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Coronavirus crisis increases support for politicians who listen to experts, research suggests

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison - Image credit: unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Coronavirus crisis increases support for politicians who listen to experts, research suggests

Coronavirus has caused a move away from populism and towards leaders who are perceived as competent and willing to listen to experts, new research suggests.

The research by the universities of Southampton, Canberra and Oxford and the Museum of Australian Democracy found that citizens’ rating of how well their political leader handled the crisis corresponded to whether they were thought to have listened to experts, acted in the interests of the country and been open and transparent.

The findings are based on national surveys carried out by polling company Ipsos MORI in the UK, Italy, Australia and the US during May and June, with over 1,000 people polled in each country.

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, scored significantly higher the other three for his leadership during the outbreak, with 68 per cent of Australians saying that he was handling the crisis well.

Forty-nine per cent of Italians approved the effort of prime minister Giuseppe Conte, but only 37 per cent of Brits thought Boris Johnson had managed the coronavirus situation well and just 35 per cent of Americans approved Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Morrison was also rated highest for the perception that he listened to experts, other politicians in his own party and politicians in opposition parties, and a majority of respondents thought he was acting in the interests of the country and had been open and transparent.

The survey found 71 per cent believed Morrison had listened to experts, compared to 65 for Conte, 55 per cent for Johnson and 34 per cent for Trump.

Although 57 per cent said they believed that Johnson wanted to do his best to serve the country, less than half thought he cared about people like them, was open and transparent or free from corruption.

Professor Gerry Stoker, co-investigator of the TrustGov project at the University of Southampton and chair in governance at the University of Canberra, said: “Populist politics has had a good decade, but our survey suggests that in a crisis people value politicians who are competent and deliver more effective management of a real and significant threat.

“It is possible that the pandemic represents a turning point for democratic politics.”

Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, said: “Competence is politically sexy again with people being more positive towards those politicians who utilise expert advice.

“Although the divides on which populism has thrived are still there and haven’t gone away in this latest crisis, those politicians who have been consistent, calm and clear have performed best.”

Confidence in the UK Government was higher than for Johnson personally, on 42 per cent, but still lower than Australia’s, which was at 52 per cent.

Before the crisis the UK Government had had the highest approval rating, with 53 per cent expressing some or a lot of trust in it, followed by Australia on 51 per cent and the USA with 49 per cent.

Italy had much lower levels of political trust to begin with, with just 34 per cent expressing some or a lot of trust in the government.

In Italy it has risen to 39 per cent since the crisis, whereas in the US it has dropped from 49 per cent to 34 per cent.

The surveys also found that perceptions of the threat posed by coronavirus tended to mirror the actual impact of the virus in each country.

Concern about the threat posed by coronavirus was highest in the UK, where the number of cases and deaths has proportionately also been the highest, whereas Australia, which had the lowest number of cases, also had the lowest level of perceived threat among the public.

Two-thirds of Brits considered the virus a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ threat to the country compared to 61 per cent in Italy, sixty per cent in the US and just one third in Australia.

The UK and Italy, where lockdown restrictions have been more severe, had a higher percentage of people stating that COVID-19 was a threat to their job or business, although around 60 per cent in all four countries thought that the virus would have a financial impact on them and their family.

However, in the US there were noticeable political divides in views of the crisis, with Democrats more likely to consider the virus a threat than Republicans and 71 per cent of Republicans saying they believed the media had exaggerated COVID-19, compared to 15 per cent of Democrats.

Although Americans were more likely to think that the media had exaggerated the threat, trust in the press was lowest in Britain, at 17 per cent, but highest for trust in television, at 46 per cent.

Professor Will Jennings, principal investigator of the TrustGov project at the University of Southampton, said the findings made clear that the public noticed and responded to how government is handling the coronavirus crisis.

He said: “Competence matters for trust in political leaders, though the presence of deep partisan divides highlights how politics as usual continues even in times of existential crisis.”

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