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Ethics Index 2020 shows strong support for COVID-19 restrictions and front-line health workers as nation’s ethical score soars

Governance Institute of Australia’s Ethics Index 2020 — a survey of 1,000 people’s attitudes to ethical conduct across society — has shown broad consensus on a range of COVID-19 restrictions considered controversial in some sections of media and the community.

From an ethical perspective, Australians strongly support government restrictions to contain COVID-19, and in particular lockdowns (Ethics Index Net Score of 69), the closure of international (67) and state (57) borders and mandated mask-wearing in public, including on public transport (63) (slide 21/22).

In contrast, there is significant resistance to a herd-immunity approach, which 39% of respondents believe is unethical, and has proved unsuccessful internationally.

This comes as the nation’s overall ethical rating has soared this year, with an Ethics Index Score of 52 recorded, up from 37 in 2019 (slide 17).

The Ethics Index Score is a crunching of data from the entire Ethics Index to quantify people’s perception of the level of ethical behaviour.

This is Australia’s highest ethical rating in the five years that the study has been conducted, Governance Institute CEO Megan Motto said.

“Australians see our society as more ethical now than they did 12 months ago,” Ms Motto said.

“It seems that a year of hardship, in which co-operation, trust and transparency have become paramount, has changed our perceptions around how we function as a society.”

While continuing to operate at a ‘somewhat ethical’ level, Australia is now at the top end of the category and significantly closer to operating as ‘very ethical’ (which requires an Ethics Index Score between 60-100).

The Ethics Index also identified strong perceptions around the ethics of the health profession in Australia, seen as the most ethical sector (Net Score of 73) (slide 29).

The nation’s front-line health and emergency services dominated the top spots in the list of occupations and ethical behaviour, with fire services ranked first for ethical behaviour (82), GPs in particular were perceived more favourably in 2020 (80) than in 2019 (73), sitting in second place, ambulance services in third position (80) and nurses ranked fourth (79) (slide 25/26).

“The high esteem held for health and emergency workers reflects what we’ve seen on our TV screens over the course of the pandemic. Australians appreciate people who dedicate themselves to our wellbeing, especially at times like this,” Ms Motto said.

CEOs and managing directors slipped into the bottom 10 list for occupations and ethical behaviour in 2020 (10) with real estate agents (-2), federal politicians (-3) and directors of foreign companies operating in Australia (-4) the bottom three despite, some improvements compared to last year.

As corporate crises and inquires dominate the headlines in late 2020 and tough decisions continue to be made as a result of the pandemic, Ms Motto said organisations at all levels needs to put a firm spotlight on ethics.

“Ethics matter, in business and in society. Our survey shows that the perception of the finance industry in Australia is still recovering from the banking royal commission and other scandals, and the media is suffering the same crisis of legitimacy here as overseas. These perceptions have consequences, and our leaders need to get to work addressing them.”

Key Ethics Index findings:

  • 86% of Australians believe that ethics is important or very important in society.
  • The Ethical Expectation Deficit – the difference between the level of ethical behaviour we want to see and the actual level of ethical behaviour – is -29 in 2020, a closing of the gap from the -45 rating in 2019. The media (-3) and finance (2) sectors were seen to be least ethical, although both recorded strong improvements from 2019.
  • At an organisational level, the large social media platforms were least ethical (-7 to -24), along with pay day lenders (-25).
  • 69% of Australians believe the Federal Government has an urgent ethical obligation to act on climate change, with 50% of us saying we have an urgent ethical obligation to move to renewable energy.
  • The top two ethical issues for 2021 are: balancing freedom of movement and individual liberties with ongoing efforts to contain the spread of COVID (44%) and increasing local manufacturing to reduce reliance on overseas supply chains (33%).
  • However, two major pre-COVID issues aged care (32%) and climate change (28%) were also rated highly as challenges for 2021, demonstrating that Australians are turning an eye to life post-pandemic.

Access the full Ethics Index 2020

Read the key points briefing note

About Ethics Index 2020

  • Annual survey, now in its fifth year, examining perceptions of ethical issues and conduct in Australian society.
  • Survey carried out across a nationally representative sample (n=1,000) 1-13 October 2020 and weighted according to age, gender and location.
  • The research is conducted by Ipsos and conceived, designed and commissioned by C3 Content Pty Ltd.

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