Trust me

Do New Zealanders trust politicians and government systems? Why might distrust actually be a healthy thing?

Our leaders are here to serve us, not themselves. If we don’t think we get the ethical leadership we deserve, how does that a ect our attitude towards our government? Researchers at Victoria University of Wellington are asking important questions about integrity and ethics among New Zealand’s leaders.

For example, research tells us that levels of trust in our government are higher among younger Kiwis. So if 18-29 year-olds are more trusting, does that mean that our experience of our government over the years makes us more cynical and less trusting?

We know we live in a time of change and controversy as the balance of power and leadership shifts across the world. During uncertain times like these, can our government be even more open, transparent and accountable? And when we read a quote like this headline, are we reacting more to the words, or the person who said them?

Public trust in the public service

Dr Michael Macaulay has led research at Victoria University of Wellington into public integrity.

“That includes everything from ethical leadership, institutional arrangements, anti-corruption and whistleblowing. It covers ethics, trust and public values, all to do with trying to make the country a better place.”

Last year Dr Macaulay, the Associate Dean for Professional and Executive Education at Victoria Business School, led a report of public trust rates in key civic groups such as government ministers, police, medical practitioners, churches, charities, small businesses, the media and bloggers.

“New Zealand is famed for being a high trust, high integrity country, with a good international reputation on that front. But we wondered if there might be more going on behind the scenes,” says Dr Macaulay. “We found that the public has a very low trust in politicians—under ten percent; and a low trust in the government—again, under ten percent.”

A crisis of distrust?

Dr Macaulay is quick to point out that distrust in government and political systems is not necessarily a bad thing. “Sometimes distrust is quite healthy—if we look at major political events happening around the world at the moment, it’s probably entirely fine to not entirely trust what’s going on.”

He says despite the high levels of distrust in government officials, New Zealand’s not a lost cause. “Sometimes people conflate low public trust with low political engagement, but that’s not the case in New Zealand. If we define political participation as people volunteering and helping their communities, then we have nothing to worry about—we have about a million people registered in an official capacity as volunteers. We are back at the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index, and we also have a voter turnout of about 75 percent, which is extraordinarily high for a country where voting is not compulsory. So even though our results show public trust is low, it doesn’t mean we’re in crisis.”

Trading in influence

Another area of research being undertaken by Dr Macaulay and colleagues is on trading in influence, which was only last year added as an offence to New Zealand’s Crimes Act.

“Trading in influence is the form of corruption that’s most prevalent in western democratic societies—any concerns around lobbying, party finance, patronage, donations, conflict of interest and cronyism all fall under the umbrella of trading in influence,” says Dr Macaulay.

“What’s needed is a really rigorous piece of research to show us what the manifestations of trading in influence might be in New Zealand—we are working on that right now. It’s important to be aware of any issues that might exist, and to be honest with ourselves as a country about that.

“New Zealand should take a much stronger leadership role some of its international commitments—other countries want to know why we’re so successful, and why we are a nation of such high trust and integrity. We just need to face up to problems that might exist, in a proactive and constructive way.”

To find out more

If you have any questions about research on public integrity at Victoria, contact: