Australians became more satisfied with federal public services, and more trusting of them, during the first months of COVID-19, according to survey results released by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Between February and June this year, satisfaction with the public services delivered by the Commonwealth increased from 69% to 78%. In March 2019 it had been 71%. People were asked how satisfied they were overall with the Australian public services they had accessed in the last 12 months.
Trust in the federal public services rose from 57% to 65% from February to June this year, and compared with 59% in March 2019.
The results are in line with trends in trust and satisfaction in institutions and leaders that academic and other surveys have shown.
The Citizen Experience Survey, done regularly and nationally, measures public satisfaction, trust and experiences with Australian public services. It is led by the Prime Minister’s Department .
In total more than 15,000 Australians were surveyed over five waves. The first wave was in March 2019 and surveyed about 5,000 people; this was followed by four more waves, each surveying about 2,500 people.
These results dealt with services delivered at Commonwealth level, not state delivery.
The survey put a series of propositions to people who had accessed any federal services in the last year.
It found 57% agreed information from the service was easy to understand; 60% said the staff were knowledgeable; 62% said the staff did what they said they would do, 51% said the amount of time it took to reach an outcome was acceptable, and 66% said they were treated with respect. All the numbers had risen since February.
Maps have shown us how the events of this disastrous year have played out around the globe, from the Australian bushfires to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are good reasons to question the maps we see.
Maps often inform our actions, but how do we know which ones are trustworthy? My research shows that answering this question may be critically important for the world’s most urgent challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maps guide decisions, including those made by governments, private companies, and individual citizens. During the pandemic, government restrictions on activities to protect public health have been strongly informed by maps.
Governments rely on public cooperation with the restrictions, and they have used maps to explain the situation and build trust. If people don’t trust information from the government, they may be less likely to comply with the restrictions.
This highlights the importance of trustworthy COVID-19 maps. Maps can be untrustworthy when they don’t show the most relevant or timely information or because they show information in a misleading way.
Below are a few question you should ask yourself to work out whether you should trust a map you read.
What information is being mapped?
The number of cases of COVID-19 is an important piece of information. But that number could just reflect how many people are being tested. If you don’t know how much testing is being done, you can misjudge the level of risk.
Low case numbers might mean that there isn’t much testing being done. If the percentage of positive cases (positive test rate) is high, we might be missing cases. So not accounting for the number of tests can be misleading.
It’s not just the numbers that matter. How the numbers are shown is also important so that map readers get an accurate picture of what we know.
The Victorian Government recently advised Melburnians to avoid travel to and from several local council areas because of high case numbers. But their publicly available map does not show this clearly.
Compare the government-produced map with a map of the same data mapped differently. Most people interpret light as few cases and dark as more cases. The government-produced map uses dark colours for both low and high numbers of cases.
Who made this map and why did they make it?
Maps can inform, misinform, and disinform, like any other information source. So it is important to pay attention to the map’s context as well as the author.
Viral maps are maps that spread quickly and widely, often via social media. Viral maps cannot always be trusted, even when they come from a reputable source. Maps that are trustworthy in one context may not be in another.
An example from Australian news media in February shows this. Several media outlets showed a map that was tweeted by UK researchers. The tweet announced the publication of their new paper about COVID-19.
The media reported the map showed locations to which COVID-19 had spread from Wuhan, China, the origin of the outbreak. It actually depicted airline flight routes, and was used in the tweet to illustrate how globally linked the world is. The map was from a 2012 study not the 2020 study.
Many readers may have trusted that reporting because their justifiable anxiety about COVID-19 was reinforced by the map’s design choices. The mass of overlapping red symbols creates a powerful and alarming impression.
While the lines in the map indicate potential routes for virus spread, it doesn’t provide evidence that the did virus spread along all of these routes. The researchers didn’t claim that it did. But without understanding why the map was made and what it showed, several media outlets reported it inaccurately.
Maps on social media are especially likely to be missing important context and explanation. The airline route map was re-shared many times as in the tweet below, often without any source information, making it hard to check its trustworthiness.
Limiting the damage done by COVID-19 is a very substantial challenge. Maps can help ordinary citizens to work together with governments to achieve that outcome. But they need to be made and read with care. Ask yourself what is being mapped, how it’s being mapped, who made the map and why they made it.
