Public trust down after bushfires: report

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer revealed Australians lack trust in the four institutions measured: government, business, media and NGOs.

For the past 20 years, Edelman has surveyed two cohorts in Australia and around the world: the informed public who are wealthier, more educated and significant consumers of news, and the more sceptical mass population. 

Australians have been distrustful for a decade: Edelman CEO Michelle Hutton speaks to a packed audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney about the results from the latest Edelman Trust Barometer.

“Australia has been in distrust mode for most of the last decade, despite its strong economy,” said Michelle Hutton, Edelman CEO, speaking at the study launch in Sydney in late February.

In a sign of just how unhappy Australians are with these institutions, the latest barometer found Australians exhibited the highest trust gap in the world, with a 23-point lag between the informed public (68 points) and the mass population (45 points) before Christmas.

However, that gap narrowed following Australia’s bushfires.

“In the wake of the bushfires that have devastated Australia and now flash floods, sports rorts and coronavirus, we went back to speak to Australians around the country to see if anything had changed around their trust in the system,” said Hutton.

Dramatic decline in trust after bushfires

Findings from that supplementary study, conducted in early February, demonstrated that the national bushfire crisis sparked a dramatic decline in trust from an all-time high of 68 points in the informed public to 59 points, a 9-point drop in just three months. In the mass population, trust remained low at only 45 points. 

“Australia’s informed public saw a severe breakdown of trust from the government in response to the bush fire catastrophes. This should have been an opportunity to unite the nation and build security, but instead, the lack of empathy, authenticity and communications crushed trust across the country,” said Hutton.

Hutton said 89 per cent of the general population cited environmental issues like bushfires, droughts, water shortage and climate change among their top concerns. 

No institution was viewed as both ethical and competent.

The only institution rated as competent was business, holding a 56-point lead over government. Australians agreed businesses could get things done, such as driving economic prosperity (46 per cent) and leading innovation (43 per cent). But respondents also ranked business as less ethical.

NGOs ethical, but lacking competency

NGOs lead as the only ethical institution by 21 points over business and media and 35 points over government. They were cited for having the right intentions and for their efforts to address challenges like human rights (40 per cent), protecting the environment (37 per cent) and solving community-level problems (37 per cent). But they fall short on competency, according to the research.  

Government and media are perceived as neither competent nor ethical, with government ranking significantly lower on both scales than the other three institutions. Indeed, 48 per cent ranked government as corrupt and biased.

Confidence in capitalism waning

Despite Australia entering its 28th year of consecutive economic growth, only a third of Australians (32 per cent) believe they will be better off in five years. Half of those surveyed believe that capitalism, as it exists today, is now doing more harm than good in the world. 

Eight in 10 also worry about losing their jobs, a fear driven by the gig economy, lack of skills and the prospects of being replaced by automation.

Tellingly, 57 per cent of Australians don’t think democracy is effective as a form of government and 72 per cent don’t trust society’s leaders to address changes.

Concerns about technology and media platforms

Nearly six in 10 were uneasy with the pace of technological change (too fast), and 69 per cent are worried technology will make it impossible to know if what people see or hear is real.

Worryingly, just over half (56 per cent) of Australian respondents felt the system is failing them. This lack of confidence is also playing out in media, where 74 per cent of respondents said they worried false information and fake news are being used as a weapon. As a result, 55 per cent believe the media they use is contaminated with untrustworthy information.

Weighing in: Jodie Auster, general manager at Uber Eats; Jennifer Hewlett, national affairs columnist at the Australian Financial Review, and Dr Stuart Palmer, head of ethics research at Australian Ethical, discuss the latest findings in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Partnerships across institutions could help advance change

Across the spectrum, people said they believe that cross-institution partnerships are the way forward for change. Almost nine in 10 people (86 per cent) said CEOs should speak out on social issues, while 78 per cent said CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it.

 “The study shows there is a need for government, business and NGOs to put aside their differences and come together to improve society and solve our challenges,” said Hutton.

The supplementary study found people are looking to government and business to partner on vital issues, listen to stakeholder concerns and work to achieve common goals. 

For Edelman’s Hutton, the report makes it clear Australia’s institutions need to lift their game. 

“The new decade marks an opportunity for our institutions to step up, take action and lead on key issues that will unite Australians and instil hope for the future,” she said. “Trust is undeniably linked to doing what is right. The battle for trust will be fought on the field of ethical behaviour.”

Edelman conducted its online survey of more than 34,000 people across 28 countries, including Australia, between October and November 2019 and supplemented with an additional study in Australia in February 2020. You can view the Australian study here.

Edelman survey takeaways for institutions

  • Measure the trust in your organisations. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.
  • Make your leaders accountable. Give them KPIs to drive trust in your organisation.
  • You need to be good at what you do. Stop doing bad things. If you have a culture that encourages bad behaviour, fix it.
  • Put aside your political or ideological differences and find common ground to work together.
  • If we want to build trust in the system, we have to change the narrative. Hostility in society is driven by people and organisations with a particular agenda who represent the interests of just a few.
  • Whether you work for a business, NGO, government department or media platform, you need to tell your story and what your higher purpose/contribution to society is. Tell your story in a way that engages, not just to the informed public, but the mass population.