How government occupations rate among ‘unethical’ professions

The base salary of Australia’s top government officials is nothing short of unethical to the community they serve, a recent survey from the Governance Institute of Australia has found.

The Ethics Index, now in its second year, show a continuing gap between Australians’ expectations and perceptions of those who run the country — both in government and business. It also ranks public sector occupations across professions and tiers of government for perceptions of whether it is ethical or unethical.

The tipping point when a remuneration package went from acceptable to ‘unethical’ is the $600,000 mark, but a $300,000 package was seen by most as ethical. There aren’t many government officials in Australia with salaries above $600,000, but it does include every federal Band 4 in the Senior Executive Service and every notable government-owned corporate head on a negotiated contract. A significant number of state executives and federal Band 3 remuneration packages fall in the grey area of the public’s expectations.

Overall the public sector received a 43% positive rating on the Ethics Index — behind education sector (80%), health (69%) and charities and NFP (60%), but well in front of media (1%), corporate sector (-3%) and banking and finance sector (-5%).

Ambulance and fire services are seen as the most ethical public sector occupations (85% and 84%), trailed closely by police (63%).

Consistent with last year, public servants are seen as more ethical than politicians — executive salaries not withstanding. Federal public servants had the highest improvement in the last year, up 12 to 20%. Local and state public servants also rose in public perception of ethicality.

The index is created by asking the public how they view the occupation or sector on a scale of very unethical, somewhat unethical, neither unethical or ethical, somewhat ethical and very ethical. The survey used three definitions of ethics that all but 3% of the 1000 respondents could agree with at least one:

  • Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. (Oxford dictionary)
  • Well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribes what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. (Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics)
  • A set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behaviour helps or harms sentient creatures (The Thinkers Guide to Ethical Reasoning, published 2006)

Public service and government sector ethical behaviour

By occupation

Occupation Unethical Ethical Net score (2017) Net score (2016)
Ambulance services 3 88 85 (up 2) 83
Fire services 3 86 84 (steady) 84
Police 10 74 63 (up 9) 54
State public servants 24 45 21 (up 5) 16
Federal public servants 24 44 20 (up 12) 8
Local council public servants 29 39 10 (up 3) 7
Local politicans 48 25 -23 (down 3) -20
State politicans 52 23 -29 (up 4) -33
Federal politicans 52 23 -29 (up 4) -33