Policy U-turns by Australian governments are eroding public trust. Alexandra McEwan writes that the familiar tale of broken promises is taking its toll.
The New South Wales government’s decision to donate prize money to the state’s greyhound racing industry is the political equivalent of rubbing salt into the wounds of the thousands of community members who were initially successful in lobbying to ban greyhound racing. Given the narrative behind this gesture, there is sure to be a heartfelt sigh of disappointment from many Australians who are already lamenting the fickle dynamics of Australian politics.
Sadly, this is just the latest episode in a long and tumultuous tale of law reform tragedy.
According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, Australians’ trust in government has plummeted to an all-time low. The Edelman Trust Barometer measures public trust in four social institutions: non-government organisations, business, government, and the media. Australia’s trust in public institutions has fallen 10 points since 2017, which puts the nation in the category of ‘countries with extreme trust losses’.
Readers will be familiar with the sorry chain of events that led up to the NSW government’s backflip on greyhound racing.
Key events include the 2013 NSW Legislative Council inquiry into the industry, followed by a 2015 Special Commission of Inquiry in which former High Court Justice Commissioner Michael McHugh concluded that the greyhound industry had lost its social licence. Based on the Special Commission’s findings, in July 2016 NSW Premier Mike Baird announced the greyhound industry would be closed down. In October, Baird reversed the decision.
In addition to evoking a Leunig-esque image of dogs, politicians, trainers and punters (and maybe a duck), NSW’s political gymnastics points to factors that underlie Australia’s slide down the Edelman Trust Barometer. To those on the sidelines, the twists and turns on policy and legislative reform demonstrate a striking mix of regulatory and government failure.
But what stands out most in the politics of decisions and revisions?
Some key ingredients include a lack of adherence to principle, failure to make decisions in line with both reason and foundational democratic values, and an apparent unwillingness to stand resolute in the face of unpopularity. If Premier Baird did ‘get it wrong’, it was by not sticking to his original reasoned and evidence-based decision. Backpedalling on policy reform indicates to the public that the government is not to be trusted.
And the stakes are high when it comes to public trust in government.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, trust is important for several reasons. It is essential for key economic activities. It is necessary to increase the confidence of investors and consumers. And it supports the success of a wide range of policies and regulations, especially those that depend on the cooperation and compliance of citizens.
Governments in all Australian jurisdictions would do well to reflect on the importance of trust to national prosperity and quality of life. A sincere commitment to practice that builds credibility in policy development and decision-making may be the glue that holds the political system together.