catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

How trusted are politicians? #2

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Former MP Race Mathews (what kind of name is ‘Race’, anyway?) agrees with the public that our pollies are a dishonest lot:

Asked in a 1995 Morgan poll whether federal politicians usually tell the truth, 67 per cent of respondents disagreed, 24 per cent agreed and 9 per cent had no opinion. Seventy per cent of those polled agreed that politicians could not be trusted to keep election promises, 84 per cent that politicians lied at election time to win votes, and 94 per cent that politicians twisted the truth to suit their own arguments.

Public scepticism and cynicism have not been diminished by subsequent events. Think of the distinction drawn by the Howard Government between “core” and “non-core” election promises. Think of Peter Reith and the Dubai conspiracy. Think of “children overboard”. Think of SIEV-X. Think of weapons of mass destruction. Think most of all of AWB. The Cole inquiry has confirmed the community’s worst fears.

He thinks we need drastic action to try to remedy this situation, not just reinforcing institutions like Auditors-General but also a “new statutory office of parliamentary adjudicator-general, with a brief to receive and investigate complaints of public falsehood, including those under protection of parliamentary privilege, and report publicly to parliament.”

But is there a crisis of trust in our politicians? As I have argued before, prominent politicians get higher trustworthiness ratings than politicians collectively, even those like the Prime Minister who have endured years of attacks on his integrity. One reason why we can get these disparities is that the long-running Morgan Poll series on ethics and honesty of various professions, which are the source of many of the commentaries on political trust, only count those who rate each group as having “high” or “very high” standards. It would only take a few slips to lose that rating, even if most politicians most of the time are thought to tell the truth (albeit not the whole truth).

The Morgan Poll question also misses the distinction between trusting a person to always tell the truth and trusting them to do their job reasonably well. It was that ambiguity which John Howard was playing on when he said that the 2004 election was about trust. A question in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked people to agree or disagree with this statement:

Most of the time we can trust people in government to do what is right.

40% agreed, 33% disagreed, and 26% neither agreed nor disagreed. On this measure, only a third of people are cynical, with another quarter sceptical but not prepared to class “people in government” as untrustworthy.

Would Race Mathew’s Ajudicator-General make a difference to these statistics or any other? One possibility is that it would have little or no effect because part of what we are seeing here is an aspect of a more generalised mistrust that is not closely related to anything politicians have or have not done.

Another question in the 2005 AuSSA asked its respondents to agree or disagree with the statement:

Generally speaking, would you say that people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.

44% think that usually or almost always you can’t be too careful – an even lower trust rating than politicians get. At one level, it makes sense to say that politicians are more trustworthy than most people, since their statements and actions are subject to constant scrutiny. Without an Adjuticator-General, their trustworthiness incentive structure is already better than most people’s.

There is a danger, too, that the Adjudicator-General would increase cynicism without increasing political honesty. There would be endless opportunistic complaints that would give the impression that politicians are more dishonest than is actually the case. But since given the existing scrutiny there are not many outright lies anway – few if any of Mathew’s examples include a clear fib – the office would make little difference to political practice.

As a pragmatic matter, I think we need to put limits on accountability activities. When I was a ministerial adviser I often felt that we spent so much time being “accountable” that there was little opportunity to do the things that we were supposed to be accountable for. I am far more interested in a close analysis of policy outcomes than I am in a close analysis of whether every press release and every parliamentary statement contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


Written by Admin

May 19, 2006 at 9:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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