Who will restore trust, and how?

As words are not followed by concrete deeds with tangible benefits to those most in need, there is distrust not only of the political class but even of politics as an avenue to solve national problems

By TP Saran

For quite some time now the big debate in all democracies has been the widening gap between the political class and the people. At one end of the spectrum, in countries such as ours, one of the signs of this gap is the exasperation of the common man with the ostentatious displays of luxury living among those who have been pretending that the rising tide will lift all the boats – while s/he is still stuck in the sands. The other is the sentiment of growing mistrust in leaders who fail to deliver on the promises made when they come searching for votes and promise the sky to the electors.

This is sharp contrast to Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, which our leaders aspire without success to emulate, where as Prime Minister he created, according to a close political associate speaking after he passed, a ‘democracy of deeds’ as opposed to one of mere words, which is the type that we have here. For example, where is the promised democratisation of the economy? Instead, the haves continue to siphon off the wealth at the expense of those in much greater need aided and abetted by decision makers through tax cuts and waivers (e.g. here: in respect of land conversion amongst other things) that increasingly benefit the wealthy and big businesses. This a situation that prevails in developed democracies too. Marc Stears, Director of Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney in a recent article in The Conversation, where he notes that there too ‘political action remains focused on tax cuts that favour the wealthy or big business’.

As words are not followed by concrete deeds with tangible benefits to those most in need, there is distrust not only of the political class but even of politics as an avenue to solve national problems. Disenchanted people, especially that forward, go-getter segment of the younger generation who are fending for themselves and not depending on government, fuel that distrust further, influencing others too to follow the trend. The danger is that the political class may then feel emboldened to continue in their old ways, disadvantaging even further those who have no other recourse than to depend on government measures to improve their lot.

Marc Stears therefore cautions, ‘Don’t give up on politics. It’s where the fight for the fair must be won’, as ‘Governments’ lack of response to rising inequality is not a problem of knowledge or public support. The problem is that those whose needs are being ignored must find a way to make themselves heard.’

Because, ‘for decades now, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest has been widening. This has very real and very dangerous consequences for people’s mental and physical health and for the cohesion of our communities’. This gap can only be addressed by means of appropriate policy solutions, which ‘range from reform of the rules governing how pay is set in the big corporations to sustained investment in the foundational social services that everyone but the very richest relies upon, including public education, health and housing’.

It is undeniable that our country faces a similar situation. In view of the asymmetry with regard to people in need being able to express themselves freely, it is critically important to have representatives who are socially aware and have a sufficient breadth of vision to appreciate where problems and blockages lie that are preventing people from making progress. Whether it is in the fields of education, socially affordable housing, availability of land, energy at reasonable price, it is only clear-headed policies which will make the difference to the lot of the common man, which increasingly also means the middle class. And unless those who take decisions on their behalf are knowledgeable about the challenges and transformations that are taking place in the sectors mentioned and others, they will continue to be at a losing end and lag behind. So putting the right people in the right place at political and institutional level so that the right policy decisions are taken will continue to be the effective lever of change.

As it is, there is a clamour that is a call for more divisive politics, as it is trying to revive monsters that we thought belonged to another age and ought to have remained buried. Who will counter this but an enlightened civil society and leaders who will not hesitate to take on their counterparts who are dabbling in divisive tactics that will do no one any good, in fact may take the country down into social chaos with resulting economic decline.

Marc Stears draws attention to ‘another, far darker story’ – ‘the rise of another way of doing politics,’ described by anthropologist Janine Wedel in ‘Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt our Finances, Freedom, and Security’ (2014).

‘It is the world of the professional lobbyist, of the revolving door between global corporations and the highest levels of government, of uneasy relationships between public decision-making and private profit, and of the capture of elite thinking by norms and expectations that owe too much to the practices of the financial services sector.’

 ‘As a result,’ continues Stears, the salience of issues such as “what the public thinks” and “what the public needs” when it comes to the economy have been significantly eroded as well’, so that ‘what all of this means is that economic decision-making increasingly responds to a narrower and narrower section of society. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that almost no concerted action has been taken to halt the rise of inequality.’

And so he says that ‘the action we need to restore the fair go cannot begin with the economy. It must instead begin with policymaking and politics.

We need to make sure the voices of those affected by inequality are genuinely heard and heeded. This commitment should run through everything we do: from supporting our local trade union to opening up scholarly resources to those people in need, from demanding action to rein in corporate lobbying and special access to generating exciting and innovative ideas for using new technologies to accentuate the voice of those without access to formal power.

These ideas are where our energy needs to be. If we want to see greater equality, we need to spend time working out precisely how our political life can become truly responsive. And then we must campaign to make those changes real’.

It doesn’t take much effort to realise that this is exactly what is happening in our own country, and that we must respond along the lines that he has outlined if we want a secure future for the coming generations of citizens.

* Published in print edition on 16 November 2018

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