Malcolm Turnbull: enough with the dumbing down of politics

Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull

In a speech at the University of Western Australia last night, former Opposition Leader and pin-up boy of disenchanted Labor voters, Malcolm Turnbull talked about trust.

Now, trust and politics are two words that when used in the same sentence, tend to make the average voter either giggle or gag.

But Turnbull’s speech last night was different. Why? Because he threw out the political rule book and criticised his own party as well as the Government and bugger me, he even offered up some solutions.

Turnbull took issue with politics being a profession that lends itself to untruths. He compared the safeguards that exist for lawyers to ensure that they act in good faith and seek to uphold the truth – with the obligations on politicians.

Turnbull explained that while politicians are duty bound not to mislead the parliament, they are under no such obligation not to mislead the electorate. Once outside those pink and green walls, it’s a matter of saying whatever you need to, to win over the people you need to keep you in office or boot the other side out.

Turnbull called for politicians to end the dumbing down of politics, to stop focusing on the political ‘gotchya’ moment and instead, to speak with clarity and without spin.

Have a read. Does he convince you?

Shouldn’t one key benchmark for politicians be: have we made an issue clearer and the complex comprehensible? We all want “cut through” messages- how about cutting through with clarity, rather than with spin?

And while newspapers are shrinking think tanks seem to be expanding – wouldn’t it be great if some of those public intellects actually held politicians like me to account, pointing out where we had exaggerated or misled. Public fact checking would raise the quality of debate.

Julia Gillard famously said “There will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead.” And then announced one a few months later.

A few days before the election as her numbers are falling away, in an effort to swing votes back, she says to the Australian people “Vote for me and there won‟t be a carbon tax.” There was offer and acceptance. The Australian people were asked to believe, and did believe, that they had struck a deal with the Prime Minister and, whatever you may think about the merits of the policy, she has welched on that deal.

It was entirely within Julia Gillard’s power to honour that pledge. Nothing made her impose a carbon tax. It was an entirely voluntary breach of contract and her poll ratings are a direct consequence of it.

A politician who mistakenly misstates the facts, often than because he or she has been misinformed, is not lying, they may be careless of course, and more of us who do get a fact or a number wrong should acknowledge that.

I remember Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister was very reluctant to admit that he had made a misstatement – no matter how trivial. By contrast John Howard would often jump up at the end or after Question Time to correct a statistic or a date he had previously mentioned in an answer.

No one is right all the time, admitting a mistake is a sign of strength not weakness.

Now I don’t have any silver bullet to make us politicians more accurate or more likely to keep our promises.

But we can make it easier to earn and keep the people’s trust. We should be much more careful about raising false expectations – whether on what we can do or what our opponents will do.

In case you think my call for a change of attitude and practice to truth in politics is just idealism – let me make a practical political point.

It seems to me that we don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust. We can argue for hours which side and which politicians, which journalists indeed, have contributed most to it. But it affects all of us and all of our institutions.

The politicians and parties that can demonstrate they can be trusted, that they will not insult the people with weasel words and spin, that they will not promise more than they can deliver, that they will not dishonestly misrepresent either their own or their opponents‟ policies – those politicians and parties will, I submit to you, deserve and receive electoral success.

You can read the rest of Malcolm Turnbull’s speech (if you have a spare half hour or so) here.

Do you think the way you view politicians and poltics has changed over the past few years? What do you put that down to? And what politicians have POSITIVE cut-through for you? Instead of just slagging off who we DON’T like, who DOES inspire politically?

Note: just because someone is a politician, that does not mean they can be subjected to personal abuse or slurs on Mamamia. By all means express a view but keep it respectful or your comment will not appear.

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