If New Zealand is to truly live up to its reputation as a low-corruption nation, the dynamics of trust need to be taken seriously, write Victoria University’s Associate Professor Michael Macaulay and James Gluck

There are lots of elements to unpick in the Todd Barclay saga, including questions about New Zealand’s international reputation for integrity.

In terms of systems and processes, we should consider whether New Zealand needs to develop an MP code of conduct, something that is commonplace the world over. It also raises questions of ethical leadership and influence, particularly with the Prime Minister’s assertion that he could not influence party members to co-operate with the police.

Another troubling area the affair highlights is the relationship between public trust and political scandal. 

The common assumption is one of cause and effect: misconduct by politicians will result in lower public trust. This, in turn, will have other knock-on effects such as lower voting participation, less political activism and so on. These assumptions need to be challenged.

A Newshub poll that asked whether or not people cared about the Barclay affair came out 60/40 toward yes. Not a huge majority and certainly not enough to suggest the New Zealand public is as outraged as some may expect. 

Harking back to the previous election in 2014, the publication of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics and its revelations about relationships between senior Ministers and social media operatives failed to have a negative impact either on the number of votes cast—according to the Ministry of Social Development’s Social Report, the turnout increased from 70 percent in 2011 to 72 percent in 2014—or on the popularity of the National Party. Let’s not forget that for the first time since the introduction of proportional representation National won an overall majority, even if it only lasted a few days.

Why doesn’t political scandal have more of an impact?

Our research indicates that public trust in people is stronger than in institutions. Our survey from 2016 indicates that trust in MPs in general is incredibly low, at 8 percent. Yet trust in respondents’ own MPs is significantly higher at 51 percent. The same pattern can be detected for the differences in trust when people are asked about ‘local government’ in general, compared with being asked about their own local council. 

In fact, this pattern is broadly true the world over: personal bonds create trust and these outweigh more general concerns. Evidence from around the globe indicates that where public trust has a negative impact on, for example, elections it is usually because there is a lack of trust in the electoral process itself rather than in any individuals. You would find this most typically in a new democracy or a regime in transition.

Claims about trust, therefore, need to be taken at face value. Not only is trust quite easy to manipulate but there is a technique to gaining and solidifying trust, and this can be used for ill purposes. Confidence tricksters throughout history have done it. Readers who have been cheated on in a variety of ways will be aware of that.

Ultimately, if New Zealand is to truly live up to its reputation as a low-corruption nation, which we all surely want it to, the dynamics of trust need to be taken seriously. The actions of Todd Barclay have been exposed, but the outcomes of those actions are ultimately unknown, not just for Glenys Dickson, Bill English or Barclay himself, but for the public’s confidence in government and the culture in which our politics occur. Simply pointing out where misconduct occurs is not enough to effect change: we need to investigate and map out the consequences of these actions. By committing to such a research agenda, we can start to understand in depth just how justified New Zealand’s ranking and reputation is.

Associate Professor Michael Macaulay is an Associate Dean in Victoria Business School at Victoria University of Wellington and James Gluck is a PhD student in the School of Government.

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