Breaking news: All politicians are not crooks. Cynicism has gone too far

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Australia’s traditional irreverence about politics is, in many respects, a good thing – a potent check against grandiose populists, incendiary nationalists and snake-oil salespeople. But in the wake of the referendum, we should recognise our scepticism has created fertile ground for disinformation.

In recent years, we have seen thousands of people taken in by the “sovereign citizens” movement, which suggests Australian law is both corrupt and circumventable. Thousands more believe all manner of ridiculous claims – from Australian Electoral Commission officials rigging elections with pencil erasers to elites working with the United Nations on a secret plan to take over the country.

Watch for storm clouds, by all means, but don’t assume it’s always bleak in the halls of power.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

What all this disinformation has in common is it relies on alienation from Australian politics and political history. Students don’t generally learn much about Australian politics in school. Big ideas about liberalism, egalitarianism and democracy are left unexplored. And millions of Australian citizens are hazy at best about the differences between the lower and upper houses, state and federal government, or general elections and referendums.

Yet that doesn’t stop us from being cynical about politics and politicians. And when that cynicism is unanchored to knowledge, it creates the perfect conditions for disinformation to thrive.

The antidote, I think, is to do a better job of educating all Australians about how our political system works. A stronger emphasis on civics from an early age is necessary in the curriculum and should continue through our children’s education. This may require a bipartisan view on what should, and should not, be taught, but this is a difficult discussion we should start.

Education should also extend to government information campaigns. Currently, federal governments spend heavily to inform people about myriad initiatives. How about setting aside some of that budget to educate all of us about the system itself?

New politicians and political staffers must also receive compulsory training on their roles, the operation of government and the apolitical public service. It’s hard to conceive of any serious company or organisation that would require people to take on the important leadership roles we give to our elected representatives, and particularly to ministers, without at least some form of training.

More broadly, I also think we need to drop just a little of our trademark Australian cynicism. There’s nothing savvy about claiming “all pollies are crooks”. If we’re going to be critical about what we don’t like, we should also recognise what we do.

Three years ago, I joined the selection panel for the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership. The prize assembles the likes of Julia Gillard, Mike Baird, Jay Weatherill and Peta Credlin, and seats them alongside leaders from business, the community and the public service, in the hope of achieving a consensus view on what constitutes quality political leadership. Perhaps surprisingly, this has proven eminently achievable.

The most recent Political Leader of the Year prize was awarded to Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. The panel had divergent views about the senator’s politics. But it recognised that, before she took office, she clearly defined what early success would look like as foreign affairs minister: resetting our fracturing relations with our Pacific neighbours and establishing a sustainable relationship with China.

The panel was impressed not only by her goals but also by the fact that Wong could have missed them. Despite the political risk of failure, she was willing to unambiguously define the target she thought to be in the national interest. That’s leadership.

Engagement with the McKinnon Prize has been enormously encouraging and dovetails with my experience in the Australian public service, where I had the privilege of working with some of the best political leaders of the modern era. Over time, I was able to recognise some similar patterns that bound them.

Whether it’s the Hawke-Keating comprehensive economic reform era, John Howard standing up for gun reform after the Port Arthur massacre or Peter Costello driving budget reform, the best leaders develop a clear sense of their own “true north”. They are prepared to subject their vision to scrutiny. They then convince the community to join their journey with the strength of their conviction and their perceived integrity.

Perhaps by moving beyond blanket cynicism to a more nuanced appraisal of our political leaders, we might inoculate ourselves against damaging disinformation.

Martin Parkinson is the chancellor of Macquarie University. He served as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (2016–2019) and as secretary of the Department of the Treasury (2011–2014). He will chair this year’s McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership. Nominations for the prize are open until Friday, November 17.

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