Recent issues surrounding Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s leadership come down to one word and two questions. The word is ‘trust’ and the questions are simple.
After all the unsettling leadership talk can the Australian public trust Mr Abbott and his government to do the right thing by all sections of the community? Can his own backbench team trust him to act in their interests while pursuing a conservative ideology that has alienated many people.
The public airing of these questions comes as the US-based PR agency Edelman has just released its 2015 Australian Trust Barometer. For the past 15 years Edelman has measured the levels of trust that people around the world have in the institutions that make up the fabric of modern societies – government, business, media and NGOs.
In this year’s survey Edelman questioned 33 000 people in 27 countries including Australia.
The latest results highlight what many voters intuitively know. Australians have low levels of trust in government. Only thirty seven percent of the general online population trust government and a staggering seventy five percent think government fails to contribute to the greater good. In areas such as integrity, engagement and performance there is a canyon-wide gulf between the importance people place on these issues and the performance they actually see.
The Edelman survey and regular polling suggest a considerable gap between ordinary Australian and those they vote for.
There is no single reason for this disenchantment. Rather it is the product of broken promises, the brutalisation of politics, the Twitter-speed of the news cycle, leadership challenges, a focus on today at the expense of the long-term and political self-absorption. Pinpointing the problems are easy, fixing them is another matter.
Trust in politics is precious. Even in this era of instant gratification the nature of trust remains unchanged. It takes time, consultation and continuous conversation to develop a productive bond between people and there are no short cuts to achieving this. Throw out the manuals of the management gurus and forget the silver bullets, when a relationship sours it is because of personal, emotional disappointments that can rarely be fixed by stop gap solutions.
Unloved and unappreciated
One way to bridge the gulf between government and governed would increasing the quality of communications coming from Canberra. The ability to communicate and persuade is as vital to politics as the ability to count numbers. This is Politics 101 and there can never be an excuse for governments that fail to get their message to the electorate. Especially when they control the public agenda, can go digital to bypass traditional media and have well trained and creative public relations teams at their disposal.
It is difficult to know how many APS communicators there are in Canberra yet there are few departments without central PR teams plus marketing and similar staff hidden elsewhere on the books. Rarely however do you find government communicators who feel their ministers and mandarins respect their advice and fully use their skills. And even as the National Capital is home to award winning PR agencies and some of the best communications talent in the country, governments seem to routinely fail to use this elaborate PR infrastructure.
Either they are incapable of using it and valuable experience lies untapped or politicians believe Ministers and minders know better. Look at the difficulties the Government has in communicating issues such as Medibank co-payments, changes to the tertiary sector and where and who will build Navy’s next generation of submarines. Obviously communications talent in most Ministers’ offices must be thin on the ground.
Change is the challenge
It is time for a changed approach to government communications but fortunately one which will not prove radical. Every government agency has the trained and seasoned communications people, processes and programs already in place – a wealth of good people and good systems. Given the Government’s current woes it’s time to unleash the APS PR teams and deploy them to better effect.