Waning public trust must be addressed

First published: June 18, 2005

Public opinion surveys are warning us about the decline in public trust. The full extent of the implications of this trend is not clear, but if there is any hope for our future, efforts must be made to stem the tide. Without trust, we cannot function as a society, a community or as individuals.

Sure, this is a sweeping topic for a newspaper column and maybe better placed in an academic essay. But, it is terribly relevant right now. The recent Cobourg police investigation into allegations surrounding a mattress store defrauding customers is merely the latest in a long laundry list of incidents eroding the trust of Northumberland County residents.

While many businesses pride themselves on working hard to hold on to their customer’s trust, it only takes one bad apple to hurt so many reputations. For established enterprises, it is easier to weather this damaging behaviour, but for newer entrepreneurs, customers become wary.

The Conference Board of Canada recently released a major study examining the declining public trust toward organizations and public institutions. A 2005 survey of Canadian found only 16 per cent of the population felt senior business executives were credible sources of information about their companies.

But that is not the only failure witnessed in the past few weeks. The debacle in parliament during the sickening debate over the confidence vote on the nation’s budget was an all time low.

CBC and Environics released a joint poll saying 65 per cent of Canadians have little or no trust in Canada’s political leaders.

Even locally, municipal politicians are failing us. The incredible mismanagement of the Shopper’s Drug Mart-Mr. Sub redevelopment has escalated into a divisive debate because Cobourg council failed to follow its own Heritage District Guidelines for the downtown, allowing exceptions without clear justifications.

But this follows on the heels of a litany of questionable actions. The pay raises to council were another breech of public trust as councillors greedily voted themselves a pay hike after the town budget was passed and during the current tenure, rather than waiting until the next municipal election. It appears to taxpayer the councillors were lining their own pockets rather than getting a deserved increase for the job.

Cobourg is not alone. There are many in Port Hope who would not describe its council as trustworthy. Just ask anyone who has watched council’s treatment of Families Against Radiation Exposure or the revisions to the sign bylaw to note where its politicians have done little to hold the public’s trust.

What is euqlly disturbing is the efforts to undermine citizen’s trust of those who speak out. The manner in which municipal politicians so easily dismiss individuals or groups who challenge them. Appear more than once before a committee or council meeting and get branded as a kook or worse for merely holding strong convictions or questioning those in power.

The result of these actions was clearly demonstrated a few months ago during a Cobourg council meeting in April. Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner was acting chair when a group of young people called on politicians to pass an anti-pesticide bylaw. The group called the GIC Revolution Youth Network staged an impromptu demonstration. Attempts to silence them failed, leaving Spooner no choice but to shut down the meeting.

While some may call this action by the young people disrespectful, it is the kind of anarchy generated when the available channels of local government fail. Citizens are left with fewer and fewer options to be heard and they no longer trust the system to work in their favour.

Without trust we cannot work together, period. Every relationship, family, friends, business and politics – whatever – depends of some level of faith in each other not do harm. It is not only a core value of social relationships, but of organizations and institutions.

For 25 years, neo-conservative values have trashed the public’s trust as callous selfishness, greed, and power replaced our commitment to protect one another and act in good faith with each other. Our social contract was breached. Business and government stopped caring about people to a point where one could not tell them apart.

The rise of public trust as a discussion topic is a theme to watch over the upcoming months. The Conference Board of Canada is only the first of many policy discussions. The American Journalism and Mass Communications Educators conference in Texas this summer is about trust and credibility in the media. (A topic deserving its own column).

Holding council meeting in Northumberland Mall is a public relations fiasco at best and doesn’t make up for the need for integrity, transparency and accountability enabling the restoration of public trust. Politicians and businesses, which fail to heed this warning, do so at their own peril. Citizens who fail to demand it must equally shoulder the blame.

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