Bridging the trust divide: lessons from international experience

Democracy Politics Public opinion Public trust Democratic reform Australia

We are witnessing a growing trust divide in Australia which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007. The purpose of this briefing paper is to provide a general understanding of how other democracies are seeking to bridge the trust divide. It explores the nature and relevance of the trust problem in the context of the operations of contemporary democracies; outlines various demand and supply side theories that can help explain what is driving trust or its absence; assesses the range of measures taken to promote trust in government and politics over the last few decades; and, examines the views of Australian citizens on various reform proposals. In conclusion, we identify some key lessons for the Democracy 2025 project based on emerging insights from this review.

Please note that this briefing paper draws on some of the core insights from a research bid prepared in June 2018 by one of our authors, Gerry Stoker, with Will Jennings and Pippa Norris to the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council’s Trust and Global Governance Program. The bid is still under review.

There is widespread concern among scholars and in popular commentary that citizens have grown more distrustful of politicians, sceptical about democratic institutions, and disillusioned with democratic processes or even principles. Weakening political trust is thought to: erode civic engagement and conventional forms of political participation such as voter registration or turnout; reduce support for progressive public policies and promote risk aversion and short-termism in government; and, to create the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces. There may also be implications for long-term democratic stability as liberal democratic regimes are thought most durable when built upon popular legitimacy. The trust divide has been most acute in countries highly impacted by the Global Financial Crisis such as Greece. Australia is exceptional in this regard given its experience of 25 years of economic growth suggesting that issues of governing competence rather than economic determinants are becoming more influential in shaping public opinion.

How you tackle the trust divide depends on how you define the problem and our data and literature review demonstrates that the problem is multi-dimensional requiring a broad range of responses. The literature can be loosely organised around demand and supplyside theories of trust.

Demand-side theories focus on how much individuals trust government and politics and explore their key characteristics. What is it about citizens, such as their educational background, class, location, country or cohort of birth which makes them trusting or not? What drives the prospects for political engagement and what makes citizens feel that their vote counts? Or that their active engagement could deliver value. Are citizens changing their outlook and perspectives which in some way is making them less trusting and willing to participate? In general, our review of the literature suggests that the strongest predictors of distrust continue to be attitudinal and are connected to negativity about politics.

Publication Details
Access Rights Type:
Democracy 2025 Report no.2