Rebuilding trust, restoring progress

Australian Government

Who do you trust? If you’re like millions of other Australians, you don’t trust politicians, big banks or the media. In fact, mistrust of key institutions continues to grow, perpetuating a trend that started in the late 1960s [1, 2].

This lack of trust continues to gain attention, and there’s good reason why it should. Trust is a key indicator of the health and potential of our political and economic systems. It reflects our aggregate confidence (or concern) for the future, just as share prices reflect expectations of future earnings from the private sector.

The price of mistrust

The price of mistrust is real and substantial. When citizens are confident they spend money and businesses invest, generating growth and prosperity. Conversely, uncertainty and a lack of confidence generates a flight of money to safe havens. This has been exhibited in the movement of savings from retail superannuation funds to industry superfunds on the back of the royal commission into the banking sector [3].

Since 2007, we’ve also witnessed a rising share of votes for minor parties. For the most part, it’s a signal from voters that they’ll vote for “anyone but them!”; that is, anyone but the major political parties [4]. This mistrust of mainstream politicians fuels populist politics and delivers marginal governments with little political capital to spend. Public policy is reduced to the lowest common denominator, little progress is made and billions of dollars are squandered in lost productivity and opportunity costs.

Are longer terms of government required?

How should we respond to the crisis of trust? It’s been argued that our elected representatives must be provided with “the tools they need to succeed”, including four year terms [5]. The proposition is that longer terms of government provide more time to focus on key issues and long-term decision-making, while those in opposition gain time to develop and test policy alternatives. Whether voters feel inclined to reward our current crop of politicians with longer-terms is questionable. One might also question whether it’s more time, or more effective use of time, that’s required given the considerable resources available to government. Indeed, the inclination of some governments to reduce the size of the public service would suggest they feel they have more than enough time and resources to fulfil their duties.
Perhaps, before jumping to solutions, we need to examine the causes of declining trust to understand why it has occurred and been allowed to persist.

The root of our trust problem

Growing mistrust of governments is rooted in many inter-related factors (see the table below). At their heart is a sense that government actions are falling increasingly short of community expectations. But this is not just due to the actions of our politicians. It’s also a function of a changing society and our collective (in)ability to adapt and prosper. Indeed, concerns that “the world is changing too fast” are particularly high among older and regional voters [4] while younger generations worry about jobs and housing affordability. Uncertainty impacts every generation.

As citizens, voters, and employees in the institutions we scorn, we are also culpable. We are part of, not separate from, the dynamic of declining trust. We are failing to effectively engage in public discourse and to hold institutions, their leaders and our elected representatives to account. And when shortcomings or misdemeanours are revealed, why do we tolerate apologies like “Sorry, I got caught” or “Sorry if you are offended” rather than “Sorry, what I did was wrong.” Is it that we feel powerless or unaffected? Neither is true. Perhaps we recognise in ourselves the behaviours that publicly we deride. As Lieutenant General Morrison said, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

So, restoration of trust is a societal project.

The evolution of government

We expect our governments to lead and make Australia more socially cohesive, sustainable and prosperous. We need governments to use their resources and regulatory power to provide things that people want that the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide. But how these things are achieved matters greatly. To succeed in this mission, governments must demonstrate capability, integrity, transparency, reliability and fairness in creating public value. Given our current predicament, it’s clear that governments must evolve to rebuild trust and capability to function effectively in the modern operating context. This demands dedicated attention to improve capability quickly.

While trust is slow to gain and quick to lose, some trust-restoring actions could deliver quick wins. For example, reforms to political donation and lobbying laws would demonstrate good intent, as would the creation of ‘public value accounts’ [6] against which to measure progress. Other actions to build capability in government and our elected representatives, and creation of inclusive growth, will take longer to realise gains.

Another level of thinking

But none of this will eventuate without wise and committed leadership, not just by elected representatives, but by people within the public sector, business and civil society. Why? Because “we are in over our collective heads” [7]. The fact is, many – indeed a majority – of public and private sector leaders aren’t sufficiently equipped to deal with the complex situations they face. This capability gap is a major contributor to the binary and unhelpful right-vs-wrong debates about how to tackle complex public policy issues like energy affordability and indigenous recognition. Perpetuating worn-out debates will get us nowhere. Indeed, it’s likely to fuel rising cynicism and social fragmentation. To quote Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Inclusive leadership

For this reason, we need those amongst our ranks who are best equipped to deal with that complexity to facilitate progress. If the complexity of our current challenges is misunderstood or oversimplified, then the responses will be too.

And action is essential, because even a good “battle of ideas” is likely to suffer from mistrust and misunderstanding. Such action must be derived by thought and dialogue from a different level. This means leading with humility and compassion. It means focusing dialogue on progress and making things better, not winning or being right. It means looking beyond individual sectors and disciplines for solutions. It means making progress where everyone experiences benefits, where people are not left behind.

This is the work that must get done.

So, which of us in formal and informal positions of leadership will face into the challenge, acting in society’s interest rather than naked self-interest? I’m in. How about you?


[1] Sarah M. Cameron and Ian McAllister (2016) Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study 1987-2016, The Australian National University, Canberra.

[2] Steven Spurr (2018) Australia: Trust in Tumult, Edelman Australia, Melbourne.

[3] Joanna Mather (2018) Hayne drives billions to industry super, Australian Financial Review, 1-2 September.

[4] Wood D., J. Daley, C. Chivers (2018) A crisis of trust: the rise of protest politics in Australia, Grattan Institute, Melbourne.

[5] Angus Armour (2018) Four year terms needed to help restore trust, AICD Membership Update, 29 August.

[6] Nick Fleming (2018) Bringing infrastructure investment to account, 9 May 2018, Innergise Pty Ltd, Melbourne.

[7] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (2009) Immunity to change, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston.