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Facts are futile in an era of post-truth politics

Date

Our political landscape is such that the public doesn't trust its leaders and vice versa.

A few days ago, columnist Andrew Bolt was furious about the abuse of Tony Abbott. He wrote about a thrash metal band decapitating an Abbott figure on stage, about Twitter haters wanting him to ''die, motherf---er die'', and about Fairfax columnist Clementine Ford selling ''F--- Tony Abbott'' T-shirts. This bile was horrific and ''must end'', Bolt wrote. ''Much of the abuse of Abbott is brutal, threatening, crude … and too often licensed by the Leftist media.''

It was hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or slump in despair. The ugly tirades against the Prime Minister can be sickening. Politicians will always cop nasty stuff and Abbott is a divisive figure, but the intensity of partisan contempt now seems to have no limit.

But Bolt - and he's far from alone - is so one-eyed that for him to reflect without a partisan swipe that Julia Gillard was subjected to demeaning, sexist, brutal abuse for much of her prime ministership - not just ''licensed'' by some in the media, but perpetrated by highly paid conservative media personalities - was impossible. Bolt wasn't calling for civility in politics generally, or warning about the dangers of abuse. It was just another chance to jab at ''Leftist'' hypocrisy for failing to be as outraged at the abuse of Abbott as they were about Gillard's treatment.

That's where we are in Australian politics. Vilification and scorn. Little common ground, even about the basic facts of difficult issues. Instant suspicion. Zero allowance for error or human frailty. A race to the bottom? We have reached the bottom and it's hard to see where we go from here.

Most Australians, understandably, have turned off. A quarter of young people failed to enrol to vote before the September election. A major Scanlon Foundation study released last year found a collapse in public trust in government - in 2009, 48 per cent of those polled thought Canberra could be trusted ''almost always'' or ''most of the time''. By last year, it was 27 per cent. An Essential Media report in 2012 also noted trust in government declining, and found something else. Faith in institutions such as the High Court and the Reserve Bank, as well as businesses and trade unions, is sliding.

And so we turn inwards. The minority of Australians who are interested in politics for the most part seem to be talking among their own kind, so often consumed with rage, yelling ''liar, liar'' before basic details are known, unable to see merit in any other point of view. The ''loopy left'' condemns the ''loopy right'', and so it goes.

Tony Abbott said his mission after the last election was to ''restore trust'' in government after three years of Labor leadership treachery and policy missteps. But it's too late, Tony. Trust has gone and you played a fair part in its destruction. There's a price to pay for perpetual fear-mongering about the economy, refusing to accept the result of the 2010 election, fostering the notion that everything is a ''crisis''. As you sow, so you reap.

Trust is essential in a democracy. Politicians will spin, put the best gloss on things, and even deceive at times. But it's gone beyond that in the past few years - the very basis of our system seems to depend on deliberately misleading the public.

When Abbott declined to spend $25 million as part of a co-investment in fruit processor SPC Ardmona last month, the main reason given was that conditions and allowances for its workers were ''way in excess of the award''. That wasn't true, meaning the only conclusion to be drawn was that it was a false claim designed to bolster the government's desire for industrial relations changes.

It was a fellow Liberal MP, Sharman Stone, who said the Prime Minister had lied. ''What they said was, 'We're not going to help because it is the amazing wages and conditions that have knocked this company for six', and that is just wrong,'' she said. If politicians mislead, not occasionally but routinely, people harden. They assume the worst. Even when someone is trying to level with them about why a tough decision is made, they won't believe it.

Similarly, what was most offensive about Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's news conference last week announcing that asylum seeker Reza Berati had been killed during a riot on Manus Island was that before any details were clear, his first instinct was to all but blame the dead man for his fate. ''People decided to protest in a very violent way and place themselves at great risk,'' he said. Several days later, the minister corrected key errors, but to use a man's death to twist the knife into asylum seekers at such a time was cruel politics.

Labor has played its part in this, too. Its support for former MP Craig Thomson in the last Parliament - Julia Gillard said she had ''complete confidence'' in the now convicted fraudster - was cynical. Its endless leadership battles exhausted the electorate. When he became leader in October last year, Bill Shorten pledged to ''earn the trust'' of Australians, and not to employ the ''endlessly negative'' tactics of Abbott. But blaming all job losses on the government is as misleading as blaming the unions.

It has been said that we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter. But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual. If trust goes, where does it lead us? To exactly where we are.

Gay Alcorn is an Age columnist and a former editor of The Sunday Age.

Twitter: gay_alcorn.

79 comments

  • Hear,hear! Well said and argued. Couldn't agree more.

    Commenter
    anders
    Location
    Kew
    Date and time
    February 28, 2014, 7:39AM
    • Thank you Gay. At least we still have Fairfax prepared to put the politicians under the microscope. Yesterday I read one of the Limited News rags. No I would never buy it, it was somebody's discard, hopefully they were as disgusted as I was. Like the government, it was focused on bagging the opposition instead of looking at what should be government plans.
      I have a new name for the LNP - Limited News Propaganda.
      It is very hard not to be negative though, the ALP keeps shooting itself in the foot too.
      As for Bolt, he will still be lauding Abbott when the recession hits.

