Saturday, June 28, 2008

Trust us - we play sport

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 25)

Readers Digest has just published the results of its annual “Most Trusted” survey, in which New Zealanders are questioned about the people they feel they can most rely on. The results were tragic but unsurprising.

The most trusted New Zealander, in the eyes of the 500 people polled, is Corporal Willie Apiata VC, who assumes the ranking previously held by the late Sir Ed Hillary.

I mean no disrespect when I say it’s tragic that Corporal Apiata should emerge as the New Zealander we most trust. He is an heroic soldier who has earned our respect and admiration. But his ranking underlines the point that this survey is really more of a popularity contest than a meaningful study of the role that trust plays in our society.

Thirteen of the 20 “most trusted” people are sporting figures, headed by Peter Snell, Colin Meads, the Evers-Swindell twins and Irene Van Dyk. There’s also an author (Margaret Mahy), a cook (Alison Holst), a mountaineer (Peter Hillary), a film director (Peter Jackson), a retired newsreader (Judy Bailey) and an opera singer (Dame Malvina Major).

What do you notice about these people? Most strikingly, only one of them (Cpl Apiata, as it happens) occupies a position of public trust, in the strictest sense. The rest are public figures only in the sense that they are well known. They are essentially private individuals, owing no particular duty or responsibility to the public.

Even Cpl Apiata is accountable to the public only in a rather indirect and theoretical sense, as a member of the armed forces. He is unlikely, as an individual, ever to make decisions that will impact heavily on the public good.

Along with the rest of the top 20, he seems to be on the list because he embodies the virtues that New Zealanders most admire: the qualities we like to think of, rather idealistically, as exemplifying us all. The factor common to virtually all the top names is that through talent or determination, or a combination thereof, they have achieved significant goals yet remain modest and down-to-earth.

With all due respect, they are not on the list because they have proved they can be trusted (although in most cases they probably can be). We don’t even need to trust them, since they’re not publicly accountable.

You have to get to the Queen, at No. 20, before you find anyone occupying a position in which public trust is a matter of the utmost importance. After her, there’s another leap – over names such as Richie McCaw, Alyson Gofton and Hayley Westenra – to the Governor-General, Anand Satyanand, at 28.

The next “public” figure, in the sense of being publicly accountable, is Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt at No. 41, and I suspect he’s there more because people like him rather than because they rely on him to carry out his duties conscientiously, honestly and fairly, which is what “trust” is all about. (They may indeed trust him too, but I bet it’s primarily his goofy charisma that won him his ranking.)

Further down the list, amid yet more sports people and entertainers, come Solicitor-General David Collins (50), Police Commissioner Howard Broad (59), Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard (60), and eventually – at 66 – Prime Minister Helen Clark, followed by National Party leader John Key at 68 and Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons at 69. Convicted murderer David Bain, incidentally, comes in at 67.

What are we to make of this? If we want to sleep easily at nights, we will dismiss it as a meaningless popularity poll. But if we are to take it as a serious indicator of who we trust, then the results are scary.

In a functioning democracy, the people we most need to trust are the people entrusted (note that word) with our wellbeing. By that yardstick the Prime Minister, the Commissioner of Police, the Governor-General and the Solicitor General should be in the top 10. So should the Chief Justice, the Auditor-General, the Chief Ombudsman (none of whom feature in the Readers Digest list) and other guardians of our prosperity, our constitutional rights and our justice system.

You could go further and argue that the heads of the armed forces, the major churches, the universities and some of our biggest companies should be there too, as representatives of institutions in which we have traditionally placed our trust. That they are not there, many would argue, is indicative of a general breakdown of public confidence in institutions which we once relied on to give society a sense of stability, solidity, cohesion and permanence.

Trust is a defining and greatly under-recognised feature of a civilised society. It underpins many of our dealings and relationships – personal, commercial and political.

Spouses trust each other not to be unfaithful or fritter away the mortgage money at the TAB. We trust politicians to do what they have said they will do. We trust the courts and the police to ensure that the law is enforced fairly and rigorously. We trust a mechanic to tell the truth when he says the brake disc pads have to be replaced for the car to get a warrant. When we buy a bottle of wine, we trust that it contains what the label says. When I as a journalist interview someone, he or she trusts me to report them fairly and accurately.

