Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Why Australians don’t trust their politicians

TRUST. Just four consonants and a vowel. Yet this simple word is now virtually lost among political leaders and voters in Australia.

Any number of opinion polls now reveal the vast majority of Australians don't trust public institutions such as political parties, parliament and cabinet.

Specifically, Australians feel lobby groups have too much influence over ministers, MPs are poor at representing our interests and we want more say in setting policy agendas.

Of course, the behaviour of certain groups does nothing to enhance their reputations.

Take the weekend story that Australia's richest person, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, is also the largest financial donor to one of Australia's most powerful pressure group think tanks, the Institute of Public Affairs.

Gina Rinehart is largest donors to the Institute of Public Affairs. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Gina Rinehart is largest donors to the Institute of Public Affairs. Picture: Nigel Hallett

Because the IPA is a "registered charity", it - unlike political parties - isn't legally required to disclose benefactors' names.

Indeed, the fact Ms Rinehart donated more than $4 million to the IPA over two years emerged only after Gina's daughter Bianca, in a long-running dispute with the Hancock Prospecting company, served a subpoena to access sensitive financial documents.

In short, we know this information only because of a court order.

Some might see this lack of transparency as harmless.

After all, it's only a think tank and not a political party. But when we review the very close relationship the IPA has enjoyed with the Liberal Party over 70 years - they formed about the same time and share many members - maybe it is a good idea to amend Commonwealth electoral laws to force lobby groups, think tanks, charities and others to identify their major donors, too.

Given Rinehart and the IPA are both climate change sceptics - and that carbon emission trading schemes are now taboo in the Liberal Party, despite Malcolm Turnbull's once hearty support - is it unreasonable to ask how the Coalition's policy was formulated despite the overwhelming evidence of climate science?

Given the IPA also champions
cuts to workers' weekend penalty rates, is it unfair to ask how the Government's industrial relations policies were made?

Is it inappropriate to ask who's paying the powerful figures who, in turn, influence the government behind closed doors?

Of course, the same must apply to other major donors and recipients - trade unions, centre-left lobby groups, and think tanks such as GetUp! and the Evatt Foundation must also reveal their patrons.

The question of how policy is made - and altered so dramatically and quickly - was further underscored at the weekend.

In 2012, Turnbull derided Labor PM Julia Gillard's call for "sustainable" population growth and said that "anyone who thinks it's smart to cut immigration is sentencing Australia to poverty".

In recent days, however, Turnbull appears to have had a change of heart and, now acknowledging our exploding population is an urban uber-crisis, suggests relocating new arrivals to regional Australia.

Don't get me wrong. Population pressures on a fragile ecology in the world's driest continent will prove catastrophic, and Turnbull is right to be concerned.

But all Australians, and business groups especially, must be told how the PM changed his mind, and what pressures - benignly electoral or environmental, or malignantly racist - were brought to bear on him.

Last week I attended the national conference of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group - a non-partisan organisation made up of academics and parliamentary officers researching the workings of Australian and New Zealand legislatures.

This year's conference theme was, appropriately, people's trust (or lack of it) in our state and national parliaments.

The presentations suggested, unsurprisingly, that the decline of traditional news consumption (printed newspapers, television and radio) and the rise of dodgy, algorithm-skewed social media news created an "echo chamber" where personal biases were confirmed and not challenged, where "fake news" proliferated, and where brainless anti-democratic conspiracy theories grew like bacteria.

Of course voters will grow cynical and suspicious in that sort of unhealthy hothouse.

But one solution really caught my ear.

What about a parliamentary Question Time where ordinary citizens can approach the Bar of Parliament and ask ministers questions on public policy-making and expenditure?

Currently, exactly half of any parliament's Question Time is bastardised by friendly "Dorothy Dixer" questions from the government's own side.

Of course, voters' questions would need to be vetted by an independent arbiter (perhaps the clerk of the house) to eliminate abusive language or petty point-scoring.

But, once approved, genuine questions from voters - and genuine answers from ministers - might just be the first step to restoring the trust our political system so desperately needs.

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University's School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science