How Trust can Make or Break a Democratic Relationship

Gagan Batra

Now that another Canadian federal election has come and gone, it is time to reflect upon the results. With this election came one big surprise: not only did the Federal Liberals secure a majority government for the first time in 15 years, they also became the first party to jump from third party status to a parliamentary majority.

If this striking victory on the part of the Liberals wasn’t enough to demonstrate just how spectacular this election period was, the surprising rise in voter turnout can shed some light on the event. Voter turnout has significantly declined since the early 1990’s, and reached an all-time low in the 2008 federal election, bottoming out at 58.8 per cent. This election, the voter turnout increased from 61 per cent in 2011 to 68 per cent; this is a whopping 7 percentage point increase, the most significant jump in Canadian history.

While in the past, there seems to have been a great deal of apathy around politics and the democratic process for Canadian citizens, something had clearly sparked their interest this year. Did the “anyone but Harper” attitude that so many adopted this election period convince them to go out and vote? Is it that younger voters are finally starting to get more involved in the democratic process?

These are important questions to consider in light of any election, leading one to ask: how do we reconcile this higher voter turnout with the apparent trend of declining public trust in government that we have seen in recent years?

What does public trust look like?

According to iPolitics, public trust in government has been on a steady decline in both Canada and the United States for over 4 decades, and it has reached a historical low in both countries in recent years. Data from iPolitics shows that in 2013, in response to the question “How much do you trust the government in Ottawa to do what is right?”, only about 20 per cent of Canadians responded with “most/all of the time”. If that wasn’t enough reason to sound the alarm, the Edelman Trust Barometer, a study on the level of trust citizens have in their government, reported a nine-point drop in the worldwide total in 2012, to 43 per cent; a trend that is seen in Canada and the United States.

As so few Canadians trust their government, is it really a surprise that voter turnout has been so strikingly low in the past few elections? Data from iPolitics shows that citizen’s trust in the government dropped significantly in the 1970’s. Around this same time, voter turnout began to steadily decline. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but maybe there’s something in this relationship that needs to be examined further.

Why is distrust in government problematic?

Distrust in the government is problematic for the same reasons that low voter turnout is problematic: it points to how indifferent citizens are when it comes to making serious policy changes. The OECD has reported on the lack of public trust in government, stating that this distrust compromises citizens’ and businesses’ willingness to contribute and respond to public policies, which can affect a country’s ability to achieve sustainable economic recovery in the wake of a recession. They also note that trust is an essential factor in the success of a wide range of public policies, especially those that depend on behavioural responses from citizens. In addition, trust is necessary for the success of policies, programmes, and regulations that rely on the cooperation and compliance of citizens.

In a recent article examining Americans’ thoughts on income inequality and policy solutions, a correlation was found between lack of trust in the government and low support for redistributive policies (Kuziemko et al. 2015). There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon, a prominent one being that individuals do not believe the government is capable of fairly and effectively redistributing funding and resources.

While there has been no comparable study conducted in Canada, we can look to our neighbours down south for some indication to why this distrust in government is problematic. If nothing else, the level of trust citizens have for their government does impact the way they view policy changes and their faith in the government’s ability to reflect their preferences.

What does this mean?

If this is the case and citizens really don’t trust the government to represent their interests, then how do we explain the huge spike in voter turnout this election? Was it Trudeau’s winning smile and kind face that urged voters to go out and get involved in the democratic process? Or, did citizens get hit by a sudden desire to effect change and bring in a government they could trust?

Though Canada’s democratic health was already on a steady downward slope, since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister nearly ten years ago, trust in government has gotten far worse. While it was his intention—his electoral platform even — to restore honesty and transparency to government, the wind seems to have blown in a completely different direction. It’s not clear exactly what it was about Harper’s time in power that struck a chord with the public, but studies show that the Senate spending scandal and the vote suppression “Robocall” Scandal did nothing to raise public trust.

Maybe Harper pushed Canadians too far, causing youth and adults alike to be more inclined to vote this time around. Maybe we’ve just hit rock bottom in terms of voter turnout and public trust in recent years and we can only go up from here. Maybe the lack of public trust Canadians seem to have in the government really has nothing to do with their apathy when it comes to voting. Maybe the majority Liberal government will be the breath of fresh air Canada needs to reignite the democratic fire that’s been so lacking these past several decades. There’s no way to tell at this point. All we can do is cross our fingers, hope for the best, and watch like hawks to see if this election period was a random occurrence, or if the participation this time around was the beginning of something beautiful.

Gagan Batra is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Guelph. She hopes to continue studying issues of Canadian federalism, and is particularly interested in intergovernmental affairs.