(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.