Political trust and democracy in times of coronavirus: Is Australia still the lucky country?

Public trust as a political resource is particularly important in times of coronavirus. Without it changes to public behaviour necessary to contain and ultimately prevent the spread of the infection are slower and more resource intensive. People need to trust government to support more government intervention that makes a difference.

The lived citizen experience of the pandemic has been dramatically different in Australia when compared to other countries such as Italy, the UK and the US.

        Has the Australian system of governance proved robust enough to win the trust of its citizens in times of coronavirus? Is Australia still the lucky country?

In May and June this year, the Museum of Australian Democracy and its partners conducted a national survey to investigate whether public attitudes towards issues of political trust and democratic institutions and practices have changed as a result of COVID-19.

The report presents the survey findings in response to four key questions:

  1. Has the level of political trust changed during the pandemic?
  2. How effective has COVID-19 management and leadership been in Australia?
  3. Have Australians been compliant with COVID-19 measures?
  4. Does Australia have the institutional resilience to meet the challenge of post COVid-19 recovery?

Some excerpts are provided below.

Political trust

Political trust has increased significantly in Australia in times of coronavirus. For the first time in over a decade, Australians are exhibiting relatively high levels of trust in the federal government – from 29% to 54% and in the Australian public service – from 38% to 54%.

These figures are in sharp contrast to the past few decades which have seen a significant decline in political trust.

Also significant is that Australians continue to exhibit high levels of trust in scientists and experts – 77%.

Institutional resilience

While 60% expect the virus to have a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ level of financial threat for them and their families, they remain confident that Australia will bounce back from COVID-19 with 72% believing that Australia is ‘more resilient than most other countries’.

In general, the survey found that there is overwhelming support for representative democracy but with a focus on making the representative system of government more representative, accountable, and responsive to the citizenry.

Lessons drawn

  1. The politics of collegiality and collaboration reflected in the creation and then institutionalisation of the National Cabinet has played well with the public.
  2. The Australian public expect their governments to listen to the experts as reflected in the high regard that Australians have for evidence informed decision making.
  3. The significant increase in trust in the Australian public service bolsters the case for public services becoming a critical space for enhancing the relationship between government and citizen. It’s the supply of government – delivering goods and services like economic growth and welfare – that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens.

Note that this finding is in keeping with Peter Shergold’s analysis. Delivering last year’s IPAA Queensland Irene Longman Oration, he also provided a compelling case on how Australian public services can restore faith in democratic governance. A snapshot of Peter’s insights is here on our IPAA blog.

  1. And the last lesson – to resist introducing austerity measures until you know that the economy has stabilised as it has a lasting negative impact on public attitudes towards the political class.

For more findings and to view the full report, click here.