Bryce Edwards: The Battle for Trust in NZ politics 

Bryce Edwards: The Battle for Trust in NZ politics 

Over the last decade there’s been a stunning slump in levels of public trust for authorities around the globe. When society becomes more suspicious of public institutions, there is increased chance of political upheaval and change – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view. And the political change that results from distrust can take many forms. It means that, even here in New Zealand, it’s worth keeping a close eye on how the public perceives the major institutions of society. For more than a decade, surveys have indicated there is a fair degree of discontent in New Zealand, especially towards elites.

Acumen-Edelman’s latest annual survey provides a barometer on trust for New Zealand institutions. It shows that government continues to be widely distrusted, with only half of the 1150 New Zealanders surveyed saying they trusted the institution of government. You can read the full report here: The Battle for Truth.

This level of trust in government was actually up on the last survey carried out as part of the global Edelman Trust Barometer. Last year the trust figure was only 46%, and it has since risen to 51%. Perhaps this increase can be explained by the fact that the survey took place in the middle of November last year, soon after the spectacular general election campaign, and a change of government. The public had been engaged in the democratic process, and the campaign was widely viewed as the most interesting in living memory.

Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting upon the fact that half of New Zealanders distrust the political institution that runs society. Certainly, the Minister of Open Government, Clare Curran has taken notice. She’s been reported as saying “I think that the real issue with the survey is that almost half of Kiwis don’t trust the Government, and that’s not good enough, and it’s something we want to be doing more work on” – see Chloe Winter’s How businesses, media, Government work on gaining public trust.

Of course, it’s always hard to ascertain exactly how distrust of government breaks down across society. A unique part of the annual Edelman Trust survey is that it breaks down the figures to show how much trust the “informed public” has, compared to the “general public”. The “informed public” seems to be defined as those who have a strong knowledge and consumption of news. On this measure, trust in government fell six points, from 63% to 57%.

The survey also shows other societal institutions to be even less trusted. Media, business, NGOs were also deemed untrustworthy by the public – trust for NGOs was down to 48%, for business it was down to 47%, and for the media it was up slightly to 31%. Coverage of all this is found in Chloe Winter’s Kiwis have become a little more trusting. As Winter explains, New Zealand rates well internationally on this index, scoring 44 points, just ahead of the United States which fell nine points over the last year.

There’s a particular focus in this year’s report on the New Zealand public not trusting the media. As Winter reports, “About 64 per cent of respondents could not recognise journalism from rumour, and they were also struggling to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organisation.” Furthermore, “many people feel media is more focused on providing entertainment to attract larger audiences. This is leading to a disengaged population with half of those surveyed saying they consume news less than weekly.”

The Chief Executive of Acumen Republic, Adelle Keely elaborates, saying “In terms of its top trust-building mandates, New Zealanders expect media to be guarding information quality (63%) and educate people on important issues (59%), however feel the media is performing best at providing society with entertainment (61%).”

Trust in Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) was also low, according to the survey, with only 48 per cent having confidence in them (down from 51 per cent), and their performance being judged as poor. Acumen’s Keely provides an interesting commentary on this: “There is no doubt that NGOs are tackling the more complex and difficult issues that are not easily solved so it’s hard to attain high performance scores, but we also think the fact that many NGOs receive funding from government has placed them in a compromising position. They cannot afford to be too outspoken for fear of this having repercussions.”

More survey evidence about public distrust can be found in the New Zealand General Social Survey, run by Statistics New Zealand. The latest results on political participation were released in January, and showed that “29 per cent of people in New Zealand rated their trust in Parliament as low” – see the Herald’s Trust in political system lowest among Maori, Stats NZ survey finds. However, conversely, “Thirty per cent of the New Zealand population rated their trust in Parliament as high, and a further 9 per cent rated their trust very high”.

This survey, taken under the previous National Government, also showed that a third of people “felt they could not influence Government decisions”, while about 25 per cent thought the public’s influence on decision-making was high, and another four per cent thought it was “very high”. In general, on all of these measures, “Maori had a more pessimistic outlook than the general population.”

Arguably, children are even more pessimistic. A Unicef survey released back in November showed that “More than 90 per cent of New Zealand’s children believe the world would be a better place if politicians listened to them” and “six out of 10 Kiwi kids don’t trust adults and world leaders to make good decisions for children” – see Brad Flahive’s Less than half of Kiwi kids trust adults and world leaders, survey says.

It’s not all bad news, however, and a few weeks ago survey evidence was released by the Auckland Council to show that citizens are becoming more satisfied with the performance of local government there – although the figures are still rather negative. RNZ reports: “Dissatisfaction was down to 27 percent from 35 percent… Trust in council decision making rose to 22 percent from 15 percent, while distrust fell from 47 percent to 39 percent” – see: Small improvement in public view of Akl Council – survey.

There’s also an argument to be made that much of the public’s distrust of authority and politicians is simply due to the media’s negative reporting on our institutions of power. This is an explanation put forward today by Chris Trotter, who says: “The mainstream news media’s dwindling share of the advertising dollar drives it inexorably towards the sensational, scandalous, salacious and bizarre ‘clickbait’ upon which its profitability increasingly depends.” The effect of this, he argues, is a corrosion of the public’s orientation to politicians, who have been unfairly painted by cynical political journalists – see: The Political economy of mainstream political journalism.

Finally, Geoffrey Palmer has long talked about the crisis of confidence in New Zealand democracy, and about how important public trust is to the health of democracy. His latest book, Towards Democracy Renewal, co-written with Andrew Butler, is published next month. He recently gave a Ted Talk on these issues, proclaiming: “People have less faith in democracy than they used to. They feel disconnected from it. They don’t feel that the decisions are being made in their interests. And, of course, it is very important in a democracy, if people don’t have confidence in it, then you are going to have all sorts of problems. That’s what’s happening in Western countries – and we’re not immune from that. We’ve got to repair our democracy while we’ve got time.” You can watch the full 14-minute talk here: Constitutional change and democratic renewal.