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Do voters care if politicians lie?

By Peter Tucker - posted Monday, 20 October 2008

So, we Australians don’t trust politicians. Tell us something we don’t know.

In Tasmania, two weeks ago, Premier David Bartlett released internal government polling in the wake of an Auditor-General’s investigation into whether the money spent on the reports was an improper use of taxpayer's money. The local newspaper, the Hobart Mercury, ran the front page headline “Voter Angst” and bi-line "Lack of trust a telling poll issue".

Looking at the reports (go here) they contain the type of information that politicians would find useful, but I don’t think that useful. The questions asked the respondents to rate the government's performance on delivering a range of services, and the tendency with this type of question is for people to automatically either expect more or want more. Is the government doing enough on health services? Combating crime? Education? No matter how good the government of the day is, the default response will usually be "no!"


I suspect similar surveys in other states would show the same results: the bleeding obvious. That is why focus groups (just like you see in the Hollowmen!) are used by all political parties, because you need to know how deeply the dissatisfaction (or satisfaction) is held.

Here is something that leapt out at me. The question that got one of the highest "very poorly/poorly" responses was the question that asked respondents to rate the government on accountability and trustworthiness. Clearly, we don't rate the government highly on the issue of trust, and that became the headline for the Mercury front page (although it has improved from a 74 per cent negative response under the recently departed Paul Lennon to 60 per cent negative under David Bartlett’s premiership).

But have a look (in the August report (PDF 780KB)) at the "key issues for the Tasmanian government" responses. It appears respondents were asked to say what their key issues were, and then the surveyors did a "key word" search on those responses to see what was mentioned most often. Consistently, over the two years the surveys were held, "accountability" scores at around 2-3 per cent response rate. Health, education and the environment are the big scorers, well into double figures.

The conclusion to draw is that we don't trust politicians as far as we can kick them, but we don't necessarily care that much about it. Could it be that all voters really want are working health and education services, decent roads and clean air? I'm not saying that trust and accountability aren't important, just that as an issue it may not rate as highly as many in the media, and the commentariat, think it should.

Let’s take a brief look at recent history. It is widely held that voters are becoming increasingly distrustful of and disengaged from politics and politicians in Australia. Writers such as Uhr (2007), Kelly (2007), Goot (2002) and Eccleston (1998) argue that public trust in Australia’s governments and political leadership is at an all time low. Goot (2002), for example, makes the claim that “politics, politicians and political parties have never been highly praised by the Australian public: reports of ‘widespread distrust’ go back a long way”.

The table below illustrates how Australians rank politicians against other occupations for trustworthiness. At thirty-ninth place from 40 professions, people just do not trust politicians to tell the truth. Coupled with that, journalists are scarcely considered any more trustworthy, ranked thirty-fifth: Australians trust neither the message nor the messenger.


Similar surveys over recent decades have consistently seen politicians’ trustworthiness score at rock-bottom levels. In 1998 a Newspoll found only 7 per cent of Australians thought politicians had high standards of honesty and ethics, down from a still low 19 per cent in the 1970’s, and as far back as 1955, a Morgan poll revealed 91 per cent agreed that politicians “twist the truth to suit their own arguments”.

Thus it is true that Australians do not “trust” their politicians. As Jaensch (1995) points out the “main component” of Australian political culture has long been “a combination of apathy towards politics, and a scepticism, even a cynicism, towards its institutions and political actors”. According to social advocate, Reverend Tim Costello:

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About the Author

Peter Tucker has worked in Tasmania as an advisor for the Liberals in opposition and in ministerial offices for both Labor and Liberal governments. He is author of the Tasmanian Politics website, and is a researcher at the University of Tasmaniaís School of Government.

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