Trust in government increased during COVID-19 in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand

image representing trust and planned cooperation
  • Published Date: 22 January 2021

Although there has been a perception that trust in government is falling, this decline has reversed in the wake of the COVID‐19 pandemic. New research for a paper in the Australian Journal of Public Administration has found a dramatic increase in people’s trust in government in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand.

About the study

There is some overlap between trust in people, elected governments, government bureaucracies, and trust in government generally. Leadership of the pandemic response has sometimes been personalised around public health scientists while research suggests trust itself is conditioned by socio‐economic and ideological factors. Effectiveness and/or adoption of policy instruments is also predicted by trust in government.

The research, therefore, set out to test the following four hypotheses:

  1. Trust in government is associated with higher income, better education, and Coalition/National voting.
  2. Confidence in public health scientists is associated with higher income, better education, and Coalition/National voting.
  3. COVID phone application use is higher when trust in the government is higher.
  4. COVID phone application use is higher when confidence in public health scientists is higher.

Using an online panel, a representative sample of 500 people in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand were surveyed during July 2020, in the middle of the COVID‐19 pandemic.

What the study found

Trust in government has increased dramatically:

  • A total of 80% (Australia) and 83% (Aotearoa-New Zealand) of respondents agreed government was generally trustworthy, with similar results across different levels of government and across states.
  • A total of 72% (Australia) and 78% (Aotearoa -New Zealand) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed management of the COVID‐19 pandemic by the Federal/Central government had increased trust.
  • A total of 81% (Australia)and 77% (Aotearoa-New Zealand) respondents agreed or strongly agreed management of the pandemic had increased their trust in the health system.

Confidence in experts (public health scientists) was also high with positive responses from 85% (Australia) and 87% (Aotearoa-New Zealand). Belief that the COVID‐19 phone application was in the best interests of the public was lower but also high, at 67% (Australia) and 71% (Aotearoa -New Zealand). A COVID-19 phone application was used by 44% (Australia) and 24% (Aotearoa -New Zealand) of respondents.

Testing the hypotheses

The first and second hypotheses are generally supported. Trust in government is associated with higher income and better education, as is confidence in public health scientists. But voting for the party in government predicts trust, rather than conservative voting patterns.

Results provide strong support for the third hypothesis. The use of the COVID-19 phone app is significantly higher when trust in government is higher in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand. The fourth hypothesis is supported for Australia, but not Aotearoa-New Zealand. App use is higher when confidence is held in public health scientists in Australia.

The bottom line

While higher levels of income and education are antecedents of trust and confidence, trust is not necessarily associated with conservative voting patterns. Instead, trust in government is higher when a respondent had voted for the current government, whether or not that party was liberal/left (Labour in Aotearoa-New Zealand) or conservative/right (Coalition in Australia). In Australia (but not Aotearoa-New Zealand), trust is lowest for those who voted for minor parties. Interestingly, confidence in public health scientists is also associated with support for the party in government in both countries, suggesting the conservative ideological/partisan link suggested with trust in experts in U.S. studies is not so clearly reflected in Australia and New Zealand

Trust in government predicts the use of the COVID‐19 phone app. Confidence in public health scientists is also a significant predictor of app use in Australia. Trust and confidence are more important than demographics such as income and education in predicting app use.

As the research was conducted during a pandemic and a crisis, it may not signal a long‐term change in trust in government. This may return to previous levels when and if the crisis passes. In a crisis situation, there may be a rally round the flag effect, whereby individuals and state actors draw together and focus on bigger picture situations.

Trust in government may therefore be perceived as a reservoir that can be drawn upon when needed so that citizens are willing to take what might be unusual and indeed (for them) unprecedented actions.

Want to read more?

Trust in government increased during the Covid‐19 pandemic in Australia and New Zealand - Shaun Goldfinch, Ross Taplin and Robin Gauld, Australian Journal of Public Administration, January 2021

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