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.
Australia has not proved immune to the politics of democratic malaise. Australia’s leading institutions, including government, business, NGOs and media, are among the least trusted in the world at a time when Australia has experienced 27 years of economic growth.
The level of democratic satisfaction has decreased steadily across each of the last four governments from 86% in 2007 (John Howard), to 72% in 2010 (Kevin Rudd), 72% in 2013 (Tony Abbott) and 41% in July 2018 (Malcolm Turnbull).
By 2025, if current trends continue, fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions. The result will be ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic well-being. Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency.
Without trust we have diminished capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges. Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government.
This also creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces or other forms of independent representation. Hence the rise of populists such as Pauline Hanson and independents such as Cathy McGowan and Kerryn Phelps.
The reform project
Bridging the trust divide between citizens and government is no easy task. The results of our 2018 survey reveal the connection between the Australian people and their politicians is hanging by a rather tenuous thread. What needs to be done to reverse the decline?
A reform project aimed at bridging the trust divide must be framed by recognition not only of the scale of the problem but also its complexity. There are at least four dimensions to exploring the trust divide, which suggests we are tackling a very puzzling issue.
The first is that there is no one simple explanation for what drives or undermines political trust. The research on the issue of political trust is one of the most voluminous in the social sciences – the issue has been a concern in many countries for decades.
The literature can be loosely organised around demand-side and supply-side theories of trust.
Demand-side theories focus on how much individuals trust government and democratic politics and explore the key characteristics of the citizenry. What is it about citizens, such as their educational background, class, location, country or cohort of birth, that makes them trusting or not? What are the barriers to political engagement? And what makes citizens feel that their vote could deliver value?
In general, the strongest predictors of distrust continue to be attitudinal and are connected to negativity about politics.
Demand-side interventions therefore focus on overcoming various barriers to social, economic or political participation (or well-being). So most interventions tend to focus on dealing with issues of social disadvantage through education, labour market activation, public participation, improved representation, place-based service delivery and other forms of empowerment.
Supply-side theories of trust start from the premise that public trust must in some way correspond with the trustworthiness of government. The argument is that it is the performance (supply) of government that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens, together with its commitment to procedural fairness and quality.
Supply-side interventions therefore seek to enhance the integrity of government and politicians, and the quality and procedural fairness of service delivery or parliamentary processes through open government or good governance. This includes transparency, accountability, public service competence and anti-corruption measures.
A second part of bridging the divide between citizens and government is that reforms that seem to provide part of the solution can sometimes make the problem worse. Offering more participation or consultation can turn into a tokenistic exercise, which generates more cynicism and negativity among citizens.
Providing performance data – the bread and butter of modern government – so that citizens can judge if promises have been kept does not always produce more trust.
Rather, it can lead to government officials trying to manipulate the way citizens judge their performance. Positive data is given prominence, less helpful data sometimes hidden.
On the ground, frontline public servants and many citizens find the claims of success contrasting with their own more negative experiences. Far from promoting trust, the packaging of performance may in fact have contributed to the emergence of populism and loss of trust by citizens.
The implication of this observation is that the reform project needs to focus as much on the issues of democratic practice as the principles. Part of the ambition of the project is to establish mechanisms whereby good practice can be specified, elaborated and shared through learning. This means good practice becomes the norm rather than the exception.
In summary, the quality of democratic practice, as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has argued, is the key measure of the quality of a democratic culture: “formal rules are not enough without good democratic practice”.
A third part of the puzzle is who should be driving the push for change? In any reform movement there must be leaders of change. But are politicians the right group to lead the charge? If they are deeply implicated in the processes that led to the trust divide, can they be leaders of a more positive path forward?
It is difficult to imagine a substantial shift in political practice without politicians’ engagement. Yet the past decade has probably produced more instances of politicians trying to exploit the trust divide to garner support rather than attempts to resolve the issue.
The emergence of a populist trope – in which the hopeful politician presents themselves as the one who speaks the truth, is not part of the corrupt elite and who will get things done – in both established and challenger parties is one of the most dominant political trends of the last decade.
The reform project must therefore recognise that engagement with the increasingly isolated political class will be part of the dynamic needed for reform. But, equally, there will be a need to develop other partnerships with (among others) the public service, the media and the private and community sectors.
Above all, we need to engage citizens in the process. There can be no solution to the puzzle of political trust without their engagement.
A final and tricky part of the trust puzzle is that no-one is clear about what is the right level of trust. The twin enemies of democracy, it could be argued, are citizens who are either too cynical to engage or too naïve in providing support to the political system. What is the equilibrium point between political trust and distrust?
Survey respondents were asked to rate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements on the topic of democratic reform drawn from across the political spectrum and featuring in reform programs internationally.
There was very strong support for democratic reforms that ensure greater integrity and transparency. Examples included limiting how much money can be spent on election campaigning and how much political parties and candidates can accept from donors (73%).
There was also very strong support for reforms to ensure greater political accountability of MPs and political parties to their electorates and members, such as free votes in parliament (60%), the right to recall local members (62%) and internal party reform that emphasises community preferences (60%). In addition, there was strong support for reforms that stimulate greater public participation such as the co-design of public services with citizens (71%) and citizen juries (60%).
