Now markets have failed, let’s talk about social wellbeing: Eva Cox’s 2020s vision | Opinion
Being asked to write on a single change that would make a serious difference to Australia isn’t easy, but in a few minutes I came up with the increasing trust deficit as the underlying but rarely discussed issue. In an era when the dominant paradigm has been materialist competition, trust – as verb or noun – mainly describes feelings about other people and systems.
In economics it is called an externality, something not materially measurable so not related to homo economicus (self-interested rational “man”), who typifies human behaviour in too many algorithms. So voters, feeling ignored by this focus on solely economic values, are adopting nasty populisms and political divides are growing.
Addressing this distrust epidemic among voters would create major improvements in legitimating democracy, as data on the diminishing trust show too many voters feel that they are neither being heard nor are their needs being met. The past decade has seen too many royal commissions, scandals and coups that increase voter anxieties. The continuing privatisation of assets and services, the cuts to funding of public services and the growing conditionality of welfare have all contributed to government lack of positive visibility. Re-creating some social policies that affirm the role of the government is to create equity, not just facilitate GDP growth. These could reassure distrustful voters of the benefits of social democracy.
The Australian National University’s recent Australian election survey shows distrust of politicians rose from an already high 63% in 2014 to 76% in 2016. Another question found 56% think the federal government is run for a few big interests and only just over half think politicians know what people want. Little on the current agendas address the distrust that influences the quality of societies and their relationship to good governance.
Distrust gets reinforced by developments like the ethical sins of minister Bridget McKenzie’s funding for political benefits, recently uncovered by the auditor general. So far, her choices have been supported by cabinet peers and leaders, reinforcing the popular image of those in power.
Trust has been my long-term research interest, as it covers social wellbeing and the effectiveness or otherwise of our governance. I first explored the quality and value of trust relationships in my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures, called A Truly Civil Society, where my six lectures offered alternatives to the market model by restoring social wellbeing as a core value of society and government. However, despite being popular, these had little political effect, as markets had not yet failed.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, there is ample evidence of diminished trust massively undermining democracy, social cohesion and community functions. Privatisation is reducing voters’ sense of ownership of public services and symbolic buildings. Policy for less fair welfare, community service cuts and subcontracted once-public roles have reduced voters’ perceptions that governments serve their needs. Assumptions widely held by politicians are that voters are venal customers to be bought by tax cuts or other monetised gains, so their policies fail to rebuild trust.
Despite both major parties losing their “rusted-on” voters, they don’t seem concerned. They continue to woo voter self-interest and assume GDP growth and materialism are all that matters. However, the reaction to bushfires and drought damages are showing generous concerns of voters that should make governments aware they need some new ideas, such as addressing environmental damage in conjunction with social needs. However, we need to push them to add social goals like trust and fairness to the mix.
So how can we address the trust deficit? A good starting point would be reviving the social contract concept that was part of developing the nation. Despite the very serious sins of colonising, other aspects of our history show commitments to innovative social reforms, also appearing in the UK. We had votes for all men in the 19th century, for women in the early 20th, the basic wage and some early pensions. So we need to return to the reformist urge to offer a better vision splendid of social possibilities.
Restoring trust could start with agreements in a new social contract that recognises our equity failures and lack of government interest in the social needs of voters. A suggested agenda could include social equity: improving and reclaiming community and public services back from inappropriate for-profit sectors, good affordable power that is environmentally sound and an income support system that rewards unpaid work. This should include voluntary firies, domestic and community labour and caring for country, as all are needed to benefit societies.
Utopian? Yes, but we need visions to unite on and the energy to act for good changes. Oscar Wilde claimed Utopia was the next island to the one we just landed on, so trust fuels the journey, as we continue to debate good goals.
• Eva Cox is a sociologist and social commentator