Revealed: how Australian politicians would bridge the trust divide

by Mark evans, gerry stoker and max halupka, originally published in ‘The Conversation’ here.

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.

Survey sample by party and gender

Source: Democracy 2025

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.

Read more: Trust in politicians and government is at an all-time low. The next government must work to fix that

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.

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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.

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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.

Read more: If politicians want more trust from voters, they need to start behaving with civility and respect

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.  

Is a crisis of trust necessarily a bad thing?

By Will Jennings, Gerry Stoker and Pippa Norris, originally published here.

There is widespread concern about a crisis of trust in society, government, and the world. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, summed up the mood in a speech delivered last year: “Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order. Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march.”

But if trust falls, is this always a bad thing? Our new ‘TrustGov’ research project seeks to challenge the conventional view. In a so-called post-truth age, surely it should be recognised when people, leaders and institutions are actually untrustworthy?

A crisis of trust only exists if people trust when they should not – or if they do not trust when they should. We need to get beyond lamenting low or falling trust and ask instead whether trust is justified by trustworthiness.  

These judgments can easily be incorrect for all sorts of reasons. To give a simple example, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker reports that since assuming office, President Trump has made over 12,000 false or misleading claims.Sharpie-gate is only the latest. Despite this, as Figure 1 shows, a recent Economist/YouGov poll found that three-quarters of Republicans say they believe that Donald Trump is honest and trustworthy and the line is pretty flat.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A trust judgement is a tricky decision, especially where we have only limited and partial information, such as in judging the working of Washington DC, Westminster, or Brussels. We make judgements mixing affective or emotional leaps of faith, alongide a reasoned and updated judgement of performance based on evidence. We may ask: Are politicians corrupt? Do they deliver things I want? Do politicians care about people like me?

The reasoned part of that judgement fascinates us. Can citizens come to a correct judgement about whether to trust? Figure 2 depicts the options.

People can either trust or not and the agent can be worthy of that trust or not. This dynamic generates four categories. People can correctly judge that the political system is trustworthy (skeptical trust). They can instead judge correctly that it is untrustworthy (skeptical mistrust). However, the sense of crisis in trust should be focused on the top-left and bottom-right quadrants: People trusting when they should not (compliant trust). People not trusting when they should (cynical mistrust).

Figure 2 Typology of trust judgements

Figure 2 Typology of trust judgements

The TrustGov project has begun to explore trust along these lines. Figure 3 illustrates some broad-brush national comparisons using new data in almost 60 societies worldwide. We used a simple formula. A measure of public confidence in national political institutions from the World Values/European Values Survey 2017-19 is compared against a measure of the quality of governance in those countries using the World Bank’s estimates (WBI).

Figure 3: Comparing types of trust judgements.  Sources: The WVS/EVS Wave 7 (2017-2019), 58 societies (n.91,145); the Quality of Government dataset (Jan 2019). Note that trust in core agencies of national governance is measured by a standardised 100-point scale summing confidence in six agencies of the nation-state (parliament, the civil service, political parties, government, the courts, and the police). The Good Governance scale is constructed from the World Bank Institute estimates for six dimensions of good governance (control of corruption, regulatory quality, Government effectiveness, rule of law, political stability, and voice and accountability.

Figure 3: Comparing types of trust judgements.

Sources: The WVS/EVS Wave 7 (2017-2019), 58 societies (n.91,145); the Quality of Government dataset (Jan 2019). Note that trust in core agencies of national governance is measured by a standardised 100-point scale summing confidence in six agencies of the nation-state (parliament, the civil service, political parties, government, the courts, and the police). The Good Governance scale is constructed from the World Bank Institute estimates for six dimensions of good governance (control of corruption, regulatory quality, Government effectiveness, rule of law, political stability, and voice and accountability.

Societies in the top right quadrant of Figure 3 see a strong correlation between trust and performance, suggesting skeptical trust judgments, including many Nordic and Northern European nations led by Norway and Sweden. 

The societies in the bottom left quadrant also show that public confidence in national political institutions is largely consistent with the WBI indicators of good governance, reflecting skeptical mistrust; exemplified by cases such as Iraq, Mexico and Peru.

The public living in the societies located in the top left quadrant, such as China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Belarus and Russia, express greater confidence and trust in their government than the WBI estimates suggest is justified by the good governance indicators. This encapsulates our concept of compliant trust.

Finally, people living in the nations located in the bottom right quadrant express less trust in their government that the good government indices suggest is warranted, indicating a stance of cynical mistrust.

