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.