It only takes one look around the local supermarket to confirm that Australians no longer trust many of the things we once did.
People have lost trust in their neighbours to buy only the groceries they need. In response, they’ve started to buy more than they need to avoid being left without.
Exacerbated by profiteers, this downward spiral of distrust will be hard to break, despite the best efforts of the government to get it into voters’ heads that there is no risk of an actual food shortage given Australia produces three times the food it needs.
Trust in the government, or more precisely, distrust of the government, is what’s making that communication task so hard. It’s also affecting the Prime Minister’s broader efforts to keep citizens, businesses and the stock market from succumbing to a succession of full-blown panic attacks over the COVID-19 virus.
That level of distrust is indicated in a recent opinion poll, admittedly taken before the world completely changed – namely two weeks ago – that asked which party was better at handling a selection of ‘major events’.
More respondents chose ‘neither’ than either the Coalition or Labor when it came to handling a global economic crisis (Coalition 35 per cent, Labor 30, Neither 36) or a major health risk (Coalition 34, Labor 29, Neither 37).
Just like the profiteers exploiting the FOMO spiral in our supermarkets for personal gain, political partisans are whipping up distrust of the government on social media to achieve their own objectives.
According to these players, nothing the Prime Minister or his team does or says should be accepted on merit. The government apparently can’t be trusted, partly because it’s not the preferred choice of those who voted against it, and partly because of the Coalition’s numerous failings, such as robodebt and the malfeasance of various ministers.
But as we saw with the Howard government’s gun ban after the Port Arthur massacre, governments that do bad things are also capable of doing good things when it is in the national interest. Inserting petty partisan politics into the mix is simply destructive when the times demand constructive collaboration.
The government’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, (who is soon to become the new Secretary for the Department of Health) has been caught up in this wave of antipathy. Accusations have been flying on social media that his advice (particularly on school closures) cannot be trusted and should be disregarded.
Coronavirus Update: "We've now stopped foreign nationals coming into the country but there are still a lot of Australians coming home" – Brendan Murphy – Chief Medical Officer. #7NEWS https://t.co/8UlvKiLmS2
— 7NEWS Sydney (@7NewsSydney) March 20, 2020
This is dangerous territory, when the top health officer in the land is being discredited purely because of the government he works for.
Indeed it’s dangerous enough for the peak bodies of Australia’s medical and public health practitioners to go public in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, to defend Professor Murphy. Terry Slevin, the chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, warned that in times of a public health emergency we should not be second-guessing the chief medical officer.
“Whether it’s extreme versions of misinformation, people pursuing their own commercial interest, or others offering opinions based on what they heard – these kinds of things are driving the panics we’re seeing,” Mr Slevin said.
So it’s in the national interest to avoid or at least reduce COVID-19 being used as a political football.
Our diligence in social distancing, social isolating, hand washing, and just being considerate of others is going to help us to reduce the spread and keep more of our loved ones alive. #coronavirusau pic.twitter.com/betQMRGAKM
— 💧🔥🐨😷 💛Bethany Williams (@BethanyinCBR) March 19, 2020
The easiest way to do so is staring the Prime Minister in the face. Or at least it will be the next time he meets with state and territory leaders in the new national cabinet established to coordinate and deliver a consistent national response to the pandemic.
Unlike the entity that created it, the Council of Australian Governments (or COAG), the national cabinet is not the place for petty politics. It riffs off the old concept of a ‘war’ cabinet, where cabinet members are drawn from both the government and the opposition to theoretically neutralise political advantage and act in the national interest during times of war.
Counting himself as well as all the state premiers and territory chief ministers, Scott Morrison’s war cabinet has five Labor members and four Liberals.
According to the PM “it doesn’t matter what party you’re in, in that national cabinet … we are working together as one united team to deal with the issues that we have been sworn in to deal with.”
If this is true, there’s one more political leader Mr Morrison could invite to join the national cabinet, in the spirit of bi-partisan collaboration, that could help to bring down the political heat currently simmering on social media.
By bringing his opposition counterpart, Anthony Albanese, into the tent, the PM would demonstrate that he truly was prepared to work above politics.
And by involving the Labor leader in all national cabinet discussions (which he would hear about anyway from the Labor leaders) the PM might regain some of the voter trust that he’s lost in recent times.
An added benefit would be that Mr Albanese would be able to add the Opposition’s proposals to the mix, to be considered on their merit by all leaders in the national cabinet. This would leave little room for complaint by Labor’s supporters if Labor’s proposals were not taken up.
The idea is not as outlandish and unprecedented at it seems. Yet it might be exactly what we need in these unprecedented times to restore trust and stability.