Is trust in goverment declining?

After the troublesome nature of the last few Howard years and systemic problems in several ALP state governments, these days public trust in government is a rare commodity.

In his quest to restore such trust, this year Faulkner not only intends to rewrite the Freedom of Information Act to free up government information, he has indicated that he also wants to change key elements of Australia’s electoral system. [emphasis added]

Ross Fitzgerald in this morning’s Australian.

Like Jamie Briggs, Fitzgerald is inferring public attitudes from his own perceptions. And like Jamie Briggs, he gets public opinion wrong. As with questions on satisfaction with democracy and the role of big interests, a series of questions on trust shows that it is improving rather than declining.

A question in the Australian Election Survey asks,

In general, do you feel that the people in government are too often interested in looking after themselves, or do you feel that they can be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time?

From its low point of 9% in 1993, 15% of people in 2007 said that people in government can usually be trusted (equal with 1996 and 2004). ‘Sometimes be trusted’ is on 28%, the second highest result (after 1996) since this question started being asked in 1993. While in absolute terms these numbers show the usual cynicism about politicians in general, there is no evidence of decline. (And some of this seems to be just empty stereotyping, since individual politicians – even those relentlessly portrayed as untrustworthy like John Howard – do better in surveys on trustworthiness than politicians in general).

Outside the political classes, few people are likely to know or care about political donations disclosure rules. Jamie Briggs is a professional politician, but even he knew so little that he called for reforms that had already been implemented. And while the last few months have seen the worst outbreak of corporate pork since the economic reform era began in 1983 – just this week Rudd offered billions of taxpayer dollars to help banks and commercial property developers – I have seen no stories on whether these organisations are donors to the ALP.

It’s part of the strange disconnect surrounding political donations laws. Many in the political class believe that disclosing political donations is very important, yet they have little interest in whether or not actual examples of corporate handouts are in the public interest.

5 thoughts on “Is trust in goverment declining?

  1. As a lefty, I’d particularly agree with your comment that “the last few months have seen the worst outbreak of corporate pork” – banks – car industry – and whatever is next… and I certainly suspect that policy is being driven by the desire for donations, or at least to stop donations going to the enemy.

    Many of my lefty friends wouldn’t mind so much if the capitalization received equity and proportional power on boards. We wouldn’t mind so much if there were great improvements in transparency and probity or regulations for CSR.

    We wouldn’t mind so much if we could be guaranteed that the largesse would stay in Oz, or would at least not displace money the banks would have brought in anyway.

    So I disagree with your feeling that the political classes are happy with all this pork… it’s just not very loud in the mainstream media.

    The disconnect in the business media is just as bad… the “governments must not intervene in business” lobby that are benefitting from the pork are VERY quiet, as are the journalists working for papers that depend on the advertising of the same companies.

    So, we have the lefties annoyed, we have the untainted free marketeers (like The Economist, and yourself) annoyed. We have political parties with their lowest-ever membership, and their greatest ever funding base – about the best recipe for corruption I can think of, combined with the most pork, the best diagnostic for corruption.

    If you are saying something stinks, you are right. We may disagree on what should be done, but I think we would agree it would certainly be very useful to have someone delving deeply into this. But who and how? I have no answers, and I don’t expect the politicians to raise the questions or offer a good way of finding the answers.

    All we’ll get is the Joh Bjelke-Petersen line “dont, dont, dont you worry about that”


  2. Dave – On a quick examination of the last disclosures (most recent due next week), none of the major car manufacturers donated any money to political parties. Of course the car unions did to the ALP. Construction companies are generous donors.

    I think this is all bad policy, but I don’t think that donations have much if anything to do with it. Kim Il Carr and to a lesser degree Rudd clearly have a thing about manufacturing and the car industry in particular, as did the previous government who did not get the union donations. It’s deluded but not improper in the sense political donations laws are intended to deal with.


  3. Andrew,
    Thanks for the clarification of your position and the extra info. I’ll be riffing on this post from my “rabid left” point of view soon, and if you want a preview, you have my email, and can ask via email to review my post before I publish to ensure I’m not putting words in your mouth (too much).


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