You might have seen that the Annual Edelman Trust Barometer was released earlier this month – and most of the results are unsurprising. More and more, we live in a world and a country rife with distrust.
Trust in major institutions is wearing away, and the trend is very pronounced here in Australia. Trust in business, media, and especially in government have crashed to such low levels that Australia is now sitting just four percentage points above the world’s least trusting country, Russia.
The decline of trust in government, business and media has been slow but steady. It is a process that has been decades in the making as communities reel from the impact of service cuts, huge increases to the cost of living, and worsening inequality.
But this year’s barometer highlights another change, and one that has happened much more quickly. Australian NGOs, which used to enjoy very high levels of trust, have taken a huge hit.
In just two years, Australian NGOs have gone from being among the most trusted in their country to among the least trusted. In 2018 the barometer showed that trust for community organisations dropped to just 48%.
Could this be an accident? It seems more likely that the recent attacks on our credibility starting to take a toll.
In recent years, and especially since the 2016 federal election, politicians have regularly criticised community organisations for deigning to participate in public debate and elections. They argue that community groups have a lesser “right” to engage in important debates than political parties and candidates.
We have seen this culminate in the targeting of environment groups, the recent appointment of charities critic Gary Johns to head up the charity regulator, and the Government’s latest proposal to classify most major community organisations as ‘political campaigners’.
These latest proposals could result in a set of requirements so complicated that some groups will be forced to hire new staff just to manage their compliance. Others might stop speaking out altogether, deterred by the new requirements and huge penalties for getting it wrong – miscalculating the date that you become a ‘political campaigner’ could cost up to $50,000 per day in fines.
This has huge implications not just for charities, but for all community groups. It would allow the Government to audit our advocacy work and our sources of income. And it sends a message to the public our motives are somehow impure.
Much of the debate around these changes has focused on charities. But it’s important that we look beyond our sector and see the bigger picture. All community groups, not just charities, would be affected by these changes. Land councils, community legal centres, community-run campaigns, and other non-charities who speak out could be overrun with so much red tape that it is tantamount to a gag order.
At the same time the big influencers in Australian politics – big business, their lobby groups, and other vested interests – can afford to spend millions on lobbyists to help them secure important meetings, on advertising before elections, and on airspace to set the political agenda. Just weeks ago, the Minerals Council admitted that its donations are designed to buy access to decision-makers.
And we have all seen how these sectional interests can abuse statistics and economic modelling to get what they want. ‘Post-truth’ might be a new phrase, but the concept is familiar. As time goes on, our hollowed-out media has less time, inclination, or expertise to scrutinise the claims presented to it.
The public cottoned on to all of this long ago. That’s why trust in Australian businesses and the media has been declining steadily for years.
So why, when there are so many corrupting influences on our public debate, is civil society being targeted so relentlessly?
We think the answer goes back to trust. As trust in political parties, governments, and government institutions crashes to woeful new lows, it makes sense to attack the one sector that has enjoyed strong and steady credibility with the public – NGOs and community organisations.
It should be no surprise that business has been eager to join this attack. Think, for example, of how the mining industry has worked with government to undermine environment groups in Queensland and NSW. With both the industry and the Government short on trust and unable to persuade the public to their cause, they are doing the next best thing by attacking the credibility of those who challenge them.
Of course many critical organisations – including Anglicare Australia – have had strong and productive relationships with government. But we have never shied away from speaking up for the people who we work with. That is how we have earned our trust.
As we respond to these attacks, it’s important not to retreat into our silos. We should not simply focus on our own status as a charity, or as a religious organisation. We can’t protect trust in civil society unless we defend the right of all community organisations to advocate for their causes.
The good news for Australian civil society is that it has enjoyed high levels of trust over many decades. So I think we can see off these attacks and strengthen our relationships with the public. It seems to me it is the Government that has a much harder road ahead of it.
Anglicare Australia Deputy Director