‘Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report’ edited by Shaun Wilson, Gabrielle Meagher, Rachel Gibson, David Denmark and Mark Western.

Reviewed by Megan Alessandrini

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Questions focused on in this response:

  1. What do Australians think about voluntary associations and political participation? by Andrew Passey and Mark Lyons
  2. Is there a crisis of trust in Australia? by Clive Bean

This ambitious book fills a longstanding gap in research and reporting of Australian social attitudes. The survey data collected fits comfortably into a global web of surveys aimed at providing ’empirical tools’ for policy makers. This is the report arising from the first round of the survey conducted in 2003 [the second of which has just been completed]. The breadth of issues explored in this survey research is quite simply enormous, and it is to the researchers’ credit that they plan to allow full access to the data for secondary research through the Australian Social Science Data Archive. The data are broadly sorted into thirteen substantive chapters. This review will focus on the chapters dealing with voluntary associations and political participation [chapter 5] and the crisis of trust in Australia [chapter 8].

Passey and Lyons’ explorations of the links between voluntary associations and the political system begin with a contextual discussion for the uninformed about the nature of associations – that they are formed primarily for non political reasons usually around mutual interests. This is substantiated by reference to a range of published research conducted in other countries, as well as examples of important research in this field conducted in Australia recently. Lyons himself has an extensive record of research and publication in this field.

Analysis of the survey data confirms the observation that ‘Australia is a nation of joiners’, but this says little about levels of activity and engagement. While the authors state that there are no gender or regional variations in membership levels, education, occupation and income are believed to be important factors in relation to joining behaviour. Of the respondents, 54% are members of automobile associations, which is surely an entirely different matter than for example the 20% who are members of a neighbourhood or community based group. This is explored further by the ranking of active membership: here it is revealed that only 5% of automobile association members rate themselves as ‘active’, compared to art, music or educational group members at 39% and members of groups that help people with special needs at 38%. The conclusions of this chapter are fascinating. While it seems fairly obvious to say that those who are most active in their memberships are more likely to be politically active, it is surprising to note that even inactive members in organisations such as automobile associations are more likely to engage in political activity than those who are not members.

Bean’s chapter entitled ‘Is there a crisis of trust in Australia?’ explores links between social and interpersonal trust, political trust and social capital. Putnam’s definition of social capital is adopted for analytical purposes, and it is thus evident that trust is a key feature in maintaining high levels of social capital.¬† Bean at an early stage makes the vital link between the social and the economic: if trust, an essential element of social capital, declines, then ‘economic growth and social cohesion may be undermined as citizens co-operate less at work and in their local and broader communities’. Using the 1983 World Values survey as a comparator, the data suggests that agreement with the proposition that most people can be trusted has dropped from 48% in 1983 to 41% in 2003. This is attributed to the age of respondents: it is the middle aged who have a greater sense of control of their lives that consistently state they are more trusting. When this data is interrogated further, education emerges as the dominant factor. Of those with fewer educational qualifications, 36% indicate they trust most people, a stark contrast with the university-educated cohort at 61%. This finding is both alarming and thought-provoking, and Bean remarks that as university education is becoming more widely available, perhaps there is cause to hope that levels of trust and therefore social capital will increase. Since 2003 when this data was collected there has been considerable reform across the fields of education welfare and industrial relations, so it remains to be seen if Bean’s optimism remains justified. Further analysis explores which institutions are the most trusted. Those in which people have the most confidence are the Defence Forces (82%), the state or territory Police (72%) and happily following close behind, universities (70%). Banks and financial institutions inspire the least confidence at 26%. There is a great deal of interesting and insightful material here, and Bean compliments the reader by avoiding allowing us to make our own interpretations.

This is an intriguing book. The various chapters of analysis highlight aspects of the data but are likely to make the reader eager to explore the data for other permutations and possible interpretations. The second report will of course allow for longitudinal analysis which will be most informative. In the mean time this delicious taste of what has been discovered through the innovative and much needed AuSSA research will have to suffice. It is thorough and insightful, and would be valuable to social and policy researchers at undergraduate or post graduate level, to academics in the field, and to practitioners alike.


Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report was published by UNSW Press, Sydney in 2005. ISBN 0 86840 671 6.

Dr Megan Alessandrini is a lecturer in public policy in the School of Government,
University of Tasmania. Her research interests include the third sector, volunteering and social capital in relation to policymaking and implementation, and she currently holds an ARC Linkage grant with the Red Cross Blood Service.

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