The United States is often thought exceptional but in our comparison it proves a mix, close to Australia and France, divided on the line between skeptical trusters and cynical mistrusters.

There is still a lot to explore. Would countries move around the four quadrants if we focus more on policy performance, such as the delivery of economic growth? It would seem likely that many would. Do we understand how citizens come to trust judgements and balance out various factors? Well no, and we need to understand that process much more. A country-by-country comparison should not lead us to neglect the differences within countries and ask about the location of social groups, like differences by age, sex, education, party support, and media use. And can similar distinctions be observed for social trust among peoples and international trust among states?

For now, our claim is that in exploring trust, the key question is not whether trust is in freefall or not (where there remains debate). The question that matters is whether people can make trust judgements that match the reality of the context they are in. Given the complexity of modern society and its interdependence, people need to trust — but it would be in their interests to trust correctly.

Trust in Crisis: Fact or Fiction? Remarks by Professor Gerry Stoker

Trust in Crisis event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in partnership with the Policy Institute and Kings College London

Trust in Crisis event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in partnership with the Policy Institute and Kings College London

On 22 August 2019 TrustGov’s own Professor Gerry Stoker joined a panel of experts to discuss what many refer to as the ‘crisis of trust‘.

Below is an edited version of his remarks on why we need to reframe the debate on trust, moving away from looking at whether or not we trust politicians, asking instead ‘whether we as citizens have the tools and capacities to make sound judgements about their performance‘. TrustGov takes this reframing as a basis to develop its alternative conceptualisation of skeptical trust.


New partnership with the WVS

TrustGov is delighted to announce a new partnership agreement has been signed with the World Values Survey Association.

Under the agreement, TrustGov will contribute by supporting WVS 7th wave surveys in around a dozen countries, selected as developing societies from all world regions which are currently without resources for conducting the survey . The selected countries are Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Vietnam, the Philippines, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. The Call for Tenders will be announced at


The WVS survey contains an extensive series of items measuring interpersonal trust, confidence in a wide range of national institutions, and trust in the agencies of global governance. By expanding coverage to many countries it is hoped to deepen our knowledge of how trust varies around the globe.

The dataset for the EVS/WVS-7 will be released in 2020.

TrustGov launch

Friday 1st March 2019 

We live in an era of tribal trust. Many countries have become sharply polarized, trusting ‘Us’ but not ‘Them’. Cynics have lost all faith in democratic governance. Naïve followers place their fate in hands of corrupt demagogues and charlatans. The democratic ideal of critical citizens who ‘trust but verify’ has eroded.

To understand these problems, and what can be done to strengthen critical citizens, the three-year TrustGov project has been launched by the University of Southampton and Harvard University, generous supported by a £1.3 million award by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ES/S009809/1). Research will investigate ‘Trust and Trustworthiness in National and Global Governance’.

TrustGov plans to advance new theories and evidence from countries worldwide designed to addresses three issues.

·       What drives public trust in governance around the world? In particular, does performance or procedural legitimacy matter, what is the role of communications in this process, and does place matter?

·       Under what conditions do critical citizens seek to ‘trust but verify’?

·       And what can be done to strengthen the optimal level of trust?

The project will combine multiple methods and data to map public confidence in national governments, as well as in agencies like the EU, UN, World Bank and IMF, using global evidence covering authoritarian and democratic states.

The TrustGov Project is led by an experienced team of internationally-known scholars in the UK, Australia and U.S.: Professor Will Jennings (University of Southampton), Professor Pippa Norris (Harvard University and the University of Sydney), and Professor Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton and the University of Canberra).

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Professor Will Jennings said: “Many say that politics is broken. The erosion of political trust in national and global institutions poses a major challenge to many states and to the global order. Our project will explore how and when citizens’ trust in political institutions reflects their actual performance – and what leads citizens to be cynical or naïve in their beliefs. It will also investigate how trust differs between places – within countries – in particular the degree to which citizens in outlying towns and rural areas are more distrusting of political elites.

Professor Pippa Norris said: “This is a timely issue addressing global concern about the decline of liberal democracy and resurgent support for authoritarian leaders.”

Professor Gerry Stoker said: “Our work will hopefully help citizens concerned about the state of politics think about how we might change it for the better”.

 Professor Alison Park, Director of Research at ESRC said: “ESRC is pleased to be funding this important research on trust in agencies of national and global governance. There is widespread concern about the growing levels of distrust in politicians and the political process, and their implications. This novel and exciting research will improve our understanding of how trust in different bodies relates to performance, how this varies across countries and different types of political regime, and what might help to strengthen trust".