Dr Rebecca Huntley author and Head of Research at Essential Media provided the keynote address at the 2018 BCCM Taste of Australia Dinner.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the land we meet on today is the traditional lands of the Kaurna people and that I acknowledge and respect their spiritual relationship with this Country. I recognise them as the traditional custodians of the Adelaide region and that their cultural beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today.
I’m an Adelaide girl. I grew up in Glenelg and as a school girl I was never taught about the Kaurna people, their history or their culture.
I sang ‘God Save the Queen’ at school assembly and when I misbehaved, which happened very rarely, I remember getting smacked with a wooden ruler over my outstretched hands.
For all the justifiable concerns and anxieties about our society today, some things have changed for the better.
I’ve been asked to talk today about our communities and our citizens based on the work I do as a social researcher.
How do Australians feel about our society today? What are their hopes and dreams, fears and concerns?
And given those, what should be the response from governments and from your unique industry – co-operatives, mutuals and member-owned businesses?
For the last few years I have been starting almost all of my speeches with reflections on ‘trust’. Australians’ trust in institutions, public and private, including the media, our parliaments, our government departments, our companies big and small.
I do this because I want people to look beyond the easy platitudes about ‘declining trust’ and growing public cynicism to a deeper understanding of trust in the community.
Australians have never blindly trusted authority, particularly politicians and captains of industry.
In his classic book The Lucky Country, written in1964, Donald Horne wrote “many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre [who] almost seem to form a secret society to preserve the obsolescent and the amateurish.”
When I originally read that quote, I thought he wrote ‘adolescent’. My misreading may still apply.
Now scepticism about those in power is a prerequisite for a fully functioning democracy.
We should question the motives of the people who make decisions on our behalf, on our dime that impact our lives.
But if scepticism is allowed to turn into entrenched cynicism – especially if it is exacerbated by the bad behaviour of our leaders – then that can lead to a collapse of trust in our essential public institutions.
And once gone the effort to restore it is long and arduous.
When I look at the research available on trust in institutions I see a clear story emerging. For example, consider The Essential Report’s recent figures on how much Australians trust institutions and organisations, released in September this year.
Institutions of law enforcement – police and the High Court – rank at the top of trusted institutions.
The ABC and the Reserve Bank are only trusted by around half of the population; it should be noted that while trust in the media has declined over time, despite everything its endured, the ABC still ranks at the top of trusted media organisations.
The public service and local councils are only trusted by around 40% of us.
Only a third of us trust:
- State and federal parliament
- Business groups
- Religious organisations
And right at the bottom – no surprise there – are political parties. Of all persuasions, left and right.
Listening to Australians talk about trust and institutions, it’s clear they believe these organisations have to be forced to change their ways, forced to confront bad behaviour and bad practices either by a media scandal or a Royal Commission.
But this isn’t the whole story.
We need to look more broadly when we are considering the extent to which the public trust institutions and not just consider how they respond to questions in a survey about trust.
This is where my optimistic nature kicks in.
Despite chronic cynicism about politicians and politics, Australians still turn up to vote in elections, not just I would say because of the sausage sizzle and the possible fine.
And there is no evidence of a rise in informal voting. When facing the ballot box Australians take their vote seriously.
No research I’ve seen or conducted indicates a strong public sentiment against compulsory voting.
Indeed voter involvement – even for something non-compulsory like last year’s same sex marriage survey – was extremely high. The envy perhaps of other nations that struggle to get 50% voter turnout for something as important as a presidential election.
And we should be hopeful about the political attitudes of the next generation as well.
90,000 new voters enrolled with the AEC in time to be involved in the marriage equality survey.
Compare this to the recent US mid-term elections where the media headlines were excitedly reporting a huge surge in young people intending to vote. A whopping 40% of them.
Back to trust.
What does all this mean for our understanding of trust?
That while there is a trust problem in the community, there is still a desire to be heard, to engage, to participate when given the opportunity.
There is, I dare I say, still hope.
As co-operatives, mutuals and member-owned businesses, you have intimate knowledge of the financial and social pressures on your members.
And your guiding principles – around voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, co-operation and concern for community – reflect the values and priorities of the majority of Australians.
This is even more so now we have seen what other parts of the financial sector is capable of, courtesy of a royal commission.
Your focus on profit for members in combination with concern for community reflects the broad outlook of Australians.
There is a belief out there the public only worry about money and the economy, that all other issues are second tier.
Australians know we don’t just live in an economy, we live in a society.
And while we might be a rich nation by international standards we worry – how evenly are our riches distributed? There is no doubt we want the wealth of our nation to be more widely held.
When we look at the many publically available surveys out there that list the top concerns of Australians, it might seem that personal gain is the priority.
The issues that Australians nominate as the most important to them, may on shallow analysis, seem to indicate all we care about is ‘cost of living’. But we are concerned about health (including mental health), about crime and about the environment. Our priorities are not merely economic.
It’s also clear we worry about our fellow Australians. For example public concern about poverty has increased since 2010. As have concerns about homelessness. As have concerns about loneliness. And economic and social inequality.
If I were to try to boil down the essential question Australians have in their mind about this country today and into the future, it isn’t “how can I make as much money as possible?”
It is … how are we going to provide caring, healthy and stable environments for individuals, families and communities regardless of circumstances?
Regardless of age, gender, income, location, whether they are living with a disability or not, whether they are a carer or not, whether they have children or not, whether they own or rent their own home.
What does this mean for you?
What does this mean for the co-operative and mutual sector? How can you leverage your unique business structure in a competitive world where more and more people are seeking to do business with trusted, ethical institutions?
You concern for your members (rather than the need to enrich shareholders) is your greatest strength in the current environment.
Now there is absolutely no doubt that the very concept of membership has undergone radical change in the last twenty years.
Membership organisations of all kinds are struggling to justify their value proposition and to hold onto members, even long term ones. Unions, political parties, newspapers, community organisations, sports and cultural clubs, even the local yoga studio – well they all realise ‘memberships’ and ‘subscriptions’ are a hard sell.
However, the concept that a financial institution is run for the benefit of members still has real meaning for people.
Consider how well industry super funds emerged from the royal commission compared to the retail super funds run by the major banks.
In your endeavours to grow and for your contribution to the economy to be properly valued, you need more support from government and you need to find ways to tell your stories loud and clear to the public.
The challenge you have before you is to make membership meaningful to all your members. Does a young, single, well educated woman want the same things from you as an older couple living in a fixed income? I doubt it. How well do you understand this increasingly ethnical and culturally diverse community you work in?
The challenge is not just about how you sell your products and services but also about how you communicate in this constantly changing media and marketing landscape.