Vaccine or not, we have to come to terms with the reality that COVID-19 requires us to rethink how we live. And that includes the idea of smart cities that use advanced technologies to serve citizens. This has become critical in a time of pandemic.
But as we prepare to move beyond this crisis, cities need to design systems that are prepared to handle the next pandemic. Better still, they will reduce the chances of another one.
Issues of trust are central
In a world of egalitarian governments and ethical corporations, the solution to a coronavirus-like pandemic would be simple: a complete individual-level track and trace system. It would use geolocation data and CCTV image recognition, complemented by remote biometric sensors. While some such governments and corporations do exist, putting so much information in the hands of a few, without airtight privacy controls, could lay the foundations of an Orwellian world.
Our research on smart city challenges suggests a robust solution should be a mix of protocols and norms covering technology, processes and people. To avoid the perils of individual-level monitoring systems, we need to focus on how to leverage technology to modify voluntary citizen behaviour.
This is not a trivial challenge. Desired behaviours that maximise societal benefit may not align with individual preferences in the short run. In part, this could be due to misplaced beliefs or misunderstanding of the long-term consequences.
As an example, despite the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the US, many states have had public protests against lockdowns. A serious proportion of polled Americans believe this pandemic is a hoax, or that its threat is being exaggerated for political reasons.
Design systems that build trust
The first step in modifying people’s behaviour to align with the greater good is to design a system that builds trust between the citizens and the city. Providing citizens with timely and credible information about important issues and busting falsehoods goes a long way in creating trust. It helps people to understand which behaviours are safe and acceptable, and why this is for the benefit of the society and their own long-term interest.
In Singapore, the government has very effectively used social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram to regularly share COVID-19 information with citizens.
Densely populated cities in countries like India face extra challenges due to vast disparities in education and the many languages used. Smart city initiatives have emerged there to seamlessly provide citizens with information in their local language via a smartphone app. These include an AI-based myth-busting chatbot.
Effective smart city solutions require citizens to volunteer data. For example, keeping citizens updated with real-time information about crowding in a public space depends on collecting individual location data in that space.
Individual-level data is also useful to co-ordinate responses during emergencies. Contact tracing, for instance, has emerged as an essential tool in slowing the contagion.
Technology-based smart city initiatives can enable the collection, analysis and reporting of such data. But misuse of data erodes trust, which dissuades citizens from voluntarily sharing their data.
City planners need to think about how they can balance the effectiveness of tech-based solutions with citizens’ privacy concerns. Independent third-party auditing of solutions can help ease these concerns. The MIT Technology Review’s audit report on contact-tracing apps is one example during this pandemic.
It is also important to create robust data governance policies. These can help foster trust and encourage voluntary sharing of data by citizens.
Using several case studies, the consulting firm PwC has proposed a seven-layer framework for data governance. It describes balancing privacy concerns of citizens and efficacy of smart city initiatives as the “key to realising smart city potential”.
As we emerge from this pandemic, we will need to think carefully about the data governance policies we should implement. It’s important for city officials to learn from early adopters.
While these important issues coming out of smart city design involve our behaviour as citizens, modifying behaviour isn’t enough in itself. Civic leaders also need to rethink the design of our city systems to support citizens in areas like public transport, emergency response, recreational facilities and so on. Active collaboration between city planners, tech firms and citizens will be crucial in orchestrating our future cities and hence our lives.
The author acknowledges suggestions from Aarti Gumaledar, Director of Emergentech Advisors Ltd.
This makes trust in the media more imperative than ever.
Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra have undertaken a survey of 1,045 Australians to gauge levels of trust and mistrust in news and what influences it.
We found people trust the news they personally consume more than the news in general, and that trust in news was higher than trust in business or government, although lower than trust in friends and educational institutions.
Our participants deemed television the most credible source of information that provides good analysis of current events. Online news sources (including online only and mainstream media) were not viewed to be as credible or professional as traditional offline media.
Some brands were more trusted than others. Trust in established news brands and public broadcasters was highest. Measured on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest, ABC TV (3.92) and radio (3.90) ranked highest, followed by SBS TV (3.87).
Among commercial media, the most trusted news brand was The Australian Financial Review (3.74), followed by The Age (3.69) and The Australian (3.69). More recently established brands had lower levels of trust, with Guardian Australia (3.45) being the most trusted.
