If the Duke of Gloucester (who was to become Richard III) could be with us now to run an eye over a recent poll about levels of public trust in government institutions in Australia, he might well say: ''Now is the winter of your discontent.''
The poll reckons that, in the last nine months or so, trust in the High Court has gone down by 12 percentage points, the Reserve Bank 18 points, the Australian Public Service 19 points and the Federal Parliament a whopping 33 points. And it's not confined to government; there have been comparable declines in the public standing of environmental, charitable and business groups and trade unions. The ABC is the only institution in which trust has improved.
While the country basks in the most favourable economic circumstances for decades, aided by a high-quality democratic system and sound and largely corruption-free public services (at least at the Commonwealth level), its inhabitants have dramatically downgraded their trust in public institutions that are doing well for us. Australians have become a nation of whingers.
Twenty years ago, the art critic Robert Hughes lamented what he called the ''fraying'' of American politics by an ''infantalised culture of complaint''. Goodness knows what he'd think of his Australian homeland if he were to return to it, say, for a spot of fishing.
Voter expectations of governments have been analysed by the Financial Review's Laura Tingle in an excellent edition of the Quarterly Essay titled ''Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation''. Tingle says the ''idea of state paternalism is embedded in our relationship with government, and has been since the time of our convict forefathers'', when Governor Phillip's responsibilities were writ large. She notes the historian-journalist Paul Kelly's views that paternalism underpinned an Australian Federation founded on ''faith in government authority; belief in egalitarianism … judicial determination in centralised wage fixation; protection of its industry; dependence on a great power for its security … and, above all, hostility to its geographical location.''
In more recent times, Tingle says John Howard ''embedded'' the ''idea of entitlement … in Australian governance'' and that Kevin Rudd ''raised voters' expectations to a risky degree'' by suggesting he could ''make government respond to our needs''. While she says the Hawke-Keating governments ''tried to make clear to voters that they could no longer presume that the state would look after them as it once had'', Tingle approvingly quotes a view that ''opening up our society [for which Hawke and Keating can take a lot of blame] has fed our sense of entitlement''.
For the present, Tingle says: ''Gillard has become the embodiment of a crushing number of uncertainties and disappointed expectations, both about politics and Australia's future, which make voters uncomfortable …''
No doubt Tingle is right about the things behind many of our present discontents and no one interested in being wiser and better informed about Australian politics should miss her essay.
Last month, Paul Kelly has also looked at possible sources of present irritations. He notes that, since the Rudd government was elected in 2007, ''sliding'' house prices and the effects of a poor-performing share market on superannuation accounts have reduced many individuals' wealth. There's something in this, though reductions in house prices have been marginal and more marked at the ''high end'' and in Melbourne. Further, lower real estate prices are a mixed blessing: bad for sellers, good for buyers and of less consequence for those doing neither.
Kelly says that, in 2007, Australia was ''fat, happy and entitled'' and ''in no mood for Howard's WorkChoices - telling people they might have to accept removal of some work entitlements in the cause of reform''. WorkChoices, of course, had nothing to do with ''entitlement'' and it had nothing to do with ''reform''. It was bad policy that probably contributed to a reduction in labour productivity and its redistribution of power from the less to the more powerful was too odious for the community to tolerate.
Technology and the behaviour of politicians could also be at work on trust in public institutions.
Technology more ruthlessly exposes politicians (and public servants) than ever before. While the current crop may well be of higher overall quality than 50 years ago (they are certainly much better educated, are probably harder working and, because the distaff side is more healthily represented, more reflective of the community), we now see them up close and, thus, their warts are more evident.
Technology has made politicians more accountable but it has had detrimental effects on their ways of work. Not only do they now feel forced to concentrate more on the ultra short term - the so-called ''management of the 24-hour news cycle'' - much of what they say, and what principally gets through to voters, is what can be reduced to 10-second grabs on the evening television news. Political messages have become meaningless cliches; ugly politico-babble. Such nonsense must reduce confidence in the ability of political leaders to come to grips effectively with things that have a chance of making things more endurable over the longer haul.
Further, media concentration on party leaders and the quasi-presidential nature of contemporary politics means the public's perceptions of other politicians and government institutions are refracted through the abilities and behaviour of the leaders. Politicians are being pushed around as much by technology as newspapers.
While politicians might deserve some sympathy for their difficult working circumstances, there are no excuses for bad behaviour or for the way much politics is now being practiced.
