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Who do you trust? What Turnbull and Shorten can learn from John Howard

Executive Director Sam Crosby for ABC’s The Drum

Malcolm Turnbull’s endorsement of Peter Dutton’s immigration statement does nothing to help boost his trustworthiness ratings, writes Sam Crosby. Both he and Bill Shorten should look to John Howard — and Bernie Sanders — if they’re to gain voters’ trust.

There are currently two leaders on offer to Australians, and we don’t really trust either of them.
Only roughly a third of voters are prepared to say they find either Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten trustworthy, according to the latest Essential Report research.
It might be tempting to conclude that a low level of perceived trustworthiness is par for the course with politicians.
But such a conclusion would ignore the man who led this country for a decade before 2007.
We trusted John Howard more consistently than any leader since.
Why? Well, the latest research around trust suggests it might be because Howard had a quality he shares with a contemporary political leader: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
This year the world has watched on in amazement as Sanders, an elderly, Jewish, democratic-socialist, has rocketed into contention and stayed there in the US presidential primaries.
Such is the unusualness of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon that the general belief is that surely its sudden end must be perpetually around the corner. #feelthebern must obviously turn to #bernout.
Yet while it may have been Sanders’ fiery and focused message about inequality that catapulted him to the centre of the global stage, what has kept him there so long is record-high trustworthiness ratings.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found 68 per cent of voters found him trustworthy, while a recent YouGov poll found “Bernie Sanders is the most widely trusted presidential candidate of either party”.
This is arguably the key reason the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, can’t shake her rival off despite a large lead in primary delegates.
Sanders’ high trustworthiness score comes at a time when American society has never trusted its political leaders less. Since the GFC, polls have found record-high levels of distrust in the United States (above 80 per cent) — higher now than during Watergate or the Vietnam war.

‘Trustworthiness is not the same as honesty’

So what does Sanders’ high perceived trustworthiness have in common with Howard’s?
Both understood that contrary to popular conflation, ‘trustworthiness’ is not the same thing as ‘honesty.’
A professor from the college of business at East Carolina University, Anil K Mishra, has written on this subject for over 20 years and has found that ‘honesty’ is one of four key characteristics that seem to engender trust in political leaders — with the others being competence, openness, and consistency.
Consistency is what John Howard was appealing to in 2004 when, following the ‘children overboard’ affair, he asked the Australian people: “Who do you trust?”
Howard understood that his consistency over decades in politics was a more important component of political trust than simple honesty.
The Member for Bennelong was one of the most remarkably consistent politicians in Australia’s history, supporting many of the Hawke-Keating Government’s unpopular reforms at the time, such as the privatisation of Qantas or the Commonwealth Bank.
Even Howard’s unpopular WorkChoices policy had arguably been part of his agenda since the early 1980s.
Of course there are notable exceptions, but John Howard held the same core views in government and in opposition.
Through this he was able to cultivate his ‘man of steel’ image that rewarded him with electoral success and on to an enduring legacy.

How consistent are Turnbull and Shorten?

Next to Howard’s steely image, today’s political leaders look slightly limp by comparison.
Shorten has the shadows of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years that he needs to move beyond, whereas Turnbull abandoned his signature policy positions of climate change and marriage equality in his very first Question Time as PM.
This week he has abandoned his traditional identity further still, by endorsing the statements of his Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, about refugees languishing on welfare and stealing Australian jobs.
By comparison, Bernie Sanders is arguably one of the most consistent politicians to have ever run for president of the United States.
Sanders was pro-gay rights, anti-death penalty and pro-drug law reform well before these issues were even considered mainstream, let alone popular.
As a congressman and senator for the small, liberal north-eastern state of Vermont, Sanders was able to get re-elected for the last 26 years with these views, irrespective of what national polls said about him.
By contrast, Clinton has ridden the wave of the American mainstream, evolving her views largely in lockstep with the bulk of US citizens. From marriage equality to drug law reform, her positions have matured along with the rest of the country.
‘Trustworthiness’ in this context is a function of consistency, and honesty doesn’t figure. So when the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checking organization PolitiFact rates Hillary Clinton as ‘honest’, it doesn’t change her trustworthiness figures.
Even when it notes she has the best truth-telling record of the remaining presidential candidates, including Sanders, the ratings don’t change, as evidenced by a March poll by the Washington Post showing only 37 per cent believe she’s honest and trustworthy.
That’s because when the consistency of the candidates’ records on issues like drugs or prisons are compared, the difference is stark.

Do we trust men or women more?

Interestingly, gender also plays a role here, but not in the way you might expect.
The 1950s view that women are not up to the task of national leadership has — if the data is to be believed — almost completely dropped away.
Research by the independent Pew Research Center shows that although a majority of Americans don’t see any difference between the genders, a large proportion view women as fundamentally more honest and ethical than men: 62 per cent see no difference, 34 per cent favour women and only 3 per cent favour men.
But this is potentially why Clinton’s inconsistency hurts her so much.
The public overwhelmingly prefers the idea of a female leader to the idea of a male leader; but while this might seem like an advantage to Clinton, in fact, it may be simply setting unrealistic standards for a flesh-and-blood politician to live up to.
It’s not that the US public doesn’t trust women — it’s that women have been put on a pedestal in the abstract.
Apparently we want women in power, but only if they can act like the idealised female leaders we have in our heads, not if they act like male politicians.
Another former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, may well view Pew’s research with interest.

Sam Crosby is the Executive Director of the McKell Institute and his new book, The Trust Deficit is out now