Encouragingly, we trust each other more in times of crisis

Barney Zwartz reflects on the results of the Australian Governance Institute's 2020 ethics survey.

At 17, according to the old joke, teenagers tend to be certain that their parents know almost nothing and are totally out of touch. By 19, they are amazed at how much their parents have learned.

Something similar seems to have happened to our politicians – it’s astounding how much more trustworthy they have become in a year, along with several other professions not necessarily held in high regard.

I know this because of the Australian Governance Institute’s 2020 ethics survey, released this week. The nation’s ethical rating has rocketed from 37 last year to 52 this year.

Measuring positive scores against negative scores, federal politicians have moved from minus 27 to minus three, while state politicians have done even better, rising from minus 28 into actual approval at plus two.

Business leaders have benefited, going from low minus scores to plus 10, and even lawyers and real estate agents have improved, minus two to plus 11 and minus 21 to minus two respectively.

Another old joke asks why California has more lawyers and New Jersey more toxic dumps. Apparently New Jersey got first choice. A giant leap for lawyers, then, if they have moved above toxic dumps (not that the survey mentioned this)!

Another interesting result is that four of the bottom-rated five organisations are TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Only pay-day lenders fare worse.

Not surprisingly, those rated most ethical in the survey included fire and ambulance services, doctors, nurses, teachers, chemists and scientists – among those on whom we have most relied throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

We trust more because we need to – we realise how interdependent we all are.

The institute does not speculate about the reasons for this general rise in trust by Australians, but it is surely related to the pandemic. We trust more because we need to – we realise how interdependent we all are – and because we can see how much many of these groups are working to help.

During the worst days, we were all aware of doctors and nurses working themselves to exhaustion in conditions of risk, not to mention delivery drivers, supermarket checkout staff and other essential services.

As 2020 has demonstrated repeatedly, crisis often brings out the best in people (and, sadly, sometimes the worst). I find it greatly encouraging that our better instincts so often win through, and that our faith in each other is so often justified.

And if you believe in a God who is perfectly to be trusted, whatever vicissitudes may befall, perhaps that allows greater scope to bear with others and trust them, despite their (and our) manifest imperfections.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.