      Commenter
      bg2
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 8:37AM
    • Very well said. I have given up hope this parliament will actually run the nation and stop playing politics with our lives.
      "It was hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or slump in despair."
      I have slumped in despair Ms Alcorn. Your article gives me hope though, that there is still intelligent life somewhere on this continent.

      "The minority of Australians who are interested in politics for the most part seem to be talking among their own kind, so often consumed with rage, yelling ''liar, liar'' before basic details are known, unable to see merit in any other point of view. The ''loopy left'' condemns the ''loopy right'', and so it goes."
      I know exactly what you mean. These people above are on every comment blog. They will even post comments on a 'Lifestyle' article and turn it into a political, name calling fight.

      Keep your chin up Ms Alcorn. For common sense and logical thinking, we need you.

      Commenter
      GenX
      Location
      Australian Political Funpark
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 9:36AM
    • Same here. Only one thing.

      Trust is not just about facts or evidence. It is also in the doing. If one does not act in the public interest armed with truthful facts or evidence for which they were elected to do, then this will erode public trust even more and it matters not what evidence or facts are presented or said.

      When public trust in government totally fails , you can get protests like occupy wall street, social discord, riots, and in the extreme, the kind actions that have perverted in the "Arab spring" and recent Ukrainian standoff etc

      Commenter
      Rover the dog
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 9:48AM
    • Gai Alcorn has understood the situation properly. The politicians don't trust the public with the truth, so resort to manipulation and outright lies. The public respond by withdrawing trust. The more broadbased erosion of trust is driven, I believe, by the transformation of the political Right in this country from conservatism to reaction. They no longer defend the existing institutions of society, which is something conservatives do. Instead, they attack them with the aim of changing social relations to what they imagine they were a generation or two back. This is a definition of political reaction. What passes for a political "Left" in this country(i.e. the ALP) has become conservative and mostly defends existing institutions.

      As a result, the relentless campaigns of the Murdoch press and the talk-back shock jocks against "unelected" judges and out of touch (but undefined) "elites" has had the effect of eroding trust in most social institutions. Combine that with the perpetual attacks on politicians for displaying insufficient "leadership" and for pandering to popular opinion and what you get is a recipe for dictatorship. When a man on a white horse rides in to impose order and sweep aside the meaningless squabbles of politicians, we can expect the usual suspects on the Right to applaud.

      What is needed is for workers in Australia to seize control of their unions and purge them of the Labor bureaucrats. It is by establishing this form of grassroots democracy that we can establish a bulwark against the steady drift of society to the Right. The alternative to the squabblings of self-interested politicians in Parliament is the vibrant and messy tumult of a workers' democracy. When the politicians have finally disgraced themselves without prospect of rehabilitation, we can go Left instead of Right.

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 9:57AM
    • At last an article that defines the circus that politics has become. What is concerning is that the leadership and policies not only reflect the insular, self interested and rationalist ideology of the main political parties, but also of the skewed moral compass of the public.

      Commenter
      LJanes
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 10:13AM
    • The start of this spiral was the Tampa and Children Overboard lies by Abbott's mentor John Howard, since then politics has been on a down hill spiral by both major parties, Labor was so concerned that the public couldn't see through Howards lies because of the veracity Murdoch and shock jocks Jones and Mitchell gave them they decided to join them in the race to the bottom.

      Commenter
      Bushy
      Location
      Cressy
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 11:57AM
    • The post-truth politics is by now an existential necessity of the genocidal Crown, because if people have ever found out what evils have been already committed, what lies have been continuously told, how much has been stolen year after year from the public purse, there would be a revolution. Anything that was established through genocide of the first people of this land, anything born of murder, rape and pillage, can never and must never be legitimated or acquiesced to, but ought to be a sign of what abysmal pathology and betrayal we are dealing with here.

      If they told you the truth why the public is being fleeced through petty fines and income taxes and there is still "no money" for essential public projects such as modern public transport systems or free education and we are made to believe that we are in a perpetual situation of financial austerity despite the greatest per capita volume of natural resources on the planet, then they would have to tell you that they are stealing from you $100 billion p.a. via inflationary private tax called fractional reserve banking. They then would have to tell you that they have been complicit in extorting the public, breaking domestic and international law on daily basis for many decades for their foreign bosses, and so they would have to confess to treason... Do you believe that such a sudden awakening of conscience is even possible of these people?

      After all, Australia does not even have its own Coronation Act and therefore no native Queen, and so we are under parasitic occupation by the foreign Crown.

      Commenter
      A
      Location
      B
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 1:47PM
    • I for one trust Wayne Swan explicitly - I'm sure his promised surplus will materialise one of these days. .

      Commenter
      kelly
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 2:30PM
    • As the Fat Controller (of Australia) says to his dutiful staff "if it is good for circulation then print it"

      A content and cohesive society doesn't sell papers or get people to watch FoxNews. What we need is war, conflict, hatred and bile.

      Commenter
      Crying
      Location
      Out
      Date and time
      February 28, 2014, 2:43PM

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