Declaring conflicts of interest is important
To find out why people do or don’t trust the news, we asked them to rank a range of possible influences.
Factors that promoted mistrust in news included a past history of inaccurate stories, opinionated journalists or presenters, a lack of transparency, sensationalism and excessive advocacy on behalf of particular points of view.
Factors that promoted trust included depth of coverage, the reputation of the news brand, the reputation of particular journalists or presenters, and openness to comments and feedback from audiences.
The single most significant measure that would restore trust in news brands was journalists declaring any conflicts of interest or biases with regards to particular stories. These measures were supported most by both trusters and mistrusters of news.
The negative impact of perceived bias and conflicts of interest appears consistently in studies about trust in news. News outlets need to take this seriously.
Hiring more journalists and social media are not the answers
Our research also reveals some interesting contradictions in how to improve trust in the media.
On the one hand, there was a clear desire for more in-depth reporting. However, most respondents simultaneously showed less support for media outlets employing more journalists. This suggests audiences want better-quality journalism, but not necessarily more of it.
In fact, employing more journalists and being more active on social media were deemed the least likely to increase public trust in media – two approaches that feature prominently in the business models of most news organisations.
As with institutional trust more generally, there is also a “trust divide” between educated elites and the wider population when it comes to the news media. Older people also have higher trust in news than younger people.
Trust in news is hard to restore
Importantly, our findings show that people who don’t trust the news are less supportive of ways to improve it. In contrast, people who do trust the news are more enthusiastic about options to boost it further.
In particular, mistrusters do not see employing more journalists or reporters using more social media as a way to boost trust. Doing either of those things would only increase the circulation of news they already mistrust.
This suggests it is harder to improve trust of those who are already sceptical and mistrustful of news. This is an important message for news outlets to take on board. Once lost, trust in news is harder to restore.
New Zealand’s general election is currently set for September 19. Under ordinary circumstances, campaigning for the election and two referenda that will take place alongside would be heating up by now, but the country is three quarters of the way through a comprehensive level 4 lockdown.
Regardless of the precise date, New Zealand will be one of the first liberal parliamentary democracies to go to the polls since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – and it will be the most consequential election any of us have participated in.
Attempting to look five months out is a fool’s game at the best of times (which these are not), but elections are how we hold elected representatives to account. Unless the numbers of ill, hospitalised or dead New Zealanders take a sharp turn for the worse, the election is likely to go ahead.
If the numbers do worsen and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern opts to delay the election, there are several ways in which the date can be pushed back, but it would still likely have to be held this year.
New Zealand’s three-year parliamentary term is entrenched in the Electoral Act, under which the last possible election date is on December 5, unless 75% or more of all MPs vote to extend the term of the 52nd Parliament.
What ever happens, it does not take much to imagine the logistical challenges that COVID-19 is posing for electoral agencies. Contingency planning for various scenarios is already underway, focused on identifying ways in which people can vote if they can’t get to a booth.
Postal voting is one option, but online voting on any significant scale is probably not, because of privacy risks and technical challenges.
Unlike other Western countries, New Zealand has a goal to eliminate COVID-19, rather than containing it, and after almost three weeks in lockdown, the number of people who have recovered from the illness now exceeds the number of new cases each day.
According to a recent Colmar Brunton poll, 88% of New Zealanders trust their government to make the right decisions about COVID-19 (well above the G7 average of 59%), and 83% trust it to deal successfully with national problems.
Ardern has fronted the mainstream media more or less daily, her Facebook Live appearance in a hoodie on a sofa received more views than New Zealand has people, and her communication has been crisp, clear and consistent. Go hard and go early. Stay home and save lives. Be kind.
But this is now. Come September, when people’s memories of this phase of the crisis have dulled and they are looking for a path through the social and economic damage COVID-19 is wreaking, a different political calculus will apply.
Few may hold Ardern directly responsible for the wreckage, but she will be held to account for her administration’s response to the challenges that lie ahead.
At that point the contest becomes one of ideas. The pandemic has dragged some venerable old political issues to the surface, chief among them the relationship between state and economy.
