A couple of days after an election which has produced a very tight result we now have Prime Minister Turnbull acknowledging some responsibility for not winning an election he was elevated to the Liberal leadership to deliver. Key amongst his ideas in an address on Tuesday afternoon was that there had been a ‘cynical abuse of trust’ by the ALP in claiming that the LNP coalition was looking to privatise some or all of Medicare, and that politicians and the media now had to consider the implications of this.
In part he is right. If the LNP was not planning to privatise anything with Medicare then it could be argued the ALP has ‘cynically abused trust’. But is he really suggesting that if he went back to his partyroom with an unquestionable parliamentary and senate majority there wouldn’t be any changes to Medicare which would amount to a reduction of it for many Australians? So how cynical was it? Was he not ‘cynically abusing trust’ in suggesting the ALP was trying to crash real estate prices by reforming Negative Gearing? For every Torynuff thinking ‘well the ALP was trying to crash real estate prices’ there would be an ALParatchik quite sure that the Torynuffs really do want to do Medicare in. How about the repeated use of the word ‘war’ by the Treasurer in describing the ALP’s position on jobs? Cynical? Abuse of trust? Or just errant bullshit? Neither Turnbull nor the Liberal party could honestly claim it was something arising out of only one side of politics.
The truth is neither Malcolm Turnbull nor his predecessors in Abbott, Rudd, Gillard or Howard, nor Bill Shorten, or any other opposition leader in living memory could honestly say they haven’t indulged in a little ‘cynically abused trust’ with the electorate, could they? We have lived in an Age of ‘cynical abuse of trust’, in which politicians have felt that if they say something which sounds like one thing to a lot of the electorate, but then deliver something less than that to the same electorate, they could either ignore the electorate they had disappointed (with no repercussion), they could parse their way through what they had said word by word and suggest to the electorate that the electorate had misunderstood what the politicians had said, or they could say ‘suck it up’ in one guise or another – from ‘the other side of politics is worse’, to ‘people on the other side of the world have it worse’, to ‘there is no turning back’, to complete denial of the concerns. For most of a generation ‘cynical abuse of trust’ has been seen as a positive by political parties where it delivered those parties government, and where the consequences could be politically marginalised.
The only difference on Saturday July 3, 2016 was that ‘cynical abuse of trust’ just happened to get a lot of votes – enough to have electoral consequences for both sides of politics – and Australia’s politicians are now in the uncomfortable position of being told that it is they who have misunderstood the message, and that there is no turning back from a need to address electorate concerns. They have been told that they aren’t trusted and that the consequences are that voters will elect single issue focused chaos into parliament in preference to electing comprehensive political narratives which they have come to distrust. The risk is that if the politicians from major parties don’t get the message soon, they may get ignored, and they need to demonstrate their bona fides in getting the message (across a whole range of issues). But, demonstrating this could be economically and politically expensive, and they may not have the political capital or economic readies.
Starting with ‘cynical abuse of trust’ in politics
When it comes to ‘cynical abuse of trust’ in politics there isn’t an easy place to start. It could be Medicare, one supposes, but it could easily be Free Trade Agreements which are signed unseen, or tax cuts which go to some sections of society but not others, or, perhaps, the entire notion of trickle-down economics. One could make a very good case that ‘cynical abuse of trust’ is a two way phenomenon if we accept that both sides of politics have assumed that the electorate couldn’t be trusted enough for a policy discussion on immigration, or pension reform, or even real estate, and that it was therefore better for politics to stay clear of these subjects – which for Australians concerned about those issues means there has been a ‘cynical agreement’ between the Torynuffs and ALParatchiks to ‘abuse the trust’ of the electorate. Even beyond there the concept of ‘cynically abused trust’ could apply to the use of 457 Visas, the label ‘Made in Australia’ on food products, the laws which enable multinationals to avoid paying taxes, the deployment of Australian military personnel without directly relating this to any threat to Australia, and the need for security agencies to access our emails or digital profiles, or even politicians entitlements and perks. Then there is the complete denial or ignorance by Australian politicians of the housing serfdom they are imposing on younger Australians, while cruelling the economy those younger Australians will work in. Could that be ‘cynically abused trust’? Or what about the unstated decision made at some level somewhere in the early 2000s to burn off the export facing sectors of an economy to fit in a mining boom, or to perpetuate the mining boom as a housing bubble, while ignoring or denying the downsides and the ‘adjustment’ that some had to make. Was there any ‘cynically abused trust’ in all that? ‘Cynically abused trust’ takes a lot of different forms for a lot of different political concerns.
