A new survey of who New Zealanders trust finds those from the ‘left ‘of politics are least trusting of many institutions and their fellow Kiwis, Dr Simon Chapple writes.

Overall, the most distrustful of five political groupings in New Zealand – the left, the centre-left, the centre, the centre-right and the right –  is the left.

The left has the lowest trust of any political grouping in 17 out of 23 of New Zealand’s institutions, according to the third “Who do we trust?” survey, which was conducted in March by Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies in association with Colmar Brunton and which surveyed 1000 New Zealanders on various dimensions of trust.

The institutions where the left is least trusting include, perhaps unsurprisingly, both big and small business, churches and the police.

Perhaps more surprisingly to some, the left is least trusting of schools – arguably the most left-leaning large-scale social institution in New Zealand – in their fellow New Zealanders to make informed choices about the country’s future, in charities and in other people generally.

In some cases, in terms of low institutional trust, the closest group to the left is at the other end of the political spectrum, the right – a version of the so-called “horseshoe theory of politics”. For example, both left and right are most similar in their relatively low levels of trust in Government ministers, MPs, charities, local government, judges and courts, political party funding, and in their fellow New Zealanders to make informed choices.

On the centre-right and right, perhaps surprisingly to some, general inter-personal trust and trust in neighbours are high compared with the left.

On the other hand, the most trusting political group in New Zealand is generally that group to the immediate right of the left, the centre-left. The centre-left has the highest trust of any political grouping regarding 13 out of 23 social institutions about which they were questioned.

For example, the centre-left is most trusting of any group of Government ministers, MPs, charities, local government, medical practitioners and universities. They are most likely to think New Zealanders’ interests are considered fairly and equally by government. The centre-left also has relatively high levels of trust for small business and relatively high levels of inter-personal trust.

In other cases, there was support for what can be described as a gradient theory of politics, where there was a monotonic relationship between political position and institutional trust. For example, as one moves left to right, trust in big business rises, or more specifically distrust falls, as even on the right fewer people trust big business than distrust it. Trust in the media, bloggers and churches has a similar but less pronounced left–right pattern of rising trust levels.

The “Who do we trust?” survey also allowed consideration of how trust has evolved over time. In 2019, more than half of all New Zealanders now feel they have a relatively high level of trust in most people. Levels of inter-personal trust have increased moderately from 2018.

For high trust institutions such as medical practitioners, police, judges and courts, and schools, institutional trust measures have risen between 2016, 2018 and 2019.

On the other hand, patterns of change are more mixed for low trust institutions. Having bounced up between 2016 and 2018, trust in Government ministers and MPs has fallen in 2019, although not back to 2016 levels. Trust in groups such as bloggers, big business and the media has been stable at low levels.

Nearly two thirds of New Zealanders (63 percent) trust the government to do what is right for New Zealand, similar to 2018 (65 percent) and up significantly from 48 percent in 2016.

However, 34 percent of New Zealanders think corruption is widespread throughout government. While this is still low compared with other developed countries (e.g. the United States, where Gallup reported the figure was 75 percent in 2014), a similar question (in a Gallup survey) in 2013 gave a New Zealand figure of 24 percent, suggesting a worrying local rise in corruption perceptions.

Dr Simon Chapple is Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Simon Chapple is Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies in the School of Government at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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