The non-economic causes of political trust deficits – The function of trust Part 1 of 2

Good democratic governance requires those in power to both be seen as both trustworthy and representing voters , effectively and fairly. Those ostensibly in control need to provide evidence that they are delivering, or ensuring access to those services and resources that are seen as public responsibilities. The disappearing common wealth and rising focus on individualised self-interest benefits need to be seen as causing the rising anti-elite, populist politics that undermine social cohesion, rather than  just blaming the changes on  limited economic flaws, e.g. the GFC. If we are to restore trust in good democratic processes, we need to recognise and address the social effects of citizens being redefined as customers in the shift to market models, as well as  the increased invisibility of public good and goods.   

An OECD paper states ‘Trust in government has been identified as one of the most important foundations upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems are built. Trust is essential for social cohesion and well-being as it affects governments’ ability to govern and enables them to act without having to resort to coercion. Consequently, it is an efficient means of lowering transaction costs in any social, economic and political relationship. ‘  p. 21

The above quote comes from a useful paper by Andrew Markus that collects many surveys on people’s views of government and trust.  These show widespread evidence on the importance of adequate levels of trust to functioning democracies and the risks of serious trust deficits. The question, however,  remains –  what creates these distrust levels?

This is inadequately answered in the considerable debates, both here and in most other western democracies, about the diminishing levels of trust in many democratic western countries. There are mainly economic options offered as the causes of the wide voter rejection of their centrist parties. Common responses include blaming the 2007/8 Global Financial Crisis, and/or wider inequalities that refute claims that wealth would trickle down/and or lift all boats.

Therefore lots of voters blame the left and right centrist parties’ failures to address these issues and the wider effects of continuing  shift to ever more market-based policy models. While data do show increased distrust since the GFC, these causes fail to include the long- term, sometimes slow, deterioration of trust in democratic processes that started well before the GFC hit with its more spectacular after-effects. So, if we are to retain the many good aspects of democracies, we need to address the deeper causes and learn from past experiences.

Political stability and social cohesion in the modern nation states were deemed as essential, post WW2, to avoid the distrust disorders of the pre-war period that had created extremisms. Then, the Allies moved to expand the limited welfare state and extend government functions to ensure that there would be no deep inequities, as these  could undermine the necessary core of  social cohesion and trust needed for peaceful progress. These views dominated until the shifts in financial globalised capital in the 70s which triggered the shift over nearly four decades to less government intervention to allow neo-liberal market modes of operation. These moves seem to have sown the seeds of distrust, as market models redefined the citizen/voter as a mere customer and reduced government regulations and equity functions.  

The question is, what were the long-term effects of such major changes to governmental  roles? Most official explanations are still framed as remediable flaws in the economic model that need to be fixed by adding inclusive growth. However these views fail to see the causal effects of  the long  term  sense of unfairness that underpins citizen resentment.

Australia may offer a clearer view than those nations deeply damaged by the GFC. So we can see that antipathy towards the changes to governments starts well before the GFC.  The neo-liberal shift started slowly in the 80s, but the critiques have been cumulative, and predicted in my 1995 ABC Boyer lectures (A Truly Civil  Society) on trust as social capital.  My comments came after Howard increased neo-liberal longer term changes and since then both sides have privatised utilities. Shifts were from entitlements to choices, citizens to customers, which left the responsibilities and blame on individuals and did not work well for too many.

Since then, there are many more signs of voters losing their long-term loyalty to the main two centrist parties, such as more hung parliaments and more one-term governments. Higher levels of voters have lost faith in both the centrist parties, which ceded too much power to markets.

Increasing numbers of voters feel their elected governments have failed the pub test as service providers, good policy-makers and deliverers.  Their positive roles have become far less visible and they have failed to include the long-held ideal of fair-go social contracts. There are decreased publicly-owned  service providers, direct services are often contracted out so there is the lack of visibility of what were once publically owned services. The evidence shows in the ongoing hostility to the privatisation and the sale of public assets.

As public utilities have been privatised, prices have risen as providers now must compete on price and create profits by delivering what were once subsidised community services. Such changes reduced the visibility of political policies as being there to meet community needs. The sum of  such changes means our representatives are often not seen as deserving voters’ trust.

The polls show the high levels of distrust as parties are seen to act in their interests not ours. . If major political parties are rarely seen as able to run good governments that take care of general voter needs, why trust them?

The loss of social policies that focused on fairness and community well-being, not just growing GDP,  reflects both parties’ views that the voters can be bought off with lower taxes or money.  These changes neglect needs for social cohesion and well-being.  These  directions of policy-making derive from inherent contradictions between neo-liberalism, which is about individualised competition for self-interested gains, and more social democratic  models that validate trust as the basis of fair relationships.

Competition is essentially distrust based, as the purchaser must seek self-interested advantages which negate building relationships that balance  varied collective and individual needs. There is an urgent need  to redress the imbalances. We need more social input to democratic  models to ensure that governments can again be seen as responsible to voters to create fairness and equity so they can regain their trust.

The next part offers some options.