Trust has been an important issue in politics over the past 12 months. Tony Abbott has made it a key issue in his campaign against Julia Gillard, and succeeded in placing the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness, or lack thereof, in the centre of the political narrative.

But it’s no longer the Prime Minister alone. Key Australian institutions appear to be facing a collapse in trust, yesterday’s Essential Report showed, one that has spread beyond politics.

The epicentre of the collapse is federal Parliament, which suffered a huge fall in trust. From one of Australia’s most-trusted institutions last year, with 55% of voters saying they had a lot or some trust, Parliament now only records a 22% rating, placing it among the lowest. Well done, politicians.

Who stopped trusting Parliament? We need to be careful about making judgments about demographics because of sample size, but it appears to be older voters. In September last year when Essential last asked this question, there was little to distinguish voters in their attitudes to Parliament. Now, older voters are significantly different in their views: for example, 19% of 18-24 year old voters have no trust at all in Parliament; 30% of 25-34-year-olds, but 45% of over-65s. Ten per cent of 18-24-year-olds have a lot of trust; 1% of over-65s, 2% of 55-64-year-olds.

Political parties are the least trusted of all the organisations or institutions that featured in the question, with just 12% of voters expressing a lot or some trust; 52% of voters just didn’t trust parties at all. But parties haven’t featured in previous questions, so we don’t know to what extent that has changed.

Trade unions have also suffered reputationally, presumably as an outcome of the Craig Thomson affair; they’re down from 39% to 22% trust. That’s right across all demographics, but especially older voters: they were less likely to trust unions last September than others, but that sentiment has dramatically hardened since then — 36% of over-65s didn’t trust unions at all back then; now that’s 54%.

And the Commonwealth Public Service has also fallen significantly, from 49% when a similar question was asked in February this year, to 30% now; again older voters have led the way, despite the Public Service barely featuring in public debate other than as a target for big cuts by both sides of politics. Even the High Court and the Reserve Bank, the two most trusted institutions last September, have fallen; the High Court from 72% to 60% and the RBA from 67% to 49% (despite several big rate cuts). But for those two bodies, there’s no older voter bias — in fact if anything, older voters have more trust in them than younger voters.

But the collapse doesn’t stop there. It has rippled outward from government. Like unions, business groups have fallen in trust, from 38% to 22%, almost exactly matching unions, but it’s been a general fall across all demographics. Charitable organisations fell 61% to 50%; environment groups from 45% to 32% (older voters really distrust environment groups). Even religious organisations, which were already low in trust, fell, from 29% to 27% (religious organisations are uniformly not trusted; there are no significant demographic differences.

New additions to the list all fared poorly: TV news media, newspapers and online news media scored 21%, 26% and 23% respectively, with older voters consistently showing less trust in all media. The only institution to lift its trustworthiness (and rebut the possibility of some methodological cause for the general fall across institutions) is the ABC, which lifted from 46% to 54%, primarily it seems on the back of fewer people claiming they had no trust at all in the national broadcaster.

This complements previous findings when Essential has asked media-specific trust questions (last run in November; they’ll be run again in coming weeks), which have shown over the past 18 months that commercial media has fallen in trust levels but the ABC (and SBS, to a lesser extent), have risen.

The reasons for Parliament and trade unions falling in trust are clear; it’s less clear why they’ve dragged other, independent governmental institutions down with them, or the latter have declined as part of a wider malaise in attitudes. And the ABC’s apparently unstoppable rise as a trusted element of Australian public life continues, particularly in contrast to the rest of the media, but is equally mysterious.

Nonetheless, we can add trust to our growing picture of voter alienation. However good things might be economically, Australians are not a happy lot.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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