Australia Talks reveals we have very little faith our politicians will do the right thing

Australia is struggling with a political confidence crisis, Australia Talks has revealed.

More than half of us think that corruption is commonplace. We don’t trust our politicians to do the right thing by us. And while we’re strongly of the view that they should resign if they lie, the data has revealed we’re also resigned to the likelihood that they will lie, and they’ll probably get away with it.

But first: the good news.

We credit the federal government with handling the pandemic well; 67 per cent approve, the Australia Talks survey found, and state and territory governments earned even higher levels of pandemic praise, led by WA and SA whose leadership earned an unthinkably high 90 per cent approval rate. 

This warm endorsement, however, cloaks a broader malaise. A shocking 56 per cent of us casually agree that “Australian politicians are often corrupt”. 

As we’ve learned, 89 per cent of us are confident that “most politicians in Australia will lie if they feel the truth will hurt them politically”, which is awkward, because 94 per cent of us also believe that a politician should resign if they lie.

We also firmly believe politicians should resign if they take a bribe (a no-brainer at 98 per cent), if they mislead parliament (95 per cent) and if they engage in pork-barrelling (77 per cent).

In other words, Australians occupy a grim netherworld of disappointment in our democratic system. While we would like our elected representatives to behave in a principled fashion, we are quietly confident that they won’t.

So there are lots of reasons we think pollies should resign, how often does it happen?

Interestingly, the data has also revealed our thirst for political accountability wanes distinctly when it comes to the bedroom.

Malcolm Turnbull introduced the infamous “bonk ban” in 2018, in response to the cavortings of deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce with his press secretary (and now wife).

But Australians have mixed feelings about it. When asked if politicians should resign if they start a relationship with someone who works for them, only 50 per cent of respondents thought they should.

To delve deeper into the numbers, women were slightly more censorious than men; 54 per cent of women wanted office romances to trigger resignation, compared to 45 per cent of men.

Two bar graphs show responses for women and men. Women: 39% disagree, 54% agree. Men: 50% disagree, 45% agree.
Australia Talks data shows 54 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men agree politicians should resign if they start a relationship with someone who works for them. (

ABC News

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But not many favour getting rid of politicians who have extra-marital affairs; only 29 per cent. It seems we only seek the resignation of politicians if they’ve been corrupt or untruthful in the execution of their formal duties.

And how are we served in this respect? The concept of resignation on principle is an old-fashioned one.

The 1970s and 1980s bristle with examples of ministers falling on their swords on grounds that would today be thought trivial: Reg Withers, for instance, who lost his job as minister for administrative services in 1978 after telephoning the chief electoral officer with suggestions for electorate names.

Or Michael MacKellar, who resigned as health minister in 1982 over his non-payment of import duties on a small colour television, swiftly followed by business and consumer affairs minister John Moore, who’d tried to get MacKellar off the hook. 

Ministers these days are much, much more likely to resign for strategic political purposes than in disclosure of some personal perfidy.

In the last 10 years, according to records maintained by the Australian Politics website, there have been 35 frontbench resignations. But only eight were for personal behaviour, conflict of interest or breach of the ministerial code. The other 27 were ministers either resigning to trigger a leadership spill or resigning because they didn’t want to serve under a new leader.

In the previous 20 years (1991-2011), there were far fewer resignations — 15 — but nearly all of them were for breaches of ministerial standards (travel claim irregularities and conflict of interest over share ownership cost the new Howard government many ministers in 1996 and 1997) and only one — the resignation of treasurer Paul Keating in 1991 — was related to leadership tension.

In the Morrison Government to date, three frontbenchers have resigned: parliamentary secretary Andrew Broad over questionable behaviour in Hong Kong, sports minister Bridget McKenzie for failing to declare membership of a gun club to which her department awarded a grant, and resources minister Matt Canavan who resigned because he wanted Barnaby Joyce back as Nationals leader.

The most significant policy failures of the Morrison Government — the $1.8 billion “robodebt” debacle, the death of 682 Australians from COVID-19 in residential aged care and the bungled vaccine rollout — have triggered no resignations. 

What do Australians think the government is doing well?

On balance, Australians think the federal government is doing a “good job” on some issues, like handling threats to health (77 per cent), keeping the country safe (75 per cent), handling natural disasters (63 per cent) and strengthening the economy (57 per cent).

The issues on which the majority feel the Morrison Government is doing a “bad job” are led by climate change (74 per cent) and followed by “helping people out of poverty” (71 per cent), protecting the environment (70 per cent) and handling refugees and asylum seekers (70 per cent).

The dissatisfaction with politics transcends specific portfolio areas, however. We don’t trust politicians; 59 per cent of respondents disagreed with the proposition that “politicians in Australia can generally be trusted to act in the interests of the people they represent”.

Distrust in politicians roughly correlates to age. For example, 66 per cent of 18-24-year-olds felt that politicians could not be trusted, compared to only 44 per cent of over-75s.

Nor do most Australians feel that politicians are held sufficiently to account: 72 per cent of respondents were of that view, which again was held more fervently among 18-24-year-olds (78 per cent) than it was among the over-75s (64 per cent).

Isn’t disaffection with politicians just an ancient Australian tradition?

No, it isn’t. Faith in our political system has waxed and waned over the years. 

Every federal election, the Australian Election Study operated by the Australian National University asks voters to rate their satisfaction with Australia’s democracy. At the 2019 election, satisfaction was at 59 per cent — the lowest since the late ’70s, when satisfaction crashed to 56 per cent, the all-time low.

In the interregnum, satisfaction recovered to peak at 89 per cent, which was recorded at the 2007 election, at the end of the Howard era and the beginning of the Rudd era.

So it’s possible for us to recover our faith in democracy.

What’s the solution, in the short term, to this perceived crisis in accountability?

A federal anti-corruption watchdog is backed by 88 per cent of respondents; 65 per cent said they felt strongly about it, while only 3 per cent actively opposed the idea.

Establishing such a body has been federal government policy since late 2018, but it’s yet to happen, the Prime Minister has variously explained, because the attorney-general was extremely busy and also because of the pandemic.

The Australia Talks National Survey asked 60,000 Australians about their lives and what keeps them up at night. Use our interactive tool to see the results and how your answers compare.

Then, tune in at 8:00pm on Monday, June 21 to watch hosts Annabel Crabb and Nazeem Hussain take you through the key findings and explore the survey with some of Australia’s best-loved celebrities.