Cynical abuse of trust for the day to day necessities
But when you think about it, there is no reason to think ‘cynically abused trust’ begins or ends with politicians. There is no real need for the Australian public to think that they need politicians for ‘cynically abused trust’. It happens everywhere you look in the corporate world and the way they handle customers.
Anytime you have a question about a bill, or the service, from a bank, an insurance company, a mobile provider, or a gas or electricity company, chances are you will at some point in the process feel you are having an ‘abuse of trust’. The trust that a company will value your clientele sufficiently to service you according to your expectations, or your understanding of a contract between you, or to ensure that you are made perfectly (rather than perfunctorily) aware, and where you have felt confident enough about a company to sign up for a service, before subsequently finding that when you relied upon the service which you thought or expected was there, your expectations have been abused, by either system or contract literality. The default settings for all of these will basically revolve around the customer serving themselves with the systems these companies provide for the customer, and, further, if a customer wants to complain about something or raise an issue that the customer cannot deal with by the systems the company provides, then the customer is almost certainly ‘wrong’ until they can prove themselves right. That is after the card numbers, hash buttons, the wait on the line listening to messages about how your call is valued, your call being recorded for coaching purposes, and before you get to the peon who has a script in front of them which may or may not address the issue you want to raise.
Certainly companies use customer satisfaction surveys, but the more concrete measure for them and their customer handling, and the one they will budget more surely for, is on ‘issue closure’. This means these companies set up customer interaction systems designed to steer the customer through their systems towards ‘issue closure’, or explain to them how they are ‘wrong’ using their systems, rather than trying to get to the bottom of whatever it is the customer has an issue with. How much cynicism is required to wonder if, in some instances, the company knows it will never satisfy a customer, and that it is cheaper to exasperate the customer into giving up any pursuit of their concerns? ‘Cynically abused trust’ where there is no alternative for a customer, or where the customer just sucks it up, or doesn’t know about it and pays, or simply gives up when they think they have an issue, is a pretty commonplace affair in much of corporate Australia, and it can often build in a good margin for the services on offer.
Even after you think about that there is the day to day grocery shopping experience. Australia’s grocery retailers are the highest margin retailers in the world, and have been for a decade. This means they take more money off Australians for a product than their international peers. Yet go into one and see if you can find an operating checkout, or if they are trying to get you to serve yourself. More interestingly how many of the products you pull off their shelves are found only in one chain or the other, and how many of those have been created by pressuring producers, particularly farmers such as dairy or vegetable farmers, to deliver product at the lowest possible price, under the threat of having no plausible alternative outlet, cynically abusing the trust of numerous rural families in a ‘market’ they produce for?
Cynically abused trust with our money
Of course we couldn’t discuss the concept of ‘cynically abused trust’ without thinking about our banks and financial institutions, could we? Once upon a time banks were good places to keep money, every town in Australia had one – and they really were trusted. To what extent does the cynical abuse of trust concept run alongside finding a local branch and dealing with someone face to face (where it was possibly harder to cynically abuse ones trust) or being put on a phone line to someone in some far off locale for the service you want. To what extent are we being told that the cynical abuse of our trust is a good thing, or is efficient, or makes the service competitive, or, ultimately, that we should suck up that cynical abuse of trust and accept that it is modernity? To what extent does it represent the replacement of a bond between people with a contractual relationship where the contracting parties have two different ideas about the relationship, and only one knows in detail?
Now, the day to day experience is of banks calling, emailing or posting to people exhorting them to borrow money for a range of purposes from houses (of course) to holidays, to new cars, and of course for investment. But how much of that investment is actually for speculation and how much of the margin between investment and speculation in a wordsmith sense represents a cynical abuse of trust as the public experiences it? To what extent does the ‘cynical abuse of trust’ concept fit with the idea that people aren’t people any more, they are cash streams, and that the financial system will go hard in trying to hook them up – see health insurance or auto or home insurance – but then, after they have signed up, is more focused on wriggling out of whatever commitment those people thought they had, at any point they can, or on increasing annual premiums well beyond inflation – usually against the prospect of great difficulty if they don’t keep insurance up and need the service, or the prospect of a diminished government provided ‘safety net’ exhorted by business as being more efficient, and invariably with government agreement on the need to raise premiums, year after year after year. Is there a ‘cynical abuse of trust’ in that?
