Why isn’t anyone talking about trust?

Jun 12, 2022
A jigsaw puzzle spells trust with missing pieces
Diminishing levels of trust in politicians and leadership have the potential to undermine the stability of democratic government Image: Pixabay

Why has there been no discussion of how levels of distrust influenced voters’ decisions in the recent election? There has been wide speculation on why there were such low levels of votes for the Coalition and, to a lesser degree, the ALP as first preferences. There’s also been lots of discussion about the successful rise of votes for independents and Green voters. Although these results suggest major shifts in voting that could undermine the long-term pattern of clear victories by major parties, to a need to depend on other representatives’ votes to achieve governance, nobody is talking about a trust deficit.

The results of the Guardian post-election poll below suggest future shifts in governance to broader representations in decisions than just government majorities.

‘Australians are comfortable with the substantial increase in the number of independents in the new parliament where Labor has now secured a majority, according to the the first Guardian Essential poll since the federal election. Two-thirds of respondents said an expanded crossbench would be positive because a wider range of views could be represented, and only 36% expressed concern about the potential for instability or delay in decision-making. The survey also suggests support for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament and a treaty with First Nations peoples is on the rise.’

This raises serious questions about the effects of current distrust levels of the major parties and the future of democracy. Diminishing levels of trust in politicians and leadership have the potential to undermine the stability of democratic government. A past example was the 1930s Hitler and Mussolini take-over of failing democracies ending up with the horror of WW2. Currently there are many other democracies failing to fairly represent voters, leading to Strong Men controlled governments such as in Brazil, The Philippines, Hungary and Poland.

The current data show high voter acceptance of more voices and views, and discontent with the system we have had. There are conspiracy believers and the far right on one side, but on the other increased support for the more radical Greens and more radical Independents. The distrust of hard-line market-based governments that have cut back on public responsibility, spending and social policies seems to explain the loss of many major party voters. The success of the ALP in the House of Representatives suggests they are more popular than the last government, but they’ll still need to work with the increased number of Greens and some of the good change-seeking independents in the Senate.

The above current data show the high voters’ distrust of hard-line market-based Neoliberal governance that cuts back on public responsibility, spending and social policies. Many voters feel uneasy as they become redefined as government ‘customers’ with ‘choices,’ so are no longer citizens with rights and responsibilities and rights.

Why trust?
The importance of trust to maintaining a strong and well functioning democracy can’t be overestimated.
Why does trust in government matter? Trust in government has been identified as one of the most important foundations upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems are built. Trust is essential for social cohesion and well-being as it affects governments’ ability to govern and enables them to act without having to resort to coercion. Consequently, it is an efficient means of lowering transaction costs in any social, economic and political relationship (Fukuyama, 1995). A high level of trust in government might increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations. Government at a Glance, 2013, OECD

The Edelman Trust surveys regularly show the rise and fall of government trust in Australia. It recorded that the social trust of the State and Federal governments rose briefly in Australia at the beginning of the pandemic when Governments took control of health and vaccination in the early 2020s. These trust levels fell rapidly when the government measures of relief were removed and the dependence of businesses restated. It is now clearly low again as shown in the Roy Morgan data. ‘A look at trust and distrust during the term of the current government shows distrust in government and Government services has consistently far exceeded the level of trust, leading to a consistently negative ‘Net Trust Score’, over the past decades.’

This recent data from Roy Morgan surveys on ‘Trust’ and ‘Distrust’ of government and government services show distrust levels soared in the second half of 2021, while trust in government fell after sexual assault allegations in Parliament house emerged in early 2021, were followed by further allegations against Government MPs Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Andrew Laming.

A snap SMS survey conducted in early March this year by Roy Morgan revealed that government leaders dominate the Net Distrust Score rankings: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the most distrusted politician in Australia, with Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce the second and third most distrusted sitting politicians across the country.

Their prediction at that date was that “Australian political contests are no longer purely won on trust, they are lost on distrust.”

The aforementioned view by Roy Morgan offers a more interesting and nuanced explanation of the results of the election and the victory of the ALP. The report also noted the top five reasons why Senator Penny Wong was rated number one. She is considered ‘ethical, focused on the needs of the electorate, fair, honest and transparent with no hidden agendas’. These views and other trust measures would explain why the ALP ended up in government. Yet most of the analyses on offer have failed to discuss the trust/distrust factors that seem to have been a major factor in the voting choices.

We have now more than a couple of weeks of commentary since the 2022 federal election and the ALP win, but the analysis and reportage have failed to mention the emotive aspect of voting choices that are likely to be important in setting policy and behaviours to remedy the effects of the distrust factor in results. This is despite a plethora of reliable survey data on the rising distrust of politicians and their governments that has been accumulating over the last few years. The long-term evidence of its effects on voters’ faith in democracy, how it will influence voting, and the surprising loss of votes for the two major parties hasn’t been taken into account by the parties or the commentators. Has this factor, which is evident in other democracies like NZ and most European nations, finally undermined one party governments?

This is an area I have had a long interest in, and it was the core of my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures, A Truly Civil Society. My concern then was the shift away from the commitment made by governments post-World War II to value the welfare and equity of people to avoid the pre-war conditions that had led to distrust of democracy and the rise of fascism.

The need for a social contract

The pandemic has raised increasingly serious questions of the role of government, as we see the ill-effects of a lack of centralised services, and how publicly funded community-run non-profits would be better able to deliver services during times of crisis. Rare unity across parties and state boundaries were able to make improvements and deliver results to meet public needs. However, this dissipated as as controls seemed to work and the federal government recommitted to the market.
We have always lived in times of change. In the past, there was a sense that change was good – there was an optimism that we were moving into better times. There are now signs of a widespread anxiety that we are moving backwards, and what we leave to our children may be no better than what we inherited from our parents. I hope this need not be so.

Trust is essential for our social wellbeing. Without trusting the goodwill of others, we retreat into aggro rules and demands for more law and order. Trust is based on positive experiences with other people and it grows with use. We need to trust that others are going to be basically reasonable human beings.

Trust leads to co-operation. I have a tea towel, which shows a cartoon strip of individuals trying to climb out of a deep hole. Only when they do it together can they find their way out. We know that working together is preferable to working alone and yet the ethos of competition over-rides an ethic of care. How do we restore the social democracy we need?

Australia’s social development has, from our convict beginnings, been closely linked with governments. Collective action created our belief in egalitarian structures. So telling us not to trust the government spills into not trusting our neighbours or even not trusting ourselves.  Suggestions from World Economic Forum offer a starting list!

‘The OECD has identified four key behaviours for governments working to restore trust: they must act with reliability, be responsive, open and inclusive, and work with integrity. These are not goals for governments to achieve on their own. We must support shifts in government capacity and culture toward increased transparency, accountability, competency, capacity, good policies and regulatory frameworks, reliable service delivery, and the rule of law.’

The ALP is offering a clutch of what they see as popular reforms, but is not including the social reforms such as constraining or preferably abolishing privatisation of aged care and children’s services so these are seen as engaged community services, not as government funded for profit businesses,. for example. Trust in Governments requires them to engage in such areas to support local and cultural wellbeing.

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