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Election results reflect growing distrust in politicians, institutions

The strong showing of the People’s Party of Canada in last week’s federal election – taking five per cent of the votes cast, up from less than two per cent in 2019 – was bound to cause the wringing of many hands. Many have blamed the gains on a growing mistrust of politicians and governments in general, with specific links to the pandemic.

Certainly there was support for the libertarian bent of the PPC in light of the lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccination policies associated with the battle against COVID-19. But we’ve had years of growing distrust in politicians and bureaucrats, as well as a host of institutions.

The pandemic has underscored the problem with decades of poor governance – and, not coincidentally, the rise of partisan attacks on government policies and programs. That’s why today we can see people hesitant to be vaccinated because they believe officials are injecting radio transmitters into our bodies (conspiracy theories) or because of more realistic fears such as privacy concerns and good odds of abuse and/or misuse of such information.

In the end, it’s just part of the general decline in the public’s trust for those ostensibly in charge – and we’re right to be skeptical, because politicians, bureaucrats and the ersatz captains of industry are not acting in good faith.

A new survey in fact finds most of us consider major institutions to be run by the corrupt and the incompetent.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust in government, business, media and NGOs remains low. In this country even, we did not find one institution to be both competent and ethical, a combination of attributes seen as necessary to earn the trust of the public.

Edelman finds that societal leaders are not trusted to do what is right, noting that amid urgent problems and a year of crisis, leadership is failing. Government leaders, CEOs and religious leaders are not trusted to do what is right. Instead,  Canadians are looking  to experts and those that are local – like people in their community – to help tackle the issues that matter most to them. In fact, 50 per cent of survey respondents worry that business leaders are purposely trying to mislead them, and 46 per cent believe the same about government leaders.

Just now, Canadians are more likely to trust doctors and scientists when it comes to pandemic issues as opposed to what’s being said by politicians and bureaucrats. The 2021 Proof Strategies CanTrust Index echoes the trust concerns seen in other studies.

“Canadians are telling us very clearly who they trust to get us through the pandemic, and the advice they want comes from labs not legislatures and medicine not management,” says Bruce MacLellan, president & CEO of Proof Strategies, of this year’s survey.

The CanTrust Index, now in its sixth year, has consistently shown high trust levels among Canadians for their key public services such as healthcare, education and the military. Canadians trust government services and the public sector, but not the politicians who oversee it.

“While conspiracy theories and polarization are major issues south of the border, Canada is in a healthier state of trust. Our scientific and medical community should be at the decision table and encouraged to keep speaking the truth,” adds MacLellan.

Canada is not alone in that regard, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that just 45 per cent of citizens trusted their governments – that from a 2019 study that predates the pandemic even. Trust in government is deteriorating in many OECD countries, with the organization noting that a lack of trust compromises the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies and contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.

The economic recovery angle is important. On a macro level, much of the distrust in government and business here can be traced to decades of economic decline – Canadians are less well off, facing stagnant and falling wages in the face of large increases in housing prices and, now, widespread inflation driving up the cost of living.

We’ve been embroiled in decades of declining real incomes and the loss of good jobs. Workers find themselves in precarious part-time or self-employed positions. For many of those lucky enough to find full-time jobs, compensation levels are falling. The prospects for a better future are fading.

The dimming outlook is not lost on Canadians. Lower quality employment has been the norm for decades, coinciding with the declining middle class. The growing pressures aren’t unrelated to record high personal debt levels as Canadians borrow to offset changes in the employment market.

There has been some improvement at the bottom level of income earners, but that is not due to the economy or employers, but to regulation.

Even government claims about job creation have to be taken with a grain of salt, however, given that the country’s population grows steadily each year – hundreds of thousands of new jobs are needed just to tread water.

What jobs are created tend to be part-time and precarious, something often overlooked by governments falling all over themselves with any “good news” announcement – they have no interest in providing context for any numbers deemed positive.

Part-time and precarious jobs account for the bulk of the employment being created today. This is not just a blip, however, but represents a structural shift, along with the decline in the quality of jobs on the whole.

Look at the numbers and do the math: working more and making less in increasingly crappy McJobs certainly add up to public anger.

Critics of corporate capitalism, “free” trade deals and policy written by lobbyists have been pointing out the problems for years. Now, many more people have finally seen for themselves that the neoliberal emperor is starkers, and the sight is anger-inducing.

Expect more hits against the establishment, from leadership candidates down to people literally in the streets, from whence real change is ultimately going to come.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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