New Zealanders trust the government – wait, what?

by Jane Clifton / 21 June, 2018
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - New Zealand trust government

Despite Winston Peters' ongoing shenanigans, trust in small-g government is on the rise, a new survey shows.

It was such a bombshell, even politicians couldn’t collect themselves sufficiently to gloat about it: a trust survey by Victoria University of Wellington’s school of government this week disclosed a significant improvement in people’s trust of government. Were it not from this reputable academic institution, via experienced pollster Colmar Brunton, this might have been dismissed as fake news at its most brazen. Not trusting politicians is, to most New Zealanders, as vital a precautionary duty as brushing one’s teeth and remembering Mother’s Day.

The key distinction, however, was that it’s small-g government at issue here. It is the general institution or system that has grown in esteem since the last survey in 2016, not the individual blaggards who inhabit it. Politicians are still extremely poorly trusted, though even they had a solid improvement in this survey.

It’s a maddening distinction, though. As a nation with a small population, we have a remarkably idiosyncratic style of governance. Individuals, especially particularly forceful politicians, tend to have more influence here than institutions or even parties.

Maybe two years watching Britain’s Brexit self-torture marathon and the bombastic Canute-ism of Donald Trump has persuaded New Zealanders that our small-g and maybe even big-G governments aren’t so bad after all.

Whether this trust was also stoked by the previous National Government or the current Labour-New Zealand First-Green coalition, or even by what the survey found was a slight thawing in distrust of local government, is open to conjecture. But coming after last year’s controversial election outcome and apparent resurgence in opposition to MMP, the result is remarkable. Of the survey respondents, 65% said they trust the small-g government to do what is right for New Zealanders. Two years ago, only 48% had that faith. The survey was taken in late February and early March, long after any new-Government buzz or summer-holiday euphoria could have been in play.

Even our new locum Prime Minister, Winston Peters, forbore to take personal credit when he exclaimed about the result. With the polls showing the country still evenly split between a National- or a Labour-led Beehive, it’d be heroic to put the result down to the change of big-G Government.

All MPs will doubtless take this result as an indication that they must keep doing what they’ve been doing since 2016. If only they could figure out what the most trustworthy bits of those doings were.

Personality politics

The survey has been a useful mind-refocuser after the inevitable Chicken Little prequel to Peters’ term as Acting Prime Minister during Jacinda Ardern’s maternity leave. It’s not every day the Bad Fairy gets publicity so far in advance of the christening.

The New Zealand First leader didn’t disappoint his detractors, engineering two “look-at-me” ructions for the week: an utterly avoidable clash with Labour over his party’s objection to repealing the “three strikes” prison sentence law, and the latest instalment of his quixotic lawsuit over his pension information-leak last year. The former will almost certainly be repealed next year, with NZ First’s blessing; the latter is petty utu and a vanity quest that everyone around him wishes he would forget.

Perhaps Peters secretly sees himself as a modern bard who must provide a steady stream of scenes for the groundlings. But his latest caperings are a good illustration of the distinctions crucial to understanding the Victoria trust survey. Such noisy and often-pointless eruptions fuel the general distrust in politicians as individuals – but at the same time, they keep political careers afloat by growing boutique reservoirs of trust at the margins. For every 95 voters who groaned at yet another Peters dust-up, there’ll be five who said: “Onya, Winston, keep sticking it to ’em!” It’s necessary for voters to see personality politics and conflict to get a sense of the individual MPs. There’s just the question of how judiciously politicians deploy these rumpuses. Alas, Peters is not what you’d call a minimalist.

Cup of tea

But what the school of government survey suggests is that voters understand that the small-g government trundles on almost unmolested by such carry-on. So, for instance, any time Cabinet has to discuss something that may affect Peters’ ridiculous lawsuit, he will simply recuse himself for a cup of tea and come back later, as previous PMs and ministers have routinely done whenever potential conflicts of interest arose for them.

As for “three strikes”, it’s one of dozens of disputed policy proposals eddying between the three governing parties in any given month, most of which will never become media sensations, because no one would die in a ditch over them. There may be quite genuine shouting, sulking and threatening during these disputes, but seldom is it in any party’s interest for that to take place in public.

For those still superstitiously convinced that Peters will run amok in any governmentally meaningful way rather than just indulging in his usual scenery-chomping, it’s worth remembering the mutually assured destruction pact that is a coalition government. This three-legged stool would topple if one leg stalked off. None of the parties would gain from a snap election, as the Government’s collapse would likely weaken voter support for all of them, and National could easily gain enough support to govern alone.

The only point in blowing up a coalition is if, A, there is an issue of the most visceral importance to one party’s core support base at stake, and, B, that party can shore up its support base big-time by pulling the pin. Neither A nor B is on the horizon.

If that’s not enough, Ardern has made it clear she’ll be at the end of a phone and will bring her Mum game to this situation, as in “Winston, don’t make me come down there!”

To add context to the apparent resurgence of trust in the machinery of state, it’s worth noting that charities and churches took a hit in trust, as, ahem, did universities. Judges, whose purportedly lily-livered sentencing habits “three strikes” was introduced to thwart, are more popular than ever. And all this information is brought to you by the second-least-trusted sector of all, the media. Our new motto: Journalists: at least we’re more trusted than bloggers.

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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