Trust has always been and continues to be a (or the) central concept in pre-election campaigning. Most members of the public are unlikely to personally know their local politician on anything other than a facial recognition level. They are even less likely to know federal politicians.

In the run-up to the looming federal election voters are being asked by politicians to “trust me, but not them”. Data from a new research study offers some timely context.

The study included a national survey of over 1000 members of the public across Australia. It focused on Australians’ trust in a variety of individuals (eg: neighbours, GPs, politicians), organisations (eg: hospitals, supermarkets, banks) and institutions (eg: governments, media).

This lack of inter-personal knowledge or relationship creates a social distance that requires trust. The public cannot know what the real intentions of particular politicians (or for that matter, political parties) are, and therefore the public are asked to trust that a politician (and/or a political party) will do their best not to let them down.

But politicians from all varieties of political persuasion are drawing on examples where “promises have been broken” by their political competitors.

In response to Labor’s announcement of the federal election date, Tony Abbott, in a speech at the National Press Club, said “this election is about trust”, going on to question Labor’s performance and promises in relation to the carbon tax, job security and border control. In response to this speech, Jenny Macklin questioned whether the public can or should trust Abbott: “The test for Mr Abbott today will be whether Australian families can trust him to tell the truth.” Such “questionable trust” and “broken promises” are then used as evidence to distrust that particular politician, and by default, their political party.

While this may be part of the game of election campaigning, it may be broadly counter-productive. It seems the strategy of Party A is to get members of the public to distrust the Party B.

It makes the assumption that these people will then, by default, trust Party A because they have been persuaded to distrust Party B. This is not a logical argument, unless Party A also provided a convincing argument as to why they should be trusted (which is often absent in political debate).

The public are called upon to trust governments to maintain the good of society and politicians to follow through with campaign promises. Given the increasing complexity of everyday decisions, trust provides a basic sense of security to citizens and is argued to be the basis for a well-organised society.

Politicians and administration are well aware of the role of trust in public acceptance of government and associated programs and are required to have increased transparency, legitimacy and public opinion inclusion as a way to foster trust.

In healthcare policy, evidence suggests that a lack of trust has significant implications for the implementation and uptake of health services and programs and ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes for the groups with lower levels of trust. Despite the importance of trust, and the acknowledgement that public trust is declining, baseline results of Australians’ trust in state, federal and local government have not been extensively studied until now.

The table below from our study shows the level of trust in local councils, state governments and federal government. Between 40 to 50% of the population have little or no trust in the three levels of government.