Have politicians become more ethical and honest?

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.

8 thoughts on “Have politicians become more ethical and honest?

  1. A change of Federal Government might have something to do with the improvement in perceptions of political ethics and honesty.

    Let’s face it – nearly 12 years of ‘honest’ John Howard, WMD, Oil for Wheat, Children Overboard – it can only go up from there.


  2. Andrew, you note the distinction between ‘ethics and honesty’and competence. The Rudd Government may be getting high honesty marks for sticking zealously to its promises but some of them – on middle class welfare and on the size of the fiscal surplus – badly need reviewing. Competence will suffer if they don’t.


  3. “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.”

    Not sure what you mean by that Andrew. Wouldn’t it be the other way around? The newspapers are filled, every day, with scandals of incompetence (child protection, indigenous affairs, housing …) and a minister or senior bureaucrat (whom no one could name a month later) fronts the cameras and tries to avoid the blame. Whereas the Premier announces all the good things (Gallop was called “Good News Geoff”) and stays away from the mess. Hence, when asked, people have a generally bad view of “pollies”, but not quite such a bad view of the leaders’. It isn’t the party leaders who have been shredded at our WA Corruption & Crime Commission.


  4. It’s still early days yet, but, Rudd’s lot seem to be doing their best to remain accountable and open at this stage.

    It’s a pleasant breath of fresh air, considering the Howard government fell straight into the gutter within a few months, with the much vaunted Code of Ministerial Conduct in tatters, and they never managed to get out. We even had Howard transparently helping his brother Stan out of his financial liabilities using public funds at one stage. The corruption was so brazen back then.

    I guess the real verdict on the Howard era’s been how quickly it’s become seen as distant history, little more than a few short months after the event :).


  5. Russell – Fair point for recent WA history, but it hardly explains Howard’s positive rating. The campaign against his integrity was significant and still going in comments 1 and 4 here, but still he gets a much higher personal rating than federal MPs in general. And I can think of only a handful of instances in the last ten years of proven wrong-doing by federal MPs.


  6. What ‘campaign’ by who, Andrew? I’ve never been a member of any political party. I’m simply a member of the public who reads the news and can remember the past.


  7. Pete – Perhaps a meme in your case. Google ‘Howard tricky’ or ‘Howard lies’ and you will see what I mean.


  8. Andrew, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a huge number of Google hits: he was and did, constantly 😉


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