27 February 2012

Stuff yesterday posted an article on the conviction of the directors of Lombard Finance for offences under the Securities Act. Titled “How the mighty fall from grace” the article not only focused on two who were prominent lawyers (and former Ministers of Justice) and who were found to have failed in their statutory duties, but listed others convicted in the last 25 years who have been MPs and in a number of cases Ministers. 

The story did not expand into the abuse of travel allowances or misuse of other Parliamentary privileges which often get a reprise when the personal behaviour of MPs is in the limelight.

What is apparent in defending the charges is that the two former Ministers did not share the prosecutor’s view about the criminality of their conduct. In Britain, there were similar denials of wrongdoing when in 2009 a number of MPs of all parties were making bogus expenses claims.

“At that time of economic hardship, large sections of the public could be forgiven for thinking that politicians were living, if not on another planet, then at least on an island surrounded by a moat.”

The disconnect between the common perception of what is right and what is wrong, and the perception that elite groups have of the same circumstances, explored by academics Nicholas Allen and Sarah Birch, has been published recently in the European Journal of Political Research. In “On either side of a moat? Elite and mass attitudes towards right and wrong“, they compared responses to questions asked of a representative survey of the public with similar questions asked of British MPs and parliamentary candidates.

They found systematic differences between members of the public, candidates and MPs at both aggregate and individual levels. Aspiring MPs display significantly more tolerance for ethically dubious behaviour than other members of the public. Within the elite category, elected MPs exhibited more permissive ethical standards than those candidates who were unsuccessful.

This echoes earlier research where elites in New Zealand like those in Britain, Israel and the United States were found to be more tolerant of difference than the general public.

Allen and Birch comment that “such gaps are hugely important in a democratic context. In particular, if systematic differences emerge between what citizens and politicians expect, and will and will not tolerate, then politicians may behave in ways that offend many ordinary citizens, with obvious implications for levels of both ‘specific’ and ‘diffuse’ support… If voters’ expectations about the proper conduct of politicians are continually frustrated, then it has the potential to undermine public confidence in the democratic system as a whole.”