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Ethics Index 2022 reveals a fall in nation’s trust for second year in a row

Chaos in girl's head and hurricane of thoughts.

Australians believe the federal government has an urgent ethical obligation to act on climate change – but do not feel individuals have the same obligation.

The surprising finding comes from the seventh annual Ethics Index from Governance Institute of Australia which offers an important pulse check of the nation’s ethical standards and expectations.

The Ethics Index fell in 2022, reflecting a decline in ethical behaviour for Australia’s occupations, institutions and governments.

The Index, which measures perceptions of ethical behaviour on a scale of -100 to +100, fell to 42, down from 45 last year and well off the peak of 52 recorded as the pandemic dominated in 2020.

The fall came despite a rise in our expectations of ethical behaviour: the Ethics Expectation Deficit measures the difference between what we expect of people and institutions and what we see in real life. It worsened to -37 from -28 in 2021.

‘The wider the gap, the bigger the indication that society is not performing the way we want it to,’ says Governance Institute CEO Megan Motto.

Strong ethics are an indicator of a well-functioning society, and this year’s decline is a disappointing outcome as Australia emerges from the pandemic, says Ms Motto.

The findings on climate change are perhaps the most surprising, she says.

Respondents say the federal government has the highest ethical obligation to tackle climate change, followed by multi-national corporations. Business is seen as having an obligation to act even if it affects profits or causes job losses.

But individuals rank lowest on the obligation list and their score has fallen from the previous year.

‘As a nation we have high ethical expectations for action on climate change — but we seem to think it’s a task for everyone else,’ says Ms Motto.

‘The Index shows the Federal Government has the highest urgent ethical obligation to act, whereas individuals register as having the lowest obligation.

‘Let’s hope these findings are a wake-up call that we in fact all have a role to play on this increasingly urgent issue.’

Ethical decisions are regularly in the news — from government spending decisions to cyber hacking and data breaches and even the debate about the sponsor logos worn by sporting stars.

This year, the healthcare sector is viewed as the most ethical, although its net score fell seven points from last year to 65. Education, charities and the agriculture sector maintained the next three positions. At the bottom of the list, the media, large corporations and the resources industry are viewed as acting least ethically.

The reported behaviour broadly lines up with our expectations — Australians want to see the most ethical behaviour in the education sector, closely followed by health, while we expect least of the media and large corporations.

Among the media platforms, TikTok is seen as the least ethical. The youth-focused social media giant is viewed as acting unethically by 54 per cent of respondents.

TikTok has come under scrutiny amid concerns about the amount of user data collected by the app and whether that data is stored in China.

TikTok’s poor reputation and negative (-32) net score on the ethics index contrasts with the Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, which is viewed as acting ethically with a positive net score of 22.

The ABC is seen to be the most ethical media organisation, followed by free to air television.

More than simply showing the state of ethical behaviour, the Ethics Index also offers a roadmap for organisations on how to improve their ethical standards.

Top of the list for ensuring ethical conduct is improving transparency and accountability.

The Index offers specific steps for organisations to take. Providing protection for whistle blowers is high on the list as is ensuring leaders are seen to act in an ethical manner. Strong legal frameworks and ethics education in schools are also important.

At the bottom of the list, the practice of designating senior executives to oversee ethics is seen as important by just 15 per cent of respondents, while putting ethics clauses in employment contracts is important to only 26 per cent.

Corruption and tax avoidance top the list of unethical behaviours, followed by misleading advertising and workplace bullying.

For public policy, immigration, euthanasia and Indigenous affairs were the top three areas viewed as ethically challenging to navigate.

Download Ethics Index 2022

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