In New Zealand, there is broad support for the speed, decisiveness and competence with which the government and its officials have acted. The language of “government failure” has largely vanished and the importance of public institutions has become clear to everyone.
So has the extent to which markets rely upon the state. Except for the truest of believers in market forces, the argument that governments should get out of the way and give the private sector free reign has become untenable. For the time being.
It may seem unlikely that swathes of voters will embrace a return to unfettered markets but it is equally improbable that many will be clamouring for a permanent highly centralised state.
Trust in government is back in fashion for the moment in New Zealand, but we simply cannot tell how widespread support for a more active state will be once the COVID-19 health crisis has waned and the country faces the economic impacts.
New Zealanders talk a good fight about egalitarianism but we are remarkably tolerant of income and wealth inequality, health disparities and homelessness. Those things and more are waiting for us on the other side of COVID-19, and while we may yet come out of this crucible with a new social contract, it will need to be fought for.
That is why the 2020 election in New Zealand matters so much. Constitutionally, New Zealanders will be choosing a House of Representatives. Really, though, we will be choosing a future, because the next government will get to chart a course not just for the next parliamentary term but for a generation.
The law on what we can and can’t do during the coronavirus outbreak is changing on an almost hourly basis. Some of what is written now might be overtaken by the shifts in the pandemic powers of control.
But we need to make sure people have trust in any new powers given to authorities. These need to be clear to all, and applied consistently and transparently, which is not the case at the moment.
For example, over the weekend a Victorian teenager was fined A$1,652 for leaving home to go for a driving lesson with her mother. Police said their activities were “non-essential travel”.
The inquiry identified widespread systemic corruption in police, politics and civil society. This inquiry represented a change in police accountability.
There is another, lesser-known or appreciated aspect of the Fitzgerald inquiry. It emphasised that police must have the consent of the community: police have to ensure their practices generate trust that people will be treated fairly and police discretion will be used appropriately.
These are standard issues in the policing scholarship.
Pandemic policing raises many issues that cut to the core of policing by consent.
How policing resources are mobilised and the decision-making processes and practices on the ground are vital. Just look at the confused circumstances of the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney, which has been a key cause of the spread of COVID-19 in NSW and beyond.
The Australian Border Force, NSW health authorities and NSW police were variously blamed, so surely there needs to be a major investigation into network failure and specific responsibilities.
Police discretion needs to be fair
Everyday street policing is central to pandemic policing: when do police decide to intervene and ask someone their purpose for being out and about?
Vague legislative provisions are often the source of poor use of discretion by police. But the answer is not to be found in taking away any discretion, the hallmark of “zero-tolerance policing”.
There are many things that might be done, but a few simple ones come to mind.
Any legislation or regulation must be precisely drafted. This has not been happening and is causing confusion. Just look at the level of uncertainty in NSW, Queensland and Victoria.
We need clearly stated offences, clear lines of reasoning and a clear demarcation between preferred practice or guidance and regulated conduct.
For instance, what does staying in your own “area” for permitted out-of-home travel mean?
A discussion on ABC radio in Melbourne recently descended into callers chastising a man who thought he would like to travel to the beach for exercise well away from his residence. Live on air, he asked Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton if that was okay.
The chief commissioner didn’t say yes or no, he just called for “common sense”. But what would be reasonable and common sense – 1km, 2km, 5km or 10km, etc? Is driving to exercise allowed?
More than common sense
Common sense is not the way to ensure police discretion is going to be used appropriately, nor does it give the community confidence in the law. It might only be the odd case here and there at the moment causing confusion or consternation but it is changing daily.
Data on the use of this discretion must be recorded and made publicly available in close to real time. Equally important is the need to have data on policing activities.
Most jurisdictions have a crime statistics agency and these agencies should be given responsibility to collate data to identify who is being stopped, where, for what offence and with what outcomes. Report this every day as we do health data.
It does not need to be data on the final outcome that determines whether the fine is paid or challenged in the courts some months later. But it needs to reflect the immediate policing activities and it needs to be made public and in a timely manner.
As the pandemic continues, and it may get worse, pandemic policing might head in directions the broader population has never experienced.
So 30 years on from Fitzgerald, we need to reinforce the notion that policing by consent, with transparency and accountability, is vital.
