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How much trust do you have in politics and public institutions? It’s one of the most important political questions of our time. All over the world there has been a decline in trust, which is leading to a sea change in our politics – from Trump and Brexit through to the emergence of radical progressive causes that are challenging orthodoxies around economics, ethnicity and gender. So, suddenly people are more sceptical about authority, and it’s having major consequences, for good or ill.

Here in New Zealand there’s mixed evidence on the issue of trust, and today some new survey statistics are out which give us a better idea of levels of trust and mistrust. These come via Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, which commissions the Colmar Brunton market research firm to ask the public questions about trust each year.

It’s first worth noting that last year’s results were particularly interesting. I covered this in a column back then, explaining that New Zealand appeared to be experiencing the opposite of what was happening in the rest of the world as, since the election of the new government, trust had suddenly increased – see: New Zealand’s revival of trust in government.

I argued that the dynamic 2017 election campaign, together with the phenomenon of “Jacindamania” and the change of government gave the sense there was something new and different happening in politics.

The latest survey results reveal mixed evidence about the health of public trust. To some extent the “honeymoon” is over, with some of the levels of improved trust registered last year now dropping back. But other elements of the survey show some enduring levels of improved trust. You can see the details of the latest survey here: Latest trust survey explores link to political leanings.

When looking at the question of how much the public trusts government ministers, when the survey was first carried out in 2016, there was a net “trust deficit” of -44 per cent. This meant that a lot more people said they distrusted government ministers than trusted them. This improved significantly in the next survey, in 2018, with the net trust improving to just -25 per percent. Trust in ministers has dropped, however, in the latest survey to -32 per cent.

Similarly, trust in MPs went from -47 per cent in 2016, to -25 per cent in 2018; and is now declining again, down to -39 per cent. So, the new government honeymoon has ended, but the negative stats haven’t yet dropped back to pre-Coalition government levels.

There are plenty of other healthy trust statistics. When survey respondents were asked if they trust “the government to do what is right for New Zealand”, 63 per cent answered positively. This is similar to last year’s result of 65 per cent, and much higher than the 2016 figure of only 48 per cent.

Similarly, when asked “To what extent do you think New Zealand citizens interests are equally and fairly considered by government?”, 50 per cent replied that they had a great deal or reasonable amount of trust in this. This is the same result as last year, and up on the 39 per cent figure of 2016.

Also of interest is that “inter-personal” trust has “increased modestly” according to the survey results, with 54 per cent saying they trust most people, up from 48 per cent last year.

Trust is held differently depending on your ideology

Not all groups in society have similar levels of trust in institutions, however. Interestingly, the Colmar Brunton survey also asks people to place themselves on the left-right ideological scale, and then comes up with some correlations between ideology and trust. It turns out those on the “centre-left” are most trusting of MPs and government ministers, charities; local government; judges/courts, and so forth. In contrast, the least trusting of these – and most other institutions – are those further to the left.

The director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Simon Chapple, has written an article on this today, exploring the ideological dynamics involved – see: The ‘left’ is least trusting of others.

Looking at the political left, Chapple says: “The institutions where the left is least trusting include, perhaps unsurprisingly, both big and small business, churches and the police. Perhaps more surprisingly to some, the left is least trusting of schools – arguably the most left-leaning large-scale social institution in New Zealand, in their fellow New Zealanders to make informed choices about the country’s future, in charities, and in other people generally.”

What is particularly interesting is this is at variance with those who say they are in the centre-left, the centre, and the centre-right. Instead, it seems, those on the left share much of their scepticism with those on the political right.

Chapple explains: “In some cases, in terms of low institutional trust, the closest group to the left is the other end of the political spectrum, the right – a version of the so-called ‘horseshoe theory of politics’. For example, both left and right are most similar in their relatively low levels of trust in Government ministers, MPs, charities, local government, judges and courts, Political party funding, and in their fellow New Zealanders to make informed choices.”

Corruption perception problems

One of the antitheses of trust in politics is “corruption”. Therefore, it’s useful that in 2019 the VUW survey asks about perceptions of corruption, with the question: “Is corruption widespread throughout the government in New Zealand or not?”. To this, 34 per cent say “yes”, and 66 per cent say “no”.

Chapple comments on this: “While this is still low compared with other developed countries (e.g. the United States, where Gallup reported the figure was 75% in 2014), a similar question (in a Gallup survey) in 2013 gave a New Zealand figure of 24%, suggesting a worrying local rise in corruption perceptions.”

The corruption question can be looked at in terms of the ideologies of the survey respondent, with centre-left and centre-right voters being less inclined to see corruption. Here’s the list of those answering “yes” to the widespread existence of corruption in government: “Left 36%; Centre-left 20%; Centre 37%; Centre-right 25%; Right 42%”.

Colmar Brunton’s survey notes who else might be inclined or disinclined to see corruption: “Females, aged 18-29, who are dissatisfied with life and are generally distrustful of people are more likely to say corruption is widespread throughout the New Zealand government. Conversely males, aged over 60, who are satisfied with life and trust people are less likely to say corruption is widespread.”

Other recent survey evidence on trust

Colmar Brunton has also carried out research for New Zealand’s Parliament on the public’s attitudes to politicians. You can see this report here: Survey of the New Zealand public.

Most importantly, the survey found that that 27 per cent of New Zealanders said they trusted Parliament, compared to 29 per cent who expressed distrust, and 44 who were neutral. This compared poorly to other institutions. For example, 41 per cent of respondents declared trust in the “civil service”, and 8 per cent expressed distrust, and 51 were neutral.

There are a number of additional results relating to trust:
• 13 per cent “would speak highly of Parliament”
• 7 per cent “would speak highly of MPs”
• 60 per cent “believe big business and vocal minorities are the ones who influence Parliament”
• 37 per cent “feel there’s no point in trying to influence Parliament as nothing will change”
• 21 per cent “feel a sense of ownership of Parliament”
• 16 per cent “feel connected to Parliament”

Another recent survey – the annual Edelman Trust Barometer – which came out in earlier in the year can be read here: Kiwi employers the most trusted to lead change. This shows that “New Zealanders’ overall trust in the major institutions has remained flat since last year’s study”, with the following figures: “government (50%), NGOs (48%), business (47%), and media (34%)”, but with the addition of “my employer” emerging as the most trusted institution (74%).

One of the advantages of this survey is that it separates out “the division in society between the haves and have-nots” in looking at trust, suggesting that societies like New Zealand have a growing trust gap between the “informed public” and the “mass population”, which appears to be occurring elsewhere in the world: “New Zealand is in line with these global results, with an 11 point gap showing tertiary-educated, higher-earning Kiwis are overall far more trusting of institutions such as the Government and the media than the general population. This gap extends to faith in the system. Far more informed members of the public believe the system is working for them (41%) than the general population (30%)” – you can see the full report here: Trust at Work: 2019 Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer.

Of course, today’s major focus on trust goes further than just politics and authorities. The Otago Daily Times’ Bruce Munro examines how a new book by Dunedin psychologist Chris Skellet shows “where New Zealanders had previously assumed trust, we are now obliged to assume mistrust” – see: Trust is the new love.

Finally, it needs to be remembered that having too much trust can be a bad thing. In this regard see Henry Cooke’s must-read column from Sunday: Budget botchup shows the need for ministers to distrust officials and ask questions. But in this case, it might be the politicians who are being too trusting.

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