2. Edwards: Our revival of trust in Government

1,000 New Zealanders aged 18 years or over were interviewed online from 26 February to 4 March 2018 by Colmar Brunton for Victoria University's IGPS.

Fresh research suggests the public is becoming more trusting of Government and politicians again. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University highlights new studies on trust, and says that “Jacindamania” still appears to be having a positive impact on society’s view of politics.

Growing distrust of politicians and authorities has been one of the most important political trends of recent decades, especially as it has accelerated around the globe in the last decade. Most notably, it has been connected to the revival of populist and radical electoral forces. Donald Trump is the most infamous example.

Here in New Zealand, such distrust has been recorded in a number of opinion polls, suggesting this country is not necessarily immune to political trends elsewhere. But new evidence suggests there’s been an abrupt turn around in this growing distrust. New surveys give an indication that New Zealand has departed from the trend, and we’re witnessing an improving perception of the health of our democracy.

Victoria University’s public trust survey

On Monday, the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies of Victoria University of Wellington released the results of a survey they had commissioned from Colmar Brunton about public attitudes to authorities. It shows there have been some meaningful improvements in trust since the same survey was run two years ago.

Most notably, “Asked whether they trust the Government to do what is right for New Zealand, 65 percent now answer yes, compared with 48 percent in 2016.” Similarly, “49 percent think New Zealand citizens’ interests are equally and fairly considered by the Government, up from 39 percent.” You can see an in-depth report on the results of the survey in March here: Public trust survey.

There’s still a fairly high level of distrust in politicians but, once again, the trend shows an improvement. For instance, “distrust” in Government ministers was much higher than “trust” in them, leading to a “net trust deficit” of -24 percent (i.e. 39 percent distrusting minus 15 percent trusting). However, two years ago this deficit was the much higher figure of -43 percent. Similarly, the trust deficit for MPs has reduced from -47 percent to -26 percent.

The Victoria University survey doesn’t suggest that we are just becoming more trusting generally. For most non-political areas, trust has remained at about the same levels as in 2016 or, in the case of churches and charities, declined significantly.

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer came out in March and can be read here: The Battle for Truth. It was taken from October 28 to November 20, which was just after the new Government and was in the wake of a month of uncertainty. The results are largely in line with Victoria University’s, showing that the proportion of New Zealanders who trust Government is on the rise. Last year the trust figure was 46 percent, and it has since risen to 51 percent.

This improving trend in New Zealand is at variance with the rest of the developed world, which is experiencing a worsening public trust deficit crisis. The change in this country can probably be explained with reference to last year’s election campaign. In itself, this was a highly-engaging and dynamic campaign, which would have given many voters reason to think more highly of politics and Government. And, in fact, voter turnout rose – which also went against both historic and international trends.

But it was the rise of Jacinda Ardern as leader of the Labour Party, eventually leading to a change of Government, which is possibly the single most important factor in the change of public attitudes to politicians. There is no doubting that “Jacindamania” lifted the spirits of those on the political left, and many less-politicised citizens could detect that there was something new and different happening in politics.

Therefore, a change of Government may have given some citizens a greater sense that “politics is working”. After all, for many on the political left who have previously felt that the system wasn’t working, there was now a feeling that change was possible.

Colmar Brunton Public Sector Reputation Index for 2018

Also released this week, Colmar Brunton has undertaken another survey about how much New Zealanders trust the public sector – see: Does our public sector measure up? This survey also suggests that levels of trust and distrust in politicians are evening out: when asked if people trust or distrust Parliament, 27 percent said they had trust, and 29 pecent were distrusting.

In addition, 41 percent said they trusted the civil service, with only 8 percent distrusting it. The survey also ranked the Government agencies, with the following coming out tops for their reputations with the public:

  1. Fire and Emergency New Zealand
  2. MetService
  3. Department of Conservation
  4. New Zealand Customs Service
  5. Tourism New Zealand
  6. New Zealand Defence Force
  7. Statistics New Zealand
  8. New Zealand Police
  9. Maritime New Zealand
  10. Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand

Deloitte New Zealand Millennial survey

One of the interesting elements of the Victoria University trust survey is that younger citizens exhibit much less trust in Government and authorities than older people. And this trend is backed up by a survey carried out by Deloitte New Zealand, released a few weeks ago, which said “their trust in political leaders is even lower. Millennials lack faith in the ability of government to make the changes they wish to see. Only 28 percent of New Zealand respondents believe politicians are having a positive impact on the world (compared to 52 percent negative)”.

You can read the Deloitte report here: Millennials’ confidence in business takes sharp downturn. It also suggests that less than half of New Zealand millennials (45%) believe businesses behave ethically, and that this level of trust appears to be heading downwards.

All of these measures of trust are important for a range of reasons – but particularly because they give a reading of how healthy our democracy is perceived to be. Improving trust in politicians and authorities suggests that public revolts are less likely to occur in the near future, with stability more likely.

High public trust also allows governments to undertake greater reforms, because voters are more open-minded to change. And it means that whenever the politicians and Government departments make mistakes – and we’ve seen all sorts of them recently, from the Human Rights Commission, to MPI, to Housing New Zealand – then citizens are more accepting of these problems as being mere aberrations.

The resilience of the current Government, and its various agencies, will therefore be enhanced by the news that public trust is heading in the right direction at the moment. But it’s probably too early for authorities to celebrate too loudly. After all, there’s still substantial dissatisfaction out there, and optimism based on Jacindamania could evaporate as quickly as it first appeared.