So trust is all-pervasive and all-important. Once it breaks down, society starts to unravel. For all these reasons, trust deserves better than to be debased and trivialised by opinion polls of the sort carried out by Readers Digest.

Perhaps the great irony of the Readers Digest poll is that politicians are second from the bottom (ahead only of telemarketers) among the occupational groups we feel we can trust. Given that politicians are the people we elect to represent us, the only conclusion to be drawn is that we no longer trust even ourselves.

8 comments:

homepaddock said...

If you read the fine print:those polled were asked to rate 85 people on a scale of 1 -10 so they didn't choose the people they just ranked those already chosen. It's designed to get publicity for Readers Digest and not to be taken seriously, but if they are going to the trouble of doing it why not do it properly?

homepaddock said...

I forgot the link so you can read the fine print: http://www.readersdigest.co.nz/content/2008-new-zealands-most-trusted-people-list

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks - that helps explain it. But as you say, it makes the poll even more of a farce.

Lewis said...

"You have to get to the Queen, at No. 20, before you find anyone occupying a position in which public trust is a matter of the utmost importance."

Ummm... what do we have to trust the Queen with exactly? That she won't intervene in our affairs?

Vaughan said...

Trust a mechanic? Once a mechanic in Gore asked me if I had "bled the slave cylinder".

I suspect that his gory reference to what sounded to me like an oppressive medical ritual was just an excuse to charge me a lot more for repairs to my lemon.

But let's go further. Trust the WOF system?

There is no such thing in Australia and I suspect there are no more problems with unroadworthy cars in that enlightened country than in NZ with its WOF.

Karl du Fresne said...

In reply to Lewis: The Queen is New Zealand's head of state. Lewis, as a republican, doesn't think she should be, but unfortunately for him that's the reality - at least until such time as he can persuade New Zealanders to dump her, which at present they show no great inclination to do.
As long as she remains our head of state, New Zealanders trust her to behave with personal decorum and constitutional propriety. They expect her not to meddle in politics and not to bring dishonour on the Crown by, say, engaging in criminal or immoral acts or getting chummy with despots (beyond what is required of her by traditional diplomatic niceties, unpleasant as they may sometimes be - like hosting Robert Mugabe).
I don't think it's unrealistic to argue that if the Queen did any of the above things, it would have a destabilising effect on the whole constitutional/governmental structure that could reach as far as New Zealand. So yes, I think it is important that New Zealanders should feel they can trust her. Lewis shouldn't allow his republican sentiments to cloud the reality of our constitutional arrangements.

Lewis said...

Karl, I'm not suggesting the Queen should act in such a way that breaks 400 year old constitutional conventions; however, it is exactly because of those traditions I raise the question - it goes the question of why we have an absentee monarch as our head of state in the first place.

It's a nonsense to say we trust the Queen not to meddle in our politics or commit criminal acts. It's the same as saying we trust the Sultan of Brunei not to intervene in our politics - trust implies a relationship of reliance, something that does not exist outside of Bagehotite constitutional theory.

Legally the Queen cannot actually commit criminal acts and could never be tried for them - the Queen as Sovereign is above the law (hence the saying "the Queen can do no wrong").

The truth of the matter is that while being our head of State, New Zealanders have nothing to trust the Queen with. The Governor-General is our de facto head of State, they're the one who are trusted with ensuring the continuity of Government. The Queen has shown - by not intervening in a plethora of coups and constitutional crisis throughout the Commonwealth - to be unable to act when the going gets tough.

Furthermore, the Queen never represents New Zealand overseas. At the battle of Passchendaele commemorations, it was the Governor-General who represented New Zealand, not the Queen, who represented the UK. Instead we send our uber-diplomat, the Governor-General, to do that job.

Carol said...

Karl, When I heard the results of this survey reported during a Radio NZ news bulletin my initial reaction was that it was a pointless waste of time. I honestly don't think it's worth your, or our, attention.
I seem to recall that MediaWatch came to the same conclusion last Sunday.