them over the TV is who they say they are. Aha! What is authenticity you may well ask; it might work for Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie, but it doesn’t make a PM or a Premier. Gladys Berejiklian’s master stroke this year was these words: “I stuffed up in my personal life.” Without even trying, apparently, she had unlocked that secret combination to trust; competence and revealing, awkwardly, just a little about herself.

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However, it is portrayed, Australians have trusted their federal governments, mercilessly condemned the incompetent, and rewarded those who left them alone. Political media coverage, once described as a blood sport by, of all people, a British writer, has played a mighty role in this. I have waxed and waned over the role of the media in Australian life.

As you would expect, I have often found it wanting, and eventually left my life as an ABC reporter because I knew – horribly and profoundly – how little I knew about anything. From the other side of a political life, it is now my certainty that political reporting, while flawed, has been a vital driver of transparency.

A bit like democracy; the media, however haphazard it may be in the eyes of its audiences, has consistently provoked governments to improve, excel, reform and be accountable to the voter ants’ nest. When the media has failed to do this, notably for left-leaning governments, it has been a problem for the government. As Paul Keating famously observed of the Victorian Cain government, it cost it its re-election.

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