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Image of Kevin Rudd by Australian Civil-Military Centre. Image of Julia Gillard by Kate Lundy.

Image of Kevin Rudd by Australian Civil-Military Centre. Image of Julia Gillard by Kate Lundy.

A State of Distrust in Australia

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Earlier in the week I spoke at the Institute of International Finance annual spring meeting in Paris. It was an opportunity to share with this gathering of 1,100 financial services and banking executives the state of trust in their sector and the global data of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. The cold facts are that after the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent rolling global economic storms that state of trust in that particular sector remains at all time lows. Over the course of questions and conversation it was heartening to hear the genuine interest to do what is necessary to build trust again with target stakeholders and engage in a conversation about the role banking and financial services must play in order to advance society.

While in France, on the other side of the world, a different conversation and action was taking place among the political leadership of Australia. My colleagues Clare Gleghorn and Nic Jarvis prepared the following very interesting thoughts:

The dramatic events that took place in Australia’s capital on the night of  June 26 will undoubtedly be the topic of much postmortem analysis by political and communications commentators in the following days, and the “true event” upon which many a made-for-TV creative adaptation will be based in the coming years.

The overwhelming feeling however by an exhausted nation is that our state of trust in political leadership has been truly shaken to the core and perhaps shattered beyond repair.

To recap: the governing Australian Labor Party (ALP) dispatched Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard after months of internal party bickering over the disastrous party’s September 14 election prospects. They have appointed former PM Kevin Rudd. Ms. Gillard had defeated Mr. Rudd in a similar fashion three years ago when his own polling was poor.

There had been a spill for the leader’s job in March this year, which Ms. Gillard won unopposed. But since then, declining trust in Ms. Gillard’s leadership by those closest to her in caucus led ultimately to a vote 57 to 45 in Mr. Rudd’s favour.

It is not the role of Edelman to speculate on the ins and outs of these decisions. We were neither in the room, nor privy to the weeks and months of conversations that led to this. But, there are lessons here and some stark realities about the state of trust and its impact.

According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer fielded in Australia, an incredibly low proportion of Australian respondents said they trust government leaders to:

  • solve social or societal issues (7 percent)
  • correct issues within industries that are experiencing problems (10 percent)
  • make ethical and moral decisions (7 percent)
  • tell you the truth, regardless of how complex or unpopular it is (7 percent)

Further, trust in government leaders in Australia is more in line with those European nations who have seen serious economic repercussions since the global financial crisis.  This is despite Australia being one of the strongest economies in the world with a low unemployment rate and relative stability.

There is no need here to dissect the minutiae of decisions made or promises not kept. However when the general public turns so dramatically on its leaders there is some room for understanding the importance of engagement.

Leaders have failed to meet the gap between performance and expectation. Where once the internal machinations of a political party were for the “faceless men” only and not up for public scrutiny, the proliferation of social media, the 24 hour news cycle and the new low water mark for transparent, open and honest government means that leaders can no longer afford to lose touch with their electorates and the community at large.

In what Edelman refers to as the diamond of influence, leaders can no longer dictate terms, control information flow and communicate in a transactional manner. A socially active community expects real engagement; they want to hear about vision and advocate for those leaders they believe in (and they WILL mobilise). They want to provide feedback and know that policies and long-term vision is being adapted to take on board this engagement, and they want to see leaders act on decisions.

This means finding better ways to communicate. In Kevin Rudd’s speech just prior to being handed his commission as the new PM by Australia’s Governor General, he made a direct appeal to Australia’s youth, acknowledging that they had ”switched off” from party politics and inviting them to “come back.” Likewise, he singled out the need to work more closely with business and industry in making the big and bold decisions that the nation rightly faces.

This dramatic 43rd Australia Parliament will be pulled apart and put back together around boardrooms and dinners tables for years to come but the one thing that cannot be argued is that trust is fragile and leaders must recognise the new social order.

Matthew Harrington is the global chief operating officer.

Image of Kevin Rudd by Australian Civil-Military Centre. Image of Julia Gillard by Kate Lundy.
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