Those exhortations we get – in the newspapers, by email, SMS, over the radio, on TV and any given website we click on (in an age where they can and do keep tabs on where we click) – are generally about getting people to take on debt. I must confess that every time I get one I feel my trust in the financial system is being cynically abused. With the most heavily privately indebted nation on earth, and what relationship does that increased indebtedness (over the course of a generation) have with a cynical abuse of trust? Is that cynical abuse of trust an expression of discomfort for a level of debt, which people have been encouraged to take on, to feel is normal, and have been encouraged to think they can handle by a financial system profiting off the volumes they do, when those people have started to wonder if they can’t? And that ‘cynical abuse of trust’, does it apply to superannuation too? Does it apply to the possibility that people can go about their work for an entire career and contribute to a fund, paying the fees of brokers and analysts, and still see their retirement income riding on the global market prone to slumps or crashes? Does that cynical abuse of trust reflect the suspicion that we have all become gamblers in one way or another and the loss of certainty about our ability to control the outcome? Does the cynical abuse of trust encompass the repeated, ad nauseum, and Bi-partisan exhortations to the effect that this is good for us?
Cynically abused trust in public service
But it isn’t just a corporate affair though. Anyone who has ever tried to get a mildly complex issue addressed with the Department of Human Services, or the ATO, or the Departments of Immigration or Veterans Affairs, can get broadly the same treatment, despite all the customer service charters and service level agreements these will invariably frame how they service their clients, and report on to a Minister. A long wait on the end of a line, the suspicion that some customer service type is trying to address something slightly at variance with the issue which has been raised, or being bounced from section to section, is too often the experience of anyone wanting to discuss their tax, find out what is happening with a benefit payment, recoup a medical cost, or to claim compensation after service in the ADF. At what point does that come to be a ‘cynically abused trust’? And that’s only in a customer service sense.
In many public services there is (or was) a far higher level of trust, reflecting a historical expectation or a higher level of veracity. Once upon a time Australians would look at Australian Bureau of Statistics numbers and assume that there was no need to question them, and have much the same degree of confidence in a Treasury forecast or Bureau of Resources modelling prediction. Numbers out of those organisations had a degree of respect, and the public service organisations prided themselves on getting things right – if reality failed to eventuate there would be a good reason. Now the public gets ‘numberwang’ or ‘seasonal adjustment’ on unemployment and a range of other Statistics, and governments which people know are bullshitting them duly bring out forecasts to back their position on budgets and costings, revenue forecasts, or balanced budget estimates, wiping their electoral arses on the respect people once had for the organisations which produce the numbers. That is ‘cynical abuse of trust’.
Interestingly the first signs of widespread ‘cynically abused trust’ have come from the public sector, where more than half the APS, including the ‘big 3’ Departments of Human Service, Defence and the ATO (which together comprise about half the APS) have voted more than once against their own employers over the past three years rejecting Agreements, and depriving themselves of salary increases, in votes that those in the APS now acknowledge have been more about the management culture of the APS than the conditions on offer to employees in its agencies. Too many service delivery types or policy analysis types find they are tailoring their efforts not to a logical goal or outcome, but to some managerial or Ministerial whim which revolves more around politics than the function they are ostensibly part of. Would it be a ‘cynical abuse of trust’ if too many public servants found themselves wondering if they are servants of the public or servants of bullshit, and then decided that they would keep their heads low and do as little as they could possibly get away with as a result?
Cynically abused trust in the workplace
That of course brings us to another dimension of cynically abused trust – the workplace. How much cynical abuse of trust is there in workplaces? How many workplaces have ‘workplace cultures’ or ‘workplace values’ embedded into their employment contracts which essentially amount to bullshit as far as the employees are concerned, and are largely about tailoring behaviour of employees to something that management finds benign, but leave the other side of that relationship – managerial behaviour – to the law of torts, enabling managements, which would otherwise be lionised in the press or by politicians, to underpay staff, or to fold with employee entitlements such as superannuation contributions, holidays, or sick pay. Maybe that kid who mentioned the ship was going down with his entitlements as he served me in the last days of Dick Smith felt his trust had been cynically abused by his employer.
Or is the whole employment relationship an exercise in the ‘cynical abuse of trust’. Do employees who go to work each day and think, and are told, they are good at their job, but get overlooked for promotion by self-serving bumlickers or yes persons, have any grounds for suspecting their ‘trust has been cynically abused’? Do they look for a pay increase year after year in organisations which post multi-billion dollar profits, and find themselves being told that the organisation can’t afford to satisfy them without trimming some jobs or workplace entitlements? To what extent is ‘cynical abuse of trust’ a national workplace productivity driver?