If public support is to be maintained over the course of the pandemic we need to make sure we have legal clarity and a detailed understanding of what is being done in the name of the exception. Pandemic policing must have very real limits and robust, real-time accountability.
The viral spread of mis- and disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, just like the viral spread of the disease itself, has led to unprecedented media coverage. This has included a welcome return to prioritising expert knowledge.
Amid widespread criticism of the sharing of “fake news” about coronavirus, seven of the world’s most influential technology companies have banded together to prioritise the public health messages of experts. Companies such as Facebook and Google have now committed to “elevating authoritative content on our platforms and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world”.
As the death toll from COVID-19 has climbed, the world’s technology giants have faced the same question confronting all of us: who to turn to for information, and how much trust we have in that information.
To better understand questions of public trust, the University of Melbourne’s Policy Lab last year conducted a representative survey of 1,000 Australians.
In this survey, we asked where people would turn to get information about a health problem. Respondents nominated their “local doctor” and “24-hour nurse hotline” to be among the most important sources of information.
We then asked which of the sources were the most trusted. Respondents listed their local doctor as number one, the 24-hour nurse hotline number two and the public hospital website as number three.
Given escalating attacks on experts in recent years, the survey findings reveal a rare piece of good news for evidence-based knowledge in the so-called “post-truth” age. Our findings suggest medical experts and public authorities remain the most frequently turned to, and trusted, sources of information when it comes to health.
Another Policy Lab study from 2019 arrived at the same conclusion. That peer-reviewed research found Australians were much more likely to support a health policy intervention put forward by “medical scientists” than if the same policy was put forward by “the government in Canberra”.
Together with the establishment of a unique “war cabinet” called the National Cabinet, the nation’s chief medical officers are the principal source of advice to state and federal governments.
And while there may be differences of approach between experts, it is within the confines of expertise, rather than random online opinions, that debate is best had in times of medical emergencies.
Like other national studies this decade, our survey showed that Google searches and social media were among the most used sources of information. Yet, when we asked how much they trusted these sources, participants nominated Google and social media as the least trusted sources.
Social media and online discussion plays a central role in public communication about coronavirus. But they are also a source of mis- and disinformation that can ramp up public fear and – even worse – be a source of dangerous, unqualified advice. The decisions by technology companies to prioritise experts is an important step forward in a world awash with untrustworthy information.
The headline finding of our research is that most Australians turn to and trust medical experts, such as doctors, when a health concern arises. For everything that is said about the “death of expertise”, doctors and scientists appear to hold an esteemed position in society — at least when it comes to health.
There are clear policy implications that stem from this.
The first is that health seems protected from the erosion of trust that has affected other areas of society. This may be because health professionals’ objectives are easy to understand – to save lives.
Secondly, while governments and health authorities play a vital role in countering public misinformation, they no longer have the stage to themselves. This is a shift from when journalists were the main gatekeepers able to prioritise authoritative sources.
This new reality requires a delicate balancing act from our experts and leaders in which they must try to communicate risk while mitigating the harm that such information can cause when communicated in a selective way through various platforms.
Thirdly, as we are now seeing, tech companies such as Google and Facebook are realising they can no longer avoid making decisions about when to censor online information that may be harmful to its users.
This is obviously a thorny issue as censorship goes against democratic values. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has warned about the dangers of his company becoming the “arbiters of truth” in the absence of government regulations.
Yet, coronavirus has reminded all of us that how information circulates on these online platforms is now, quite literally, a matter of life or death. It is significant that the technology companies that have resisted censoring political disinformation, that arguably harms the democratic process itself, have agreed to band together to censor disinformation about coronavirus.
We hear a lot from citizens about the failings of Australian democracy and the need for reform. But how do politicians view the growing trust divide?
We set out to answer this question in an attitudinal survey of federal politicians, which we co-designed with the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It was conducted in January and February 2019 and completed by 98 out of a possible 226 respondents (43.36%). Our sample (see Figure 1) is skewed towards women and Labor and crossbench respondents.
Given the higher proportion of opposition members, our respondents may be more critical of the status quo compared to those in government. Yet all respondents were free from party loyalties in submitting their replies, could select their preferences from a list of established reform options and also specify their own priorities.
We have a strong, if not perfect, expression of voice from elite-level politicians. And because of earlier research we can compare the responses of politicians to those of citizens.
