The government owes voters an apology. Opposing this banking commission was wrong

Admitting you were wrong is hard, but there are bigger issues at stake now: namely whether voters can still trust institutions

By Katharine Murphy

Given this isn’t complicated, here’s what should happen now.

The Turnbull government, if it has any sense of right and wrong, and any remaining shred of political judgment, should say to voters, without dissembling or weasel words: “Sorry, we got this one badly wrong.”

The collective mea culpa needs to be short and sharp, given we were all here and we all saw what happened.

We all saw the Turnbull government resist consistent calls for a banking royal commission after a string of damaging reports about scandals in the financial services industry. We saw that stonewalling play out for months.
Then we saw the government forced into having an inquiry because the prime minister and the treasurer got overrun by restive Nationals MPs while their then leader, Barnaby Joyce, was trying to clean up his self-created mess on dual citizenship in the New England byelection.

We saw Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison produce an inquiry through gritted teeth in response to Nationals running down the executive in full public view.

The banking royal commission has produced, in its opening stages, ample evidence to justify its own existence, and to validate all the news reporting and the political advocacy from Labor, the Greens and others that preceded its establishment.

So instead of being too tricky by half, and suggesting now it is marvellous we are having the inquiry, and signalling you are, of course, open to extending it, while conveniently omitting the back story – the government needs to eat crow with some humility and sincerity.

It is, frankly, ridiculous for senior government figures to demand financial institutions justify their conduct while declining to explain their own.

In professional politics, admitting you were wrong is the hardest thing to do, particularly in an age where the public space of politics is consumed by ad hominem insults and vicious put-downs, lobbed either by the protagonists themselves, or a chorus of onlookers chattering ceaselessly 24/7.

The government won’t want to hand that victory to Labor. It won’t want to confess fallibility before the voting public, preferring to project the sense that the emperor is still clothed.

But there are bigger issues at stake here than being seen to capitulate, or losing a 24-hour news cycle.

What’s in play right now in Australia is trust: whether voters can trust institutions, both private and public.

What this royal commission does is underscore the deep concerns Australian voters have about the health of our institutions, and whether or not our governments have the right priorities and focus.

Any politician paying attention right now will tell you that Australian voters are in a mood, worn down by the grim circus in Canberra, by the sense the country is drifting and political leadership in Canberra is little more than a ghost ship; and by the nagging sense that there was an age of prosperity and tranquility that has now been replaced by an age of contingency and shrieking.

When many voters looks at the cadre of leaders in this country they see politicians indulging intrigues at the expense of meaningful progress, and businesses entirely out for themselves.

That’s the context sitting behind the financial services inquiry.

It is not happening in a vacuum.

What’s in play right now is trust, and collective faith in representatives politics – and without it, governments have nothing.

Originally published in the Guardian Australia 19-4-2018.

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