Cynical abuse of trust in the press
Turnbull made a specific mention of the press with regard to the ‘cynical abuse of trust’, and he did well to do so. This media is important for the concept of trust and abuse because it is the medium through which trust is established and through which that trust is most abused, and where the corporate imperative is most cynically overt. The ‘cynical abuse of trust’ spoken about is rarely absent from it. Most Australians would once have thought they could get a square call about the events in their world from their press, but in the age of the ‘cynical abuse of trust’ any semblance of a square call has long vanished, and its last vestiges are being quashed or driven into the marginal reaches of the internet. Is Australia’s media per se a ‘cynical abuse of trust’?
In the print world we have a cosy duopoly serving our cynical abuse of trust. On the one hand we get the unadulterated ideology of Uncle Rupert and the gargoyles he festoons his world with. The upside with Uncle is that you could say it isn’t even all that cynical any more – it is overt, it is constant, it is an unending campaign to undermine trust in anything that Uncle feels isn’t serving him or his view of the world. He doesn’t care about trust, so much as he cares about advancing his interests. On the other hand at Fairfax part we may still get something approximating a fair call, and may still generate some trust on occasions, but how often is the trust in this cynically abused by a (greater) need to exhort real estate sales, and how often is that trust equally as cynically abused (mystifyingly so for many) by the utter bullshit spouted forth by ostensibly respected commentators like the Pascoemeter and Gitto, who, no doubt, are capable of good analysis, but who all too often chunder forth meaningless drivel in the form of half-baked exhortations to look on the positive side, particularly when it comes to babyboomer entitlement.
Beyond the world of print and internet verbiage we have what? 3 cash strapped mainstream TV networks and an equally cash strapped radio sector which have far greater trust in the payer of the cheque, and far greater need to cultivate trust in that payer for the services they provide, than they do to the tastes, interests or decision making abilities of the people they deliver to advertisers. They all run very light on news these days, and their current affairs capabilities essentially stop at cheap ‘gotcha’ style moments. That of course is before we get to the ABC. By far the minor player in Australia’s media market in terms of accessed, it has, like or not, has been trusted over a number of generations, and is trusted to a degree unequalled anywhere else – either in Australian media, or institutionally across public service or corporate sectors. But here we are, dismantling that trust as the Prime Minister talks about the need for politicians and the media to rebuild it. No Fact check and no comment – is that a ‘cynical abuse of trust’? Can’t we the public be trusted to trust something in the media space if it is publicly owned and run? Or is it that it can’t be trusted by its political masters while it is trusted far more than any of its commercial counterparts?
Reshaping perceptions of politics in the Age of the ‘cynical abuse of trust’?
One assumes that the Prime Ministers statements will wash over us in the coming days and weeks, after a government is established, and has some workable majority in the House of Reps.
By that stage there will be a room full of masters of cynicism working their magic on the already cynical political players working hand in glove with masters of cynicism in the communications world to ensure that a message goes out to the public which sounds awfully like ‘we hear you and understand what you are saying’ but which will sound to them as ‘we can continue the game we have mastered’. As that message comes forth it presumably will be analysed in great detail amidst exhortations by analysts in our press to the effect that our politicians share our concerns and pain, and are working feverishly to address the issues they know we have. The press will chart a delicate course between reporting the manifestations of discontent (which will drive circulation, or clicks, or ratings) on the one hand and not doing it so well as to imperil advertising revenues on the other.
They may even sacrifice an issue to establish their bona fides – perhaps a look at the banking sector can be controlled, or maybe they will discover a few trophy foreign buyers of real estate to punish, or maybe there will be something rejected in the trade sector on the grounds on national interest or Australian jobs. who knows, we may even get a politician start to level with us about where our economy is headed and the intergenerational shafting we are giving anyone under about 50. But anyone living in the Age of the ‘cynical abuse of trust’ will be sure to keep a lookout for what they are not talking about in public. And that, in essence, is what all politicians now need to work a little harder on – not having the public second guess what they aren’t addressing, when the politicians want them to focus on what they are addressing.
Ending the ‘cynical abuse of trust’ is going to take a lot of work in the political world, and it may establish some ideas other worlds find uncomfortable.