Portrait Of A Perfect Pollie


There is now serious doubt whether the Labor party can be a viable opposition under a Coalition government. The party is beset by problems, trumpeted daily in the media, which confirm a sense of failure. But when everything is said and done about the idiosyncratic conduct and policy failures of Labor versus Coalition politicians, there remain other criteria to judge which party deserves our support, even if we have to bite our tongue till it bleeds, and do serious penance when we give it.

In the end John Howard lost government not so much from proved incompetence, as from the cumulative effect of policies the public found morally distasteful. In Labor’s case the scandals and failures point more to ineptness and lack of discipline.

But the main problem with the Labor party is that it is composed of, and judged by, ordinary people. Not ordinary in their abilities and commitment perhaps, but in the sense David Hume meant when he spoke of man’s reason being slave to his passions; like any party it will make foolish decisions. But because the reverse of Hume’s insight is just as true, we need to look at the role of ideas when judging politicians; we get a more balanced view if we have a better understanding of where they went wrong.

Take the idea that Julia Gillard is a liar. Although it has a grip on the public mind and the media, there is a world of difference between a broken promise and a deliberate lie.

Politicians have a duty to break a promise if it is necessary to keep more important promises, or to preserve financial stability or public safety. We condemn them for not seeing the risk, or mishandling it, but this goes to competence not honesty. It is, of course, dishonourable if promises made in good faith are later broken for expedience; but it is a lie only if there was no intention to keep it.

If it is a broken promise then critics, including the media and opposition, have a more demanding task; they must now put arguments of substance to show the reasons given for breaking the promise are not good enough, or the promise was unwise when made. This is much more difficult and less rewarding than saying it is a lie.

Whether Gillard made a foolish or dishonest promise on the carbon tax is a matter for debate, but this can hardly be said of her backdown on gambling reforms once it seemed clear Andrew Wilkie’s political support was no longer needed. Whether it was dishonest or dishonourable, she betrayed a trust. But if the media and public treat unmet promises as lies, it is should hardly come as a surprise that politicians treat lies as pre-emptive breaches of promise.

Another idea taken for granted by major parties and the media, is that party unity can justify politicians voting against conscience on issues of principle. It conditions members to ignore their own judgment, closing off the debate once caucus speaks or party leaders take a position. It would be plausible to argue that this practice, perhaps more than any other reason, is responsible for the present state of public debate. As a result we run the very real risk that Australian politics, as in the US, may spiral into intolerance and polarisation.

Because they are embedded in the moral and intellectual culture, trends like this affect all players; however prejudicial, they offer no reason to choose one party over another. But if we try to make a choice by comparing party leaders it is far from clear, despite Labor’s tribulations, that an Abbott/Hockey/Pyne led government would be better in terms of leadership stability, freedom from scandal, or competence in management.

We might, in the circumstances, look for another way. We might ask if, given the role these leaders play in the fortunes of the nation, the ease with which factions replace them, and the degree to which their flaws are magnified by the doctrine of party unity, it makes more sense to go back to first principles; to those ideas which divide the parties at a more fundamental level.

The final five minutes of the ABC’s Q & A on 14 May provided a good introduction to Liberal values. Unable to cite a single example of his party’s support for egalitarian values, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey compounded the offence with a thoughtless remark about same-sex parents, deeply insulting to Finance Minister Penny Wong. He then sat puzzled and uneasy as the show ended; a hitherto amused audience, half Liberal supporters, watched in embarrassed silence.

No one should be very surprised, because Liberal Party philosophy is clear: it does not acknowledge egalitarian values. There is no recognition, either in principles set out in its constitution or in the summary of "beliefs" posted on the official website, of any general principle of fairness.

Because ideals of freedom and fairness often compete it is as if they must be incompatible, such that a fair society must sacrifice the freedom to live a life of value and dignity. It means the party supports fairness if there are clear social benefits, as in equal access to education, but not out of concern for those who suffer through no fault of their own; means to an end rather than an end in itself.

By contrast, at the heart of egalitarian theory is the idea that each member of a political community has equal value, such that the community has a duty to treat all citizens with equal concern for their interests and equal respect for themselves as individuals. It does not dictate equal treatment, because in many cases this will be unfair, but it does mean discrimination must be consistently justified.

The inability of the Liberal Party to accept this simple idea is exacerbated by a doctrine of unity which requires elected members to commit themselves to policies they may neither understand nor agree with, on serious moral issues posed by the apology, Iraq War, same-sex marriage and the use of poker machines. It meant the Party could support an apology as soon as Brendan Nelson replaced John Howard — it had no more moral consequence than a change of hair-style.

This is dishonest as well as opportunistic because all members of Parliament know morality is not a matter of counting votes or political expedience. It is, in the end, about the requirement of shared community values, whose interpretation and comparative importance will always be a matter for discussion and debate.

What our values require is also as much an affair of the heart as the mind; we test our political judgments against our moral intuition and we confirm our intuition by reason. We often rely, as elsewhere in the social sciences, on a method some philosophers have described as a process of "reflective equilibrium", also seen in the idea that we learn about ourselves by studying others, and about others by studying ourselves.

With no deep commitment to fairness, Hockey could not see the insult and with no coherent political theory, he saw no need to justify the discrimination. Does anyone seriously doubt that if Tony Abbott were replaced by Malcolm Turnbull and this in time saw a change of Liberal policy, Joe Hockey would not be the last member of the party to change his mind on same sex marriage? And is the position of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard really any better?

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