Amid much debate about the loss of political capacity to prosecute economic reform, the issue of trust gets overlooked. It’s a kind of triple threat. It’s harder these days for politicians to communicate effectively than it used to be, given the fragmentation of the media environment, and the current generation of politicians, Malcolm Turnbull honourably excepted, struggle with communicating anything requiring nuance or complexity. Tony Abbott is the exemplar of this problem, being incapable of delivering any message not framed around stopping something (or, to be fair, a grocery code of conduct).

But it makes those challenges even greater when voters don’t trust politicians.

A few weeks back Essential Research asked voters which professions they trusted most and least. You won’t be astonished to learn politicians came in last. But they came in really last: just 1% of voters had a lot of trust in politicians; only 10% had some trust. Forty-nine per cent said they had no trust at all in politicians. That’s even lower than journalists — 27% of voters had a lot or some trust in the media. Used-car salesmen weren’t on the list, but real estate agents were, and even they fared better, on 12%, and only 44% said they had no trust at all.

The party leaders only score a little better than politicians generally: 31% of people say Tony Abbott is “trustworthy” and 28% say he is “more honest than most politicians”; Bill Shorten scores 33% and 29%, respectively. So any politician spruiking reform is coming from the difficult position that most voters don’t trust them or believe them before they even open their mouths.

Enter Bill Shorten last week, with his eight-years-late donation declaration — which turned out to be $65,000, not $40,000, we learnt. And then, this week, Bronwyn Bishop emerged with an expenses claim so egregious that even a carbon-price scare campaign from News Corp couldn’t keep it from dominating the media and forcing Bishop into a bizarre backdown in which she insisted her claim was legitimate, but said she’d pay it back anyway.

But then, with that compelling image of Bronwyn and her chopper, mid-golf course, the scandal had the kind of WTFness that took it well beyond the political bubble.

I’ve long argued politicians aren’t remunerated well enough and that, at the federal level, nearly everyone in Parliament is there because they genuinely want to serve the national interest. But those arguments become harder to sustain every time further evidence emerges of politicians of all stripes rorting — or conveniently erring when they claim — their entitlements, particularly around travel (especially the strange coincidence of politicians regularly needing to travel to where major sporting fixtures are being played, which is a mystery for the ages).

The problem is made worse by the regulatory nature of the entitlements system, which is a combination of self-regulation and complaints-based regulation. You might be tripped up by the Department of Finance if you claim outside the entitlements — or you might not. Attending a political fundraiser is plainly outside travel entitlements, which only allow for MPs to travel to “meetings, other than in Canberra, of a parliamentary political party, or of its executive, or of its committees, attendance at the national and state conferences of a political party, to which he or she belongs”. But it took media scrutiny for Bishop to agree to pay back the chopper cost — i.e. someone had to complain before there was any regulation, and then it was only because of political pressure.

Like travel entitlements regulation, political-donation disclosure laws border on the voluntary, with parties suddenly disclosing controversial donations years later and taking advantage of the myriad of loopholes and excuses not to declare things — especially the Coalition parties, who play strictly by the book and look for any excuse not to report donations. Neither Labor, nor the AWU, nor Unibuilt reported the donations to Shorten’s campaign back in 2007, but no one faces any serious repercussions as a consequence of the non-disclosure beyond the cost to Shorten politically.

The impression — which I would still argue is misleading — that politicians are a pack of rorters is thus reinforced by the essentially self-regulatory nature of laws around funding and spending. And it’s exacerbated by how, despite scandal after scandal being exposed, politicians are content to merely tweak the system to provide the appearance of rigour rather than to establish a framework that would rely less on the media — with its ever-diminishing resources — catching politicians out.

This sort of thing tends to be dismissed as a distraction by the political class, tabloid ephemera that doesn’t relate to the big-picture issues of economic reform. But it undermines the possibility of already-inept communicators convincing the electorate of the merits of any policy that doesn’t produce winners all round. How can a government ask the community to accept lower government spending or higher taxes if the Liberals’ own Speaker of the House is jumping in choppers like you or I would call a cab?

Voters by and large don’t pay much attention to politics. Yesterday they paid attention to Bishop; last week they would have paid attention to Shorten. What they saw won’t help any politician trying to “reform”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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