“Trust me” – politics can be better
With one political event after another falling victim to anti-establishment sentiments, I have to ask, is New Zealand next?
A major indicator of said anti-elite sentiments is trust, or rather, a lack thereof. And trust in political elites, it seems, are at an all-time low around the globe. In America particularly, Marc Hetherington of the Brookings Institute points out; “levels of trust in government have never been lower than they are now among Republicans.” I’m referring, of course, to a series of recent international political events where distrust of the political elite has been highlighted – the popular movements of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the failure of the British “Remain” campaign despite backing of political leaders from all of the major political parties.
While these examples are half a world away, a survey commissioned by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS), titled “Who Do We Trust”, showed a similar trend at home. The survey, which aimed to provide a snapshot of where, and in whom, New Zealanders place our trust, found that only 8% of us hold complete trust in Members of Parliament (MPs). In comparison, medical practitioners and the police hold the complete trust of 56% and 53% of New Zealanders respectively. While this lack of trust in politicians might be expected considering their consistently low positions in the Annual Readers Digest 100 Most Trusted New Zealanders survey, the news gets worse for our MPs. The survey also showed that over the past three years 58% of respondents said they trust MPs “a little less” or “a lot less,” with only 4% reporting that they trusted MPs “a little more.” Nobody trusted them “a lot more.”
If lack of trust is an indicator of anti-elitism, then the growing distrust reported in the IGPS survey should certainly be worrying for our politicians.
Of course, we can’t forget that the New Zealand context is very different from what we find overseas. In contrast to the extremes of the two party political systems found in both the UK and the US, New Zealand’s multi-party MMP system does provide greater choice to voters who may be feeling marginalised. Political parties of many ideological stripes are on offer to voters, and the MMP system ensures that even smaller parties have the chance to be part of a coalition government.
Even with this context, the IGPS survey proves that if we want to avoid the political turmoil that anti-elite sentiments seem to bring, proceeding with caution is a wise idea. Joseph Folkman of Forbes magazine notes that building positive relationships is key to increasing levels of trust. I tend to agree with him. While translating this to the political arena in relations to this question of lacking trust and anti-elitism may be difficult, I am persuaded that it is possible and could help New Zealanders avoid the political chaos and anger we have seen overseas.
We need MPs to recognise the significance of these falling trust levels, and to focus on building relationships and earning back the trust of New Zealanders. This will require hard work, and a shift in political culture. But it could begin with a few simple steps. Things like, our MPs taking more time to bridge the gap between the party rhetoric of the debating chamber and the real concerns of people on the street: explaining their party positions, talking about the motivations behind their decisions, and ensuring that constituents know their voices are heard.
It will also require our media and political strategists to resist the tendency to approach our elections as a “Presidential-style” race between party leaders. For many people, elections are the only time they will engage with politics, so it’s important that party electioneering and media coverage also point voters towards engagement with the electorate races in our communities. Debates and “meet the candidate” events in our neighbourhoods are an important feature of democracy. Parties should create spaces where New Zealanders can get to know who the people running for office are and what they’re about, rather than hastily stuffing a brochure in their letterbox.
Of course, for this to work it’ll also require involvement on our part, as voters and media consumers. Perhaps making an effort to attend the local town hall meeting, keeping up with local political news, writing in to our local MP or simply making sure we know their name and a little about them.
A representative democracy like ours relies upon the relationship between the people and their representatives. The reported lack of trust in our representatives shows this relationship is in need of some work. With an election year fast approaching, we need to get on with the business of reconciliation. A little time, effort, and good will from both sides will go a long way to rebuild trust, and, hopefully, dissipate the growing us-versus-them tensions dividing other Western countries.