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Why Trust Is A Must

By Dr Stephanie Worboys, Researcher, Maxim Institute*

Trust in New Zealand has fallen sharply from its glory days. From elected officials to political institutions, there has been a decline in trust in democracies the world over. However, after years of defying this global trend, the Acumen Edelman Trust barometer reported that New Zealand’s political trust score now sits below the global average, a topic explored in a recent discussion paper by Maxim Institute.

With dozens of global issues making headlines, it’s not obvious why declining trust should grab our attention. However, trust is crucial to a thriving society. It contributes to social cohesion, facilitates cooperation, and makes us feel safe and a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Trust is especially crucial for a democracy. As with any political system, too much distrust can spell disaster. The tricky thing is that distrust is a permanent feature of democracy. This is because democracy is a form of collective self-rule where political equals make decisions together. Making decisions together isn’t easy. Our interests and goals conflict, and where there is conflict, there is distrust.

The data paints a concerning picture of the trust deficit in New Zealand. A Parliamentary survey published in 2023 found that public engagement with Parliament had “hit a new low” of 13%. The survey also found that only 36% believed that Parliament dealt with issues of importance to them. Additionally, only 43% believed that the views of everyday New Zealanders were represented in Parliament.

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In summary, fewer Kiwis believe they have a meaningful say in the legislation that affects them, a trend that should be a cause for concern for all of us.

Democracy can survive distrust of political leaders and competing agendas as long as it can maintain what philosopher Mark Warren calls second-order trust. Second-order trust has two parts.

First, citizens must trust that they will not lose everything if the majority overrules them—their fundamental interests will remain secure.

Second, citizens must trust that the government functions democratically. This means that power is effectively limited, and decisions reflect the will of the people. In other words, people must trust that they have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

What’s behind our loss of trust? There is no single cause, but events like the Three Waters proposal, parts of the pandemic response, and the use of urgency to pass legislation have contributed to the erosion of public trust.

The good news is something can be done.

To rebuild trust, pressure can be put on our MPs to support limiting the use of urgency. Urgency blocks an important avenue for public input into legislation. The public should only be denied this in the most pressing of circumstances.

Additionally, if you can’t find an MP who represents your views, find another party or maybe even consider running yourself. Whatever you do, don’t disengage from political participation—without it, we don’t have a democracy. At the end of the day, declining trust matters; how we respond to it matters more.

*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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