Judging Australia’s democratic arrangements
Let’s start with a finding you might have guessed. Australia’s federal politicians are more satisfied (61%) with the way democracy works than their fellow citizens (41%).
Yet here is a perhaps more surprising finding: they are sufficiently concerned about evidence of a trust divide between citizens and politicians to favour a substantial program of reform.
As Figure 2 shows, parliamentarians share a sense of what they “like” about the nature of Australia’s democratic arrangements with the general public. In particular, both groups like “fair voting”, “stable government” and “freedom of speech”.
Citizens are more appreciative of Australia’s “good economy and lifestyle” and the quality of “public services”. Parliamentarians extol the virtue of the political system in providing access for citizens to exercise their right to political participation.
When asked to explain the loss of trust in politics (see Figure 3), parliamentarians focus on the lack of public understanding of how government works. They also point to the disproportionate power of minority representatives in decision-making.
Citizens focus on “not being able to hold politicians to account for broken promises”, politicians “not dealing with the issues that really matter”, and the disproportionate power of big business or trade unions in decision-making.
However, they have a shared concern with what they perceive as the conflict-driven nature of party politics and the media focusing too much on “personalities and not enough on policy”. Parliamentarians consider concerns related to media misrepresentation and the pressure of the media cycle to be the major weakness in Australian democratic practice.
Reforms politicians would like to see (and those they reject)
Unlike Australian citizens, the majority of parliamentarians are against:
the right to recall an MP for a new election if they fail to provide effective representation during the parliamentary term (72%)
performance reviews for politicians (72%)
greater use of citizen juries based on the criminal jury system (64%).
Parliamentarians appear to have limited desire to open up the system to direct influence from the public. Instead, their preference is to make the representative system more outward-looking. This is reflected in strong support for:
ordinary party members and voters having more say in choosing party leaders and election candidates (49%)
provision for e-petitions to parliament (54%)
dual citizens being able to stand for election without renouncing their overseas citizenship (47%)
less voting on party lines based on manifesto promises and more free votes (46%).
When we asked parliamentarians what other reforms they would like to see, the responses highlighted a strong desire for improved publicly funded civics education and formal electorate forums for all parliamentarians.
The former idea is a reflection of the existence of different approaches to civics education across states and territories, and different patterns of funding. The general perception is that a national framework and funding commitment are needed to help foster the political literacy of the Australian electorate.
The latter idea is about improving public accountability through the establishment of public forums. These would have standing minutes and reporting requirements to ensure parliamentarians remain responsive to the interests of their constituents.
Linking to community is the key to saving representative democracy
Central to the thinking of politicians is their community linkage role. This involves expressing broad values and ideological positions to capture the wider concerns of citizens, and educating citizens about political issues. It also requires meeting and engaging with citizens.
The message from politicians is that reform is as much about improving existing democratic practices as designing new ways of doing democracy.
Our evidence suggests elected politicians are aware of concerns of citizens and interested in improving democratic processes. They are more satisfied than citizens about how democracy works and not inclined to jump to reforms that give more direct control or say to citizens.
But the politicians do accept the need to reform their community linkage role so they are better connected to citizens. They also think the political process and their role in it needs to be better understood, so strongly support better political education.
The reform agendas of citizens and politicians do not entirely match up, but there is a degree of alignment. If feasible and doable reforms are going to emerge, we might first look to common ground, starting with cementing the community linkage role.
Changes backed both by many citizens and politicians could lead the way to a wider and more radical reform process.
More detail on this research can be found in Mark Evans, Michelle Grattan and Brendan McCaffrie (eds), From Turnbull to Morrison: the Trust Divide published by Melbourne University Press and launched today at Parliament House.
As China grows more powerful and influential, our New Superpower series looks at what this means for the world – how China maintains its power, how it wields its power and how its power might be threatened. Read the rest of the series here.
One of the earliest guests I had on The Little Red Podcast, the podcast I co-host with former China correspondent Louisa Lim, said something that stuck with me about the view of China in the rest of the world. John Fitzgerald, a well-known historian of China’s diaspora, confidently declared that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “couldn’t care less” about what non-Chinese Australians thought of it and its actions.
Looking through the results of the recent Lowy Institute Poll on Australians’ attitudes toward China, this is probably a good thing for the party.