The results of the last election shackled Prime Minister Julia Gillard to the Greens and caused her to go back on an undertaking not to introduce a carbon tax. She adopted then-Liberal MP Peter Slipper and has only been partially able to disown Labor MP Craig Thomson, even though he has not, and might never be, brought before a court for anything. Despite safeguards, the government is using public money on advertising that is pure political propaganda: the national broadband network, for example. Gillard's overseas record is mixed. While she's been unfairly criticised for lecturing the Group of 20 summiteers, her Anzac Day speech in Turkey contained too many inappropriate sentiments and historical errors. A memo to her: as General William Sherman said, ''war is hell'', and you should not try to turn it into an ennobling experience nor seek to modernise Gallipoli as a political commodity.
But as the Murdoch press dwells sufficiently on what it sees as Gillard's inadequacies, it's reasonable for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to take pride of place here.
He has said that only his fully scripted comments can be relied on. He has also said that whenever there's a choice between good policy and good politics, he'll always choose the politics. He seems willing to say anything to gain political advantage: truth or falsity, it doesn't matter.
Let's take a couple of examples.
First, he repeatedly says the Gillard government has ''delivered the four biggest [budget] deficits in Australian history''. Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce, whose understanding of public finance does not appear to be extensive if his silly estimates committee questioning of the secretary of the Department of Regional Australia, etc. is anything to go by, repeats this assertion in The Canberra Times. This is blatantly dishonest. It's based on an assumption that deficits today can be compared properly, on a nominal cash basis, with those 10, 50 and 100 years ago. It's saying that $10 today is the same value as $10 in 1970. Duh! Only going back to 1970 and taking budget deficits as a proportion of gross domestic product, the biggest was in 2009-10 under the Rudd government, the next two were under Keating, with Gillard claiming the fourth in 2010-11. And if Abbott had been prime minister in 2008 and had not accepted Treasury advice about large deficits over 2009-11 to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis, he would have increased greatly the risk of recession and higher unemployment.
Second, Abbott claims the Howard government ''delivered the four biggest surpluses in Australian history''. That is similarly dishonest because it's another nominal cash comparison. Again going back to 1970, and taking budget surpluses as a proportion of GDP, the two biggest were delivered by the Gorton and MacMahon governments, the third by Howard and the fourth by Whitlam.
Third, there's Abbott's bloated hyperbole on the carbon tax, which apparently is going to run like a ''wrecking ball'' through the economy and push prices through the roof. In the current year, prices have been calculated to go up by 0.7 per cent and by 0.2 per cent in the next. The GST effect was about three times this. The carbon tax is likely to reduce GDP by 0.1 per cent. Some wrecking ball. When Liberal senator George Brandis claims that job losses foreshadowed by Fairfax are ''a direct result'' of the carbon tax, he's just sending a ''wrecking ball'' through his reputation.
Abbott repeatedly says ''Australians are sick of dishonesty in politics'' yet he and the likes of Joyce and Brandis are significantly responsible for that sickness. But dishonesty is not the worst of Abbott's contributions. In reducing the practice of politics to trench warfare, he is draining politics of its lifeblood: the capacity of the democratic system to make reasonable compromises in the public good. Asylum seekers?
While some may be fascinated by politics as a blood sport, most will not like it. Thus, the behaviour of the Opposition Leader is almost certainly having a toxic effect on trust in public institutions. It's no wonder he's an unpopular leader of an electorally popular Coalition.
What might be done?
Tingle says: ''We will have to go back to the idea that government assistance is on needs - not on entitlements.'' This will require politicians to be frank and honest and try to lead more than follow. Focus-group assessment of public opinion should be abandoned.
Political parties should try to minimise elections as auctions with the prize to the highest bidder. And, importantly, there needs to be some modification of the ''take no prisoners'' approach to politics so that it can be what it should: the art of decent compromise.
Voters should modify their expectations and better realise that politics repeats itself first as tragedy and second as tragedy and so on and on. They might also count their blessings and think more deeply about how many other countries are as fortunate or have better prospects than Australia.
And the public service should just keep batting on. The drop in its public trust has nothing to do with its performance. It's collateral damage; caught in the crossfire.
When important allies deserted him in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor. Gillard may very well find her Bosworth Field in 2013. Tudor succeeded Richard as Henry VII, one of England's finer monarchs who dragged his country out the winter of its discontent. Given the extent of his contribution to Australia's present discontents, with the best will in the world it's hard to imagine Abbott dragging the country out of them should he become the prime minister.
Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.