The least popular democratic reforms proposed were those that had to do with quotas for demographic representation (such as by age, gender or ethnicity). When broken down by political alignment, Labor and Liberal views on reform are remarkably uniform. The greatest differences between parties on reform ideas can be found between Liberals and Nationals.
Democratic reform is ultimately about creating a space where Australians can reshape their democratic practices in ways that are better suited to the realities and challenges of the 21st century. The good news for political parties that take up the cause of democratic reform is that the citizenry is ready to take up the challenge.
After today’s Banking Royal Commission’s final report it may seem as if it is impossible for banks to regain trust.
But it is possible, as I know from working with prominent British and European banks after the global financial crisis, taking part in policy meetings at the UK parliament about how to restore trust, and researching cases of trust repair.
Here are the six most important questions our banks will need to answer for their stakeholders to regain trust:
1. What went wrong and why?
When a major breach of trust occurs, it is often unclear what caused it and who is responsible. It is essential to get a shared understanding of what happened.
This can be arrived at through inquiries and investigations which are most effective when timely, comprehensive, and independently conducted.
But banks also need to conduct their own investigations and explain what happened to their customers and shareholders.
The paradox is that such a “warts and all” investigation is likely to lower trust in the short term as the true extent and scale of the misconduct is revealed.
But without it, it is hard to “draw a line in the sand” and move on.
2. Have the banks learned their lesson and made amends?
Social rituals and symbolic acts – such as apologies, fines, punishments and compensation – play an important role in repairing trust.
They signal that the organisation understands its conduct was wrong and has “paid a price”. They can help resolve negative emotions and restore a sense of equity and justice in the relationship between the organisation and its stakeholders.
Apologies are usually more effective when combined with substantive actions – such as offering compensation – to avoid appearing as “cheap talk”. They are also more effective when offered voluntarily. Unfortunately, Australia’s banks have often been reactive, issuing public apologies only after damning evidence has emerged, and being slow to offer compensation.
3. Can future violations be prevented?
Given what’s been revealed at the royal commission, stakeholders want to see evidence that the banks have “got their house in order” and won’t let it happen again. This will require comprehensive reforms to their strategies, cultures, incentive schemes, and formal control mechanisms (such as revised accountability and governance structures, procedures, rules, policies, and codes of conduct).
4. Is trustworthiness embedded in their DNA?
Banks are typically good at formal controls. The more difficult task is bringing about cultural change. Yet it is absolutely necessary, because cultural values and norms powerfully influence behaviour.
Ensuring that trust-inducing values and decision making are role modelled and embodied by leaders and managers and embedded in everyday routines will require the banks to challenge firmly held beliefs and assumptions that lead them to prioritise short-term profits and returns to shareholders over a more balanced multi-stakeholder perspective grounded in a broader purpose and responsibility to society.
5. Do others believe the banks are trustworthy?
Transparently sharing information about their conduct over time (through for example corporate reporting and monitoring) and having it verified by credible independent third parties (such as auditors) can help restore and maintain trust. It signals the bank has “nothing to hide”.
Over the past four years, we have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia.
Our latest research, conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill), includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 20 focus groups and 1,021 Australians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. We understood political trust in this survey as “keeping promises and agreements”.
Our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.
Democratic decline and renewal
Australians should rightly be proud of their hard-won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government, which has delivered social and economic well-being for its citizens.
The majority of Australians dislike the conflict-driven politics of the federal parliament, but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government.
When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order):
“Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”
“Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”
“Australian elections are free and fair”.
Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living, but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.
Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics
Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86% in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72% of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31%) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50%).
Just 31% of the population trust federal government. State and local governments perform little better, with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21%, while more than 60% of Australians believe the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.
The three biggest grievances people have with politicians are:
they are not accountable for broken promises
they don’t deal with the issues that really matter
big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).
The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions. Only five rate above 50% – police, military, civic well-being organisations (such as Headspace or community services), universities and healthcare institutions.
Trust was lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%). Trust in banks and web-based media has significantly decreased since the last survey. This reflects the impact of the banking royal commission and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
People who are more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal parties. They are more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native-born.
Those who are most likely to be unhappy are Australian-born, female, aged in their 40s (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation, Centre Alliance or independents.
The perfect storm for independents
Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50% for the first time to 47%. A majority, though, still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47%).
Four attitudinal shifts are on display here.
First, many voters care more about effective and competent government than promises of more dollars in their pockets.
Second, there is a group of voters who are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP.
Third, we can identify an increasingly large group of Australians who are deeply critical of the main political parties and are looking for an alternative across the ideological spectrum.
And fourth, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons, either to secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two-party system.
Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong
Our survey revealed a significant appetite for reform. Nine out of 15 proposed reforms received net agreement rates above 50%. The top five reforms favoured in the survey were:
limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections
the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs
giving all MPs a free vote in parliament
co-designing policies with ordinary Australians
citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.
Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There was also strong support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support.
Remarkably, accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding, revealing the importance of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.
We are at the tipping point
Liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Our survey findings suggest we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia, which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.
Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system, even if the lack of political trust means they doubt its ability to deliver, especially on more challenging policy issues.
Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we believe an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models, but finding linking arrangements between them.