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Building Trust

Senator Jenny McAllister

As we emerge from the pandemic and confront the economic and social challenges bequeathed to us by eight years of Liberal government, Labor should prioritise policies that restore trust – both in one another and in government.

In January this year, media outlets reported a surprising outcome.

Australia was rocketing up in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Australians’ overall trust in institutions increased more than any other nation in the study.

On the surface it was a surprising result. We’ve become used to data on trust in Australia pointing in the wrong direction – with as many as 25% of Australians indifferent to whether or not we are a democracy, and a seemingly bottomless fall in confidence that our political leaders can be trusted to “do the right thing”.

Indeed, by May this year, the figures on trust were once again heading in the wrong direction, stripping back the gains made in 2020 by more than half.

What happened in 2020 to reverse decades of decline in trust in our most important public institutions? And why were those gains so short lived?

A simple answer is that it reflects the comparatively strong and successful early response of Australia’s institutions to the pandemic at the time the data was collected in October 2020.

A more complex answer would recognise the character of that early response, which leveraged the best of our collectivist instincts.

Our traditions of solidarity, along with the institutions that reflect them, insulated us early on from the worst impacts of the virus, despite the reluctance of our Liberal-National government to act. Our universal Medicare system – after years of Liberal attacks – still provided a bedrock of confidence that our health needs would be met. Labor’s successful prosecution of a wage subsidy scheme – JobKeeper - in tandem with a powerful public campaign from our unions – meant that the economic risks to working people were actively managed in the early phases of the pandemic. And state and territory leaders refused to ‘let it rip’, an instead advocating public health measures to protect the health of our most vulnerable citizens.

We were all in this together.

However, as 2021 has graphically demonstrated, there should have been no room for complacency.

The pandemic laid bare the precarious existence of the many Australians in casual or short-term work, and the vulnerability of households with crowded rooms and many occupants. Coalition neglect of our public health capability has exposed some of our most vulnerable communities to unacceptable costs and risks; witness the tragic consequences this year for First Nations communities here in NSW, the differential treatment of western Sydney residents, and the shameful failure last year by the Commonwealth government to protect residents in residential aged care.

What’s more, the Prime Minister’s tone changed, aggressively reverting to politics-as-usual to attack state Premiers as he fumbled the vaccine roll out, and stubbornly refusing accountability for the treatment of women in the parliament and beyond.

And if the overall numbers are falling, “trust inequality” is worse and worsening. Well informed adults in the top income and educational brackets are 30 points more likely to trust government that the general population. On this measure, Australia records the largest trust inequality anywhere in the world.

It’s not difficult to connect these findings with growing support for parties on the fringes. Both the far left and the far right actively advocate against trust in our political system to maximise their electoral position.

Labor should challenge these arguments, whatever their origin. Progressive politics demands trust in government, and trust in one another. It’s in our national interest to build and support the conditions for trust.

Labor’s support for a National Anti-Corruption Commission matters. Every state and territory in Australia has one. The Morrison government’s opposition to a properly empowered commonwealth body raises serious questions. State and territory commissions have shown time and again that no one is too big to be held accountable. Their very existence serves as a check on unethical behaviour.

But our support for an economy that works for all Australians matters as well. The Scanlon Survey tells us that trust is strongly correlated with one’s position in the economy. Just 29 percent of people who are struggling to pay their bills agree that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted”, in contrast to 60 percent of people who are prosperous or very comfortable. Those in our community who bear all the risks of precarious, low-income living are understandably sceptical that our society and its institutions will respond to their needs.

Australians have risen to the challenge of the pandemic. Young people have made enormous sacrifices to protect more vulnerable older people. In every public discussion, our community overwhelmingly backs protections for people with disabilities and those rendered more vulnerable to poor health by poverty or discrimination. Arguments that elevate the economy above the lives of our most vulnerable have been rejected. For all the discussion about the anti-vaccination movement, just 7 percent of Australians say they’ll never be vaccinated. It’s almost twice that number in the United States.

We should nurture the generous instincts that have seen people make sacrifices and prioritise support for our most vulnerable over the last eighteen months. As we contemplate our post-pandemic future, Labor’s commitments to secure work, to supporting women’s participation in the workforce through reducing the costs of childcare, to building social housing and to a National Reconstruction Fund are crucial building blocks to trust.

The more secure we feel, the more willing we are to extend empathy and trust to others. And the more willing we’ll be to invest in the collective infrastructure that secures opportunity and fairness for our people. Restoring trust is a matter of national priority.

Jenny McAllister is a Senator for NSW.


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