When citizens don’t trust politicians and governments, the wellbeing of society suffers, according to Professor Paul Ward, Head of Public Health at Flinders University.
In the article below, he reports on the findings of recent research showing that almost half of Australians do not trust local, state or federal governments.
Politicians who seek to undermine public trust in their opponents may also be harming their own interests, he suggests in what seems like timely, pointed advice for our political leaders.
When politicians seek to undermine our trust, there are negative consequences
Paul Ward writes:
This article presents some data from a research study of Australians’ trust in government, which seems particularly timely in the run up to the looming Federal election, given that voters are being asked by politicians to ‘trust me, but not them’.
The study (an abstract is here, pay for full PDF) included a national survey of over 1000 members of the public across Australia. It focussed on Australians’ trust in a variety of individuals (e.g. neighbours, GPs, politicians), organisations (e.g. hospitals, supermarkets, banks) and institutions (e.g. governments, media).
Trust has always been and continues to be a (or the) central concept in pre-election campaigning. Most members of the public are unlikely to personally know their local politician on anything other than a facial recognition level. They are even less likely to know Federal politicians.
This lack of inter-personal knowledge or relationship creates a social distance that requires ‘trust’. The public cannot know what the real intentions of particular politicians (or for that matter, political parties) are, and therefore the public are asked to trust that a politician (and/or a political party) will do their best not to let them down.
However, politicians from all varieties of political persuasion are drawing on examples where ‘promises have been broken’ by their political competitors.
In response to Labor’s announcement of the Federal election date, Tony Abbott, in a speech at the National Press Club, said “this election is about trust”, going on to question Labor’s performance and promises in relation to the carbon tax, job security and border control.
In response to this speech, Jenny Macklin questioned whether the public can or should trust Tony Abbott, saying “The test for Mr Abbott today will be whether Australian families can trust him to tell the truth”.
Such ‘questionable trust’ and ‘broken promises’ are then used as ‘evidence’ to distrust that particular politician, and by default, their political party.
Whilst this may be ‘part of the game’ of election campaigning, it may be broadly counter-productive. It seems that the strategy of Party A is to get members of the public to distrust the Party B.
However, this makes the assumption that these people will then, by default, trust Party A because they have been persuaded to distrust Party B.
This is not a logical argument, unless Party A also provided a convincing argument as to why they should be trusted (which is often absent in political debate).
However, there may be broader negative ramifications of such ‘he said, she said’ tactics which fuel a broad distrust in politics in general.
The public are called upon to trust governments to maintain the good of society and politicians to follow through with campaign promises. Given the increasing complexity of everyday decisions, trust provides a basic sense of security to citizens and is argued to be the basis for a well-organised society.
Politicians and administration are well aware of the role of trust in public acceptance of government and associated programs and are required to have increased transparency, legitimacy and public opinion inclusion as a way to foster trust.
In healthcare policy, evidence suggests that a lack of trust has significant implications for the implementation and uptake of health services and programs and ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes for the groups with lower levels of trust.
Despite the importance of trust, and the acknowledgment that public trust is declining, baseline results of Australians’ trust in State, Federal and local government have not been extensively studied until now.
The table below from our study shows the level of trust in local councils, State governments and Federal government. Between 40 to 50% of the population have little or no trust in the three levels of government.
Relationship between trust and demographics
Trust in State and Federal government was significantly lower for older respondents, who are much more likely than younger respondents to have little or no trust.
The extent to which an individual’s background can be described as disadvantaged was significantly indicative of trust in the local council and the Federal government.
Relative to respondents in the most affluent areas, individuals from a less advantaged background had consistently lower trust. For instance, respondents from the most materially deprived areas were 40% less likely to trust their local council and 60% less likely to trust the Federal Government.
With regards to age, the findings indicate that as age increases, respondents are less likely to trust both the State and Federal government – the lowest trust being demonstrated in respondents aged over 60.
It is often documented that government services towards older individuals are underfunded and that older Australians are disadvantaged in terms of job opportunities, being subjected to ageism, transport and location, in their access to appropriate medical services, and are frequently socially isolated or excluded from society.
These disadvantages are often linked to a lack of funding or government initiatives towards aged care and community services which are widely acknowledged in the media, potentially fuelling the mistrust found in our study.
Our finding that people living in materially disadvantaged areas have lower levels of trust in local councils and the Federal government fits broader notions around social exclusion, disempowerment and disillusionment in such communities.
This also echoes research I undertook in materially deprived areas in the UK where posters were plastered on buildings with the motto – Trust the lies, not the ‘truth’ (access the paper here).
People in these areas were, unfortunately, accustomed to distrusting government agencies and politicians, whereby distrust was their default position.
This is a rather negative lens through which to view the world, but it provided an existential defence mechanism that allowed people to ‘get on with life’.
When politicians attempt to create distrust in their political competitors, in the hope to gain trust in themselves, one hopes this will not just fuel further overarching political distrust and antagonism.
Building trust is particularly important for disadvantaged populations
Surely politicians and policy makers need to concentrate more on building trust in themselves, their politics and their policies, rather than dismantling trust in others.
That may not only increase overall trust and decrease political apathy and antagnonism, but do so particularly with the most disadvantaged and distrusting members of society.
Increasing trusting relations with deprived and marginalised populations is not just about increasing votes or promoting a ‘feelgood factor’ in such communities.
International research evidence in the field of public health is clear that by increasing trust in health services, policies and professionals, we can increase the access to, use of and engagement with health services in marginalised populations and ultimately strive to ‘close the gap’ in health outcomes. In this way, trust can become an ‘equity enabler’.
If our political leaders begin to focus of developing trust in themselves, their political parties and their policies, rather than just trying to dismantle trust in their opponents, we may begin to see increased trust, engagement and outcomes for marginalised communities.
The continued calls to ‘distrust them’ may work for short-term political gain, but in the longer term are likely to lead to further alienation, disempowerment and distrust.
Is that what Julia Gillard and/or Tony Abbott want?
• Professor Paul Ward is Head, Discipline of Public Health, School of Medicine, Flinders University; Chair, Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee, Flinders University; Honorary Professor, Centre for Values, Ethics and Law in Medicine (VELiM), University of Sydney and Visiting Professor, College of Public Health Sciences, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand