According to the latest Morgan Poll on the ethics and honesty of various professions, more people now rate federal MPs highly on those measures than at any time since they started asking the question in 1979. Admittedly, only 23% rate federal MPs highly for ethics and honesty, but that is up 7% on the previous year.
Looking back at the history of this question, there are upward spikes after governments change, and downward spikes when election promises are broken (Keating’s L-A-W tax cuts in the 1994 and 1995 surveys, and the ‘non-core’ promises in the 1997 and 1998 surveys). With Ruddmania, the spike this year was bigger than the 4% after the 1983 and 1996 changes of government. It is unlikely that the average ethics and honesty levels of politicians have changed much, but with the passing of Howard and arrival of Rudd some Australians are prepared to upgrade their ratings.
Though there is evidence that the numbers respond to real-world changes, this series is a very poor predictor of how voters will feel about individual politicians. As I said a few years ago at Catallaxy, the low ratings for ethics and honesty for federal MPs in general don’t match with the much higher Newspoll ‘trustworthy’ ratings for the federal MPs the voters are most likely to be aware of, the PM and the Opposition Leader. Even John Howard, the subject of a relentless campaign to paint him as a liar and tricky, left office with 52% of voters agreeing that he was trustworthy. If he is on 52% after all that, who are the people pushing the ethics and honesty of politicians as a class down to less than half of that?
The low ratings of politicians in general (state MPs are on 20%) and public servants (29%) are also inconsistent with the desire of so many Australians that the government meet their needs and fix their problems. There is a distinction between ‘ethics and honesty’ and ‘competence’, of course, but surely the former is significant if we are to hand over a third of our GDP to them?
Morgan’s survey shows how a stereotype can persist, while not being an active assumption when thinking about specific members of the group in question.