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Politicians behaving badly

Norman Abjorensen comments in Inside Story (28.11.16) about how Australia isn’t entirely immune to the forces of political backlash unleashed in recent times in Europe and the United States.

‘If the Trump victory in the United States represented a backlash against a perceived self-interested “political class,” just as the Brexit vote did in Britain, Australia is by no means immune to the contagion. It is no exaggeration to say that Australia’s once reasonably robust democracy is in a state of malaise, with public trust in government slumping to a new low as politicians fail to meet public expectations.

‘The problem here is twofold: flaws in the political system as a whole – federalism, parliaments, accountability and the parties themselves – and flaws in the people chosen by the parties to act as the people’s representatives. With a decline in membership of political parties to under 2 per cent of the population, parties are hardly representative of the broader community, and political candidates consequently come to be seen as privileged members of a political class.

‘In a country that once entertained the idea of egalitarianism as a national characteristic, the notion of a political elite sounds somehow foreign and far-fetched; the “common touch” has been a trait much admired by the people and often feigned by politicians. Bob Askin, the controversial former Liberal premier of New South Wales, once characterised the public ideal of a political leader as being “just like them but slightly better”.

‘Despite survey after survey pointing to declining levels of trust, politicians are doing little to address this decline; indeed, a spate of well-publicised failings in recent months, mostly among state politicians, has merely added fuel to the fire of public cynicism. Human beings are fallible, of course, but public life demands high standards (like us, but slightly better) and when failings are revealed, the system takes a double hit: first, questions about the judgement of the political parties in promoting that person; and, second, an increased perception that, once in public office, politicians are no longer bound by the ordinary rules.’

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