Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

30 November 2021

An annual social cohesion survey shows Australians are becoming more trusting of their governments, communities, and fellow citizens, Kate Reynolds writes.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, something remarkable and positive has happened.

The findings of the 2021 Scanlon Mapping Social Cohesion national survey, released at the end of November, suggest that Australia has bucked the global trend and become a more cohesive nation.

What comes next is critical. Will Australia continue to lead on this, or will it fall back? That depends on whether political leaders, government, the media and ordinary Australians are willing to keep investing in strengthening social cohesion.

Social cohesion is when people trust one another and governments. It is when they actively connect and build positive relationships with fellow citizens, when they feel a sense of belonging, and when they volunteer to make things better.

Research shows that social cohesion is the glue that drives more resilience, mental health, and joint problem-solving, and drives down discrimination, polarisation, and crime.

In Australia, this came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, underpinning everything from the shared sacrifices of lockdown through to world-leading vaccination rates.

The Scanlon Mapping Social Cohesion survey has been conducted annually since 2007, with a large body of the same questions asked to the same types of people each year. It offers insight into social and political life and how Australian social cohesion is tracking across time.

More on this: Truth, trust, and COVID-19 recovery

It is one of very few surveys that Australians can use to make sense of who they are, what they think, and how they are feeling. The 2020 and 2021 results indicate that social cohesion has increased in key areas. There has been a shift or change in our social fabric.

Consider trust and confidence in government. The percentage of Australians who indicated they trusted the ‘government in Canberra…to do the right thing for the Australian people’ ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’ spiked in December 2020 to 55 per cent.

While it dropped back a bit in 2021 to 44 per cent, it is still much higher than previous years — it was 36 per cent in 2019.

Most people said the National Cabinet and all Australian governments were working together in ‘our’ interest not their ‘own’ political interests, and competent health officials became part of Australia’s shared consciousness.

This spike in trust is vital for Australia’s future. As the OECD said, ‘trust is the foundation for the legitimacy of public institutions and a functioning democratic system’.

Now consider the findings for trust in others, and positive relations in neighbourhoods.

In 2019, only 22 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘most people can be trusted’ ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’. In July 2021, that figure was 52 per cent.

More on this: What’s in a name?

When asked if they agree that ‘my local area is a place where people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds get on well together’, 78 per cent of respondents in 2019, and 84 per cent in 2020 and 2021, said yes.

These amazing increases in Australian’s trust in governments and each other have strengthened its social fabric. An incredible 91 per cent of Australians continued to rate their sense of belonging as high.

Importantly, experiences of discrimination declined between 2019 and 2021 by five per cent, with fewer people indicating they had experienced some form of discrimination.

More people also agreed with the statement ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia’ too, rising from 80 per cent in 2019 to 84 per cent in 2020, and then to 86 per cent in 2021, and many more Australians see racism as an important problem that needs to be addressed.

It is possible this increased social cohesion is simply a by-product of a shared pandemic trauma. Perhaps it is because those leaders and commentators who make a living out of propagating hate and division had other things to talk about.

Whatever the explanation, nobody can ignore the fact that Australia has come through the COVID-19 crisis socially stronger.

It seems to be evidence of a virtuous cycle too. Good and competent government leads to greater trust, and greater trust leads to greater compliance and more effective governance. In social terms, trust in fellow citizens leads to better behaviour, which leads to more trust.

Anyone could have predicted that Australia’s social fabric would shift under the seismic influence of COVID-19, but to see such a positive result is a call to action to keep up this momentum.

Given the benefits from social cohesion, all Australians, whether they be politicians, government officials, in the media, or regular citizens, should be focused on one task: building an Australia that can continue this success.

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