The Australian public’s confidence in China’s ability to act as a responsible power has fallen off a cliff. In just one year, it dropped from more than half of Australians to just 32%. That’s a dire number.
That wasn’t the only surprise in the poll. Four-fifths of respondents agreed with the proposition “China’s infrastructure investment projects across Asia are part of China’s plans for regional domination”, and 73% believed Australia should try to prevent China from expanding its influence in the Pacific.
The poll was released in late June, at a time when China’s image was taking a hit internationally. Millions of people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest a now-defeated extradition bill that could have seen Hong Kong residents sent to China on suspicion of crimes.
Then came news in Australia that the wife of an Australian writer who has been detained since January was herself interrogated by Chinese officials and blocked from leaving the country.
Even for a country that purportedly doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks, trust is hard to come by these days.
A matter of trust
It’s not entirely clear why so many Australians now distrust the Chinese state to the point where they believe our government should actively counter it (although perhaps not go to war with it).
There’s little evidence to suggest that one issue alone has caused this sharp decline in trust. For instance, the Communist Party’s most egregious recent violation of human rights, the detention of up to 1.5 million Uyghurs simply for being, well, Uyghurs has touched relatively few Australians.
Rather, the decline in trust seems to be the result of an accumulation of negative news on China — some well-informed, some half-baked (such as the 60 Minutes expose on a Chinese “military base” in Vanuatu). And for some, it’s based on personal experiences.
Last month, for instance, Australian National University revealed a massive data breach in the school’s computer system, including tax file numbers, bank accounts and passport details. The sophistication of the attack, which came after multiple attempts, meant there was only possible one suspect, according to senior intelligence officials: China.
Stealing people’s bank details might be profitable for the hacking team, but it doesn’t win hearts and minds for the Chinese state. Actions like this do more to damage China’s image than the words of noted China critics Clive Hamilton and Clive Palmer.
This sort of intimidation has been on the rise under Xi’s leadership in recent years. Academics who are critical of China now expect to be targeted by the CCP.
A podcast like mine, banned in China, doesn’t help. In the wake of an episode about China’s real-time censorship of its own historical record, I was hit by a denial-of-service attack that our university’s IT service struggled to fix. I gave up doing research inside China a while ago, after it became clear that my former colleagues and friends in rural China were increasingly at risk.
Even colleagues who have signed petitions calling on the Australian government take an evidence-based approach to China policy have been warned off continuing their in-country research by their Chinese research partners, ending collaborations which often stretched back decades.
To the outside world, this obsession with control looks like weakness rather than strength. A sanitised image of life inside China will do nothing to build trust in China as a responsible power.
Misplaced attempts at soft power
So how does China go about winning back a 20-point drop in trust?
To answer this question, I have to borrow a famous line from the film, The Princess Bride:
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
When it comes to the concept of soft power, the Chinese state misses the basic point that it doesn’t work particularly well. Money can’t buy you love, or in Joseph Nye’s terms, if your ideology and your culture have no appeal, cash won’t fix that.
Yet, the Communist Party is now a firm believer in soft power, built around its confidence that China’s ancient culture can return it to its legitimate status as the preeminent civilisation in the world. This confidence may be misplaced, as anyone who sat through the ponderous, state-backed, blockbuster film The Great Wall can testify.
This officially approved cultural soft power package might not sell to non-Chinese audiences in Australia or, well, anywhere. But China has recently been trying another tactic – economic soft power. This is specifically aimed at the developing world: China positions itself as a nation that overcame colonial oppression to emerge from grinding poverty and become an economic powerhouse.
Under former President Hu Jintao, the party tiptoed away from the notion that China would pursue a “peaceful rise”, because they worried the word “rise” sounded threatening, even preceded by “peaceful.”
Now, under Xi’s watch, there is a new catchphrase to describe China’s rise. Anchors on CGTN happily ask European and African interlocutors about the merits of “the China model” for economic development, in which the state acts as chess master, guiding the economy and society at every turn.
Some nations are buying into this. Last weekend, a taskforce of Solomon Islands MPs and bureaucrats presented their recommendation to parliament over whether to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. While many Solomon Islanders, including Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, are reluctant to switch, the country’s close economic ties with China make such a move feel inevitable.
