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Rebuilding The Dam Of Trust

The 1955 film “The Dam Busters” tells the story of Operation Chastise and the RAF’s plan to destroy Nazi dams with bouncing bombs. In the film’s climactic scenes, bombs go skimming across the water to blow up vital resources and thwart the Nazi war effort. This raises the question: Are we acting as dam busters or dam builders in Aotearoa New Zealand?

I often wonder if we are sabotaging one of our vital resources—civil society. While trust in our electoral process is high, the process of elections is not the only pillar of civil society.

Consider our education system with teacher fatigue, falling attendance, and students failing basic numeracy and literacy. Or our justice system with accusations of systemic racism, an almost full prison system, and increasing incidents of violent crime. Or our health system, in which people must wait so long that they might die before receiving treatment. Or our media—one of the least trusted institutions in our country. And let’s not get started on our politicians who often engage in ad hominem attacks and ideological squabbles rather than addressing the people's concerns.

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Whom do we trust? We trust people we perceive as experts rather than institutions. One survey showed that people trust experts like doctors or engineers. At the bottom of the list? Politicians, religious ministers, and the media.

Our country feels increasingly divided. And our institutions no longer have the same unifying effect. So, how can we fix it? Certainly not by attacking each other and winning points for “our side.” Instead, here are three ways we can become dam builders rather than dam busters.

First, let’s increase our participation in the democratic process. We are lucky to have a process that holds our government to account. However, the government can subvert this process by passing laws under “urgency,” meaning the public is shut out and unable to consult. This has happened with increasing frequency, with the Government attempting to pass 24 bills in one sitting last year. We must raise awareness and encourage public participation to prevent system failure due to complacency.

Second, we must enhance the transparency of our institutions. We need to see behind the curtain to understand how money is spent, assess its effectiveness, and comprehend decision-making processes. This involves auditing, oversight, publicly available reporting, and watchdog organisations. A concrete example would be giving the Official Information Act (OIA) broader powers in light of the recent Stuart Nash mess.

Finally, we can improve the political literacy of everyday Kiwis. People cannot engage with what they don’t understand. How many of us know how a bill becomes law or how to communicate with our MPs? This knowledge gap must be bridged.

These actions are little building blocks that will shore up the dams of our civic institutions. If we want to build, rather than break, our society and its foundations, we must critically evaluate our practices and prioritise participation, transparency, and education as the first steps in rebuilding trust and strengthening civil society in Aotearoa New Zealand.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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