The media, trade unions and political parties are seen as Australia’s most corrupt institutions but fewer than 1% of people have had recent direct experience of graft, a new poll shows.
The survey, titled Perceptions of corruption and ethical conduct and produced by the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences, surveyed 2020 people aged 18 years and over by phone between August and September this year, with a response rate of 43%. The results were adjusted to represent the national population.
“Satisfaction with democracy in Australia remains high by international standards, although it is lower in 2012 than at any time since 1998,” the study said, with most concerns related to the quality of government.
“There is a widespread perception that corruption in Australia has increased, with 43% taking this view and 41% seeing corruption as having remained the same,” the report said.
The police and armed forces were seen as most trustworthy while the media, trade unions and political parties were seen as most corrupt.
“The media one is interesting because it confirms a finding across 25 EU countries earlier this year about the pillars of integrity in our community - the media again came down near the bottom,” said study author, Professor Adam Graycar.
“We’ve seen a number of media stories recently globally – the Murdoch scandal in the UK. There have been issues with talk back radio and the cash for comment allegations. This poll was done before the latest talk back controversy. But it’s a global phenomenon and the implications are important because of the very important role the media has in transparency,” he said.
While less than 1% of respondents said they or a relative had experienced corruption directly, “where corruption exists, it does have a serious and deleterious effect on government, on the delivery of our services and infrastructure,” said Prof Graycar.
While political parties were seen as corrupt, more than half of respondents see ‘almost none’ or ‘a few’ federal politicians as being corrupt and public scepticism of politicians’ motives has been stable since the 1990s, the study said.
Professor Mark Findlay, Deputy Director of the University of Sydney’s Institute of Criminology, said public perceptions on crime “often have very little to do either with personal experience or factual knowledge.”
“It is particularly interesting that police corruption is no longer viewed in the serious end (when, in fact, instances of such corruption, particularly in some states such as Victoria, see no sign of abating),” he said.
“This may be explained by things as tangential as new series of ‘Underbelly’ in this viewing season, or in more concrete variables such as a desire to believe in our institutions of public security in a political climate of border protection and prevailing concerns about local and national security.”
The loss of confidence in politicians and trade unions is troubling but consistent with a worldwide disillusionment with conventional institutions of representative governance,“ Prof Findlay said.
"What is more troubling is the belief in media corruption when, in other circumstances, the media is relied upon to expose public sector corruption. Maybe all this could be put down to the recent political scandals and degenerating level of political debate, and the biased and irresponsible role of individual media personalities in fuelling this state of affairs.”
Overall, respondents were mostly satisfied with the direction Australia is headed in, with the economy, immigration and employment topping respondents list of most important issues and concern for the environment on the wane.
Respondents were only asked about perceptions of corruption in public institutions, not private businesses or corporations.
Darren Palmer, Associate Professor in Criminology at Deakin University said the poll showed anti-corruption agencies needed to boost their profile.
“One of the most interesting and also somewhat surprising results is that almost half of the respondents indicate they would report suspected corruption to police. This flies in the face of the major restructure of mechanisms for dealing with corruption, whereby all jurisdictions have invested heavily in various anti-corruption agencies, including those dealing with allegations or suspicion of police corruption,” he said.
“More needs to be done by these agencies to enhance public awareness and access to their complaints processes.”
Additional reporting by Bella Counihan