New research: Australians’ trust in government rises sharply through COVID-19 pandemic

Published on 17.12.2020
Australians overwhelmingly endorse their governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic according to preliminary findings from the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s 2020 Mapping Social Cohesion surveys, released today.

Early data from the annual study shows eighty-five percent of survey respondents believe the Federal Government has responded to the crisis very well or well. Support for State Governments’ handling of the pandemic is also at levels that are rarely found in opinion polling, including 99 per cent of Western Australians, 92 per cent of Queenslanders and 81 per cent of NSW people who responded to the survey, which was taken in July.

Even in Victoria, battling a severe outbreak of COVID-19 in July, 65 percent of respondents approved of the State Government’s response to the pandemic. In a second poll taken in November, Victorians’ support had risen to 78 percent – the only state to record support below 80 percent.

Emeritus Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, lead researcher on the survey, said that “the overwhelmingly positive character of the findings on trust came as a surprise and said a lot about the resilience and cohesion of Australian society when under significant stress.”

The Scanlon Foundation surveys of Australian attitudes have been conducted every year since 2007, and provide a unique means of measuring how public opinion has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2007, the surveys show that the majority of Australians have been sceptical of politicians and sparing in their trust of political parties.

For example, between 2007 and last year, an average of only 32 per cent of Australians said they trusted the Federal Government “to do the right thing for the Australian people almost always (or) most of the time”.

Yet in a finding that breaks the pattern, about 55 percent of respondents in polls conducted in July and November said they trusted the Federal Government -- the first time a majority of Australians have expressed a positive view on this question.

The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute conducted two mostly online surveys of about 3000 Australians in July, and again in November, on attitudes to trust in government, diversity, migration, democracy and globalisation.

Responses show that despite the stress of the pandemic, Australians remain a generally cheerful and positive people, with 75 percent of respondents expressing optimism about the country’s future in November – up from 70 percent in July and 63 percent in 2019.

Similarly, while in 2018, 57 percent of respondents thought that Australia’s system of government worked well or needed only minor change, this proportion rose to 69 percent in July and 72 percent in November. About 28 per cent thought the system needed major change or should be replaced.

While young people have disproportionately born the economic cost of the pandemic through loss of employment, the July survey found that of all age cohorts, they were most positive about the future.

As much as 70 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 24, and 63 percent aged 25 to 34, thought that their life in Australia would be “much improved” or “a little improved” in three or four years’ time. By contrast, only 48 percent of Australians aged 45 to 54, and 31 percent aged 55 to 64, felt the same optimism.

Across all states, 95 percent of respondents to the July poll endorsed the lockdowns imposed in March, with nearly 80 percent saying they were “definitely required” and the rest “probably required.” The November poll asked this question only of Victorian respondents, who had experienced a second, severe lockdown in July: 87 percent said they believed these restrictions had been needed.

The full 2020 Mapping Social Cohesion Report will be published on Thursday 4 February 2021. Subscribe to the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute newsletter below to be kept up to date with information about the virtual launch event.