What does the data say?

TRUST… ‘the belief that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable’ – dictionary.cambridge.org, 2018.

Recently, at The Demographics Group, we’ve been quite taken with the idea that there have been changes in our relationship with big institutions and, more specifically, with our level of trust in big institutions over time. We live in turbulent times; you can’t flick through a newspaper, glance at the nightly news, or even shoot the breeze with a local real estate agent without there being some mention of a royal commission, or of the failings of our political system, or of the behaviour of some at the big end of town.  


Plot 5

So, what does the data say?

The accompanying chart is interactive.  It shows three data series that track over time Australian’s belief in or trust in large and recognisable institutions that help make up Australian society namely Politics, Religion and Union affiliation.  Click through the tabs in the top left to view each domain individually and to scroll over the line-plots to read in more detail how the various percentages have changed over the last century for believers, for voters and for trade union membership. 

The green line represents our nation’s religiosity defined as proportion of all Australians who identify as having some form of religious belief at the census.  Data records on religious affiliation from the Australian Bureau of Statistics begin at the 1911 census when 97 per cent of Australians described themselves as ‘believers.’  Over a century we have seen a 37 percentage-point decline in religious belief to 60 per cent in 2016.

Religiosity has been recorded by the census since Federation however it wasn’t until 1971 that instructions on the census advised how to select ‘no religion’ if respondents wanted to show no religious affiliation. It appears that this was all the instruction (and encouragement) many Australians needed because the record shows a 27 percentage-point decline in religious affiliation since the early 1970s.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, launched in 2013, also appears to have been a factor in shifting Middle Australia’s thinking in regards to religious affiliation. This is reflected in the fact that there was an 8 percentage-point drop from 68 per cent of the population who identified as believers in 2011, to 60 per cent in 2016, and which is the largest intercensal fall on record.

The orange line shows the proportion of the Primary Vote cast for the major political parties at each and every election since Federation.  All data has been sourced from records published by Canberra’s Parliamentary Library. Along with the ALP and the Liberal Party and predecessor parties including the DLP, the major parties are listed in Table 1.  

The chart shows two historic dips in voter satisfaction with the major parties, namely at the time of The Great Depression and at the height of World War II when the primary vote dropped to 69 per cent and to 72 per cent respectively, down from a peak of 98 per cent in 1925. 

After the war the major parties recovered to garner 98 per cent of the primary vote throughout much of the 1950s and through to the early 1980s.  This was an era of political stability (as defined) where the Australian people had faith in (or trusted) the big political institutions representing their interests.  However, since the late 1980s the proportion of the primary vote directed to the major parties has dropped from 98 per cent in 1987 to 77 per cent in 2016.

Australians are as dissatisfied with their major political parties today as they were at the height of WWII and at the time of the Great Depression.   


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Table 1.
All parties who received primary votes to represent in Australia’s House of Representatives, categorised into minor and major parties.


The blue line is a measure of Trade Union membership over time.  It shows the proportion of the Australian workforce that held trade union membership. The data has been extracted from regular Labour and Industrial Branch Reports since 1911 as sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Union affiliation dropped dramatically during the years of the Great Depression and during WWII following a meteoric rise in popularity early in the 20th century.  By 1926 union affiliation covered 58 per cent of the workforce but during the Great Depression and across the war years this proportion dropped to an average of 43 per cent.  In the post-war era the unions regained the ascendancy peaking at 62 per cent in 1954.  Today, barely 15 per cent of the workforce belongs to a union.

The point being that enterprise bargaining, the rise of the gig economy, the rise of the private sector, the rise of the contract employee have all combined to reduce the proportion of the workforce formally placing their faith in (or trust in) the big institution of organised or unionised labour. 

Australians are less likely to believe not only in God but also in the institutions claiming to do God’s work.  They are also mightily sceptical about the major political parties and perhaps even of the unions.  And although there is no dataset presented, it is also fair to say that Australians are now wary, if not downright contemptuous, of big business. 

The issue of trust or the lack of trust is a rising theme in Australia, and elsewhere, as the many failings of the big institutions of Australian society are laid bare.

What is required, we think, is a movement that helps the nation rebuild trust, that promotes authenticity, that delivers transparency and that creates a sense of fairness.  But rather than merely pose the question maybe what we really need as a nation is to ask what is it that each individual Australian can do to build social cohesion, to restore trust, and to create a better Australia?

Here at The Demographics Group we think there are stories behind every dataset.  They just need to be cut and polished and perhaps even ‘plated up’ correctly in order to showcase the mind, the mood and the ever-changing behaviour of modern Australia.

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