A Chinese development model that promises an escape from poverty has appeal across the Pacific – and beyond.
Trust on both sides of the wall
Whether Beijing is able to turn around this trust problem depends, in part, on how much China begins to trust itself in the rest of the world.
Forthcoming research my ANU colleagues and I are conducting with Hong Kong-based researchers examines attempts by Chinese state actors to influence the 2019 Australian federal election.
Preliminary results indicate that the Communist Party didn’t give a hoot which party won. The goal of Chinese propaganda during the election, rather, was to create a sense of distrust among Australian-Chinese communities by depicting Australia as a racist, unwelcoming place.
We should be mindful of attempts by elements of the Communist Party to influence our political processes. Yet it’s crucial to remember the CCP targets many groups in Australia, including private businesses run by former Chinese citizens, religious groups and student organisations, not because they are all loyal party stooges, but because the party does not trust them.
The challenge for China, if it wants to be trusted by the rest of the world, is how to move beyond Mao Zedong’s famous dictum:
Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the utmost importance for the revolution.
This thinking should have no place in a globalised world, but in CCP circles, it’s back in vogue.
The challenge for Australia’s leaders is to recognise China’s current political reality, but not be drawn into the same binary, simplistic thinking. There’s enough of that going around.
Never has more data been held about us by government or companies that we interact with. Never has this data been so useful for analytical purposes.
But with such opportunities come risks and challenges. If personal data is going to be used for research and policy purposes, we need effective data governance arrangements in place, and community support (social licence) for this data to be used.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has recently undertaken a survey of a representative sample of Australians to learn their views about about how personal data is used, stored and shared.
While Australians report a high level of support for the government to use and share data, there is less confidence that the government has the right safeguards in place or can be trusted with people’s data.
In the ANUPoll survey of more than 2,000 Australian adults (available for download at the Australian Data Archive) we asked:
On the whole, do you think the Commonwealth Government should or should not be able to do the following?
Six potential data uses were given.
Overall, Australians are supportive of the Australian government using data for purposes such as allocating resources to those who need it the most, and ensuring people are not claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.
They were slightly less supportive about providing data to researchers, though most still agreed or strongly agreed that it was worthwhile.
Perceptions of government data use
Community attitudes to the use of data by government are tied to perceptions about whether the government can keep personal data secure, and whether it’s behaving in a transparent and trustworthy manner.
To measure views of the Australian population on these issues, respondents were told:
Following are a number of statements about the Australian government and the data it holds about Australian residents.
They were then asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed that the Australian government:
could respond quickly and effectively to a data breach
has the ability to prevent data being hacked or leaked
can be trusted to use data responsibly
is open and honest about how data are collected, used and shared.
Respondents did not express strong support for the view that the Australian government is able to protect people’s data, or is using data in an appropriate way.
[think] about the data about you that the Australian Government might currently hold, such as your income tax data, social security records, or use of health services.
We then asked for their level of concern about five specific forms of data breaches or misuse of their own personal data.
We found that there are considerable concerns about different forms of data breaches or misuse.
More than 70% of respondents were concerned or very concerned about the accidental release of personal information, deliberate hacking of government systems, and data being provided to consultants or private sector organisations who may misuse the data.
More than 60% were concerned or very concerned about their data being used by the Australian government to make unfair decisions. And more than half were concerned or very concerned about their data being provided to academic researchers who may misuse their information.
The data environment in Australia is changing rapidly. More digital information about us is being created, captured, stored and shared than ever before, and there is a greater capacity to link information across multiple sources of data, and across multiple time periods.
While this creates opportunities, it also creates the risk that the data will be used in a way that is not in our best interests.
There is policy debate at the moment about how data should be used and shared. If we don’t make use of the data available, that has costs in terms of worse service delivery and less effective government. So, locking data up is not a cost-free option.
But sharing data or making data available in a way that breaches people’s privacy can be harmful to individuals, and may generate a significant (and legitimate) public backlash. This would reduce the chance of data being made available in any form, and mean that the potential benefits of improving the wellbeing of Australians are lost.
If government, researchers and private companies want to be able to make use of the richness of the new data age, there is an urgent and continuing need to build up trust across the population, and to put policies in place that reassure consumers and users of government services.