catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

How trusted are politicians?

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After a few years trending up from a low base, federal politicians have sunk again in the 2005 Morgan poll on the ethics and honesty of various professions. Just 15% of Australians think that federal politicians have high or very high standards of ethics and honesty. Commenting on last year’s figures (which Morgan curiously seems to have revised) Andrew Leigh remarked:

The so-called trust election seems to be taking place in an atmosphere of distinct distrust. Less than one in 10 [the figure Morgan gave at the time according to my records- AN] Australians thinks their politicians are ethical and honest. Whoever is prime minister after October, regaining trust in politicians should be high on the agenda.

But is trust in politicians really that bad? A Newspoll released only yesterday has results (pdf) that are hard to reconcile with Morgan’s. 50% of people classify the Prime Minister as ‘trustworthy’, and 63% describe Kim Beazley that way. The 2004 Australian Election Survey had similar results. 45% agreed with ‘honest’ as a description of John Howard, and 52% thought that ‘honest’ was a label that could be applied to Mark Latham. So how do the nation’s most prominent politicians get integrity ratings that are at least three times those of federal MPs collectively? The results are all the more anomalous for the sustained campaign to paint Howard as a liar, and the clear evidence of his broken promises.

One reason for such inconsistent results is that we judge groups of people and individuals differently. We all need stereotypes to make quick sense of the world – or offer answer quick answers to pollsters. But we also know that stereotypes are often wrong, and when we have real information we use that instead of our preconceptions. When asked about politicians generally, we fall back on lazy cliches about them. When asked about specific politicians, however, we offer more nuanced judgments based on observation of that particular person. We perhaps also apply more realistic standards in assessing individuals. Many of us dodge questions, gloss over things, or change our minds without lacking ethics or honesty in any fundamental sense, and we realise this is true of politicians as well.

John Howard does need to regain some trust. He is less trusted than he has been in the past, and less trusted than his opponent is now. But Morgan’s poll greatly overstates the crisis of trust in Australia’s politicians.

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Written by Admin

November 23, 2005 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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