News National Why lying politicians should resign … but don’t
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Why lying politicians should resign … but don’t

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Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott in parliament during budget week. Photo: AAP

Of all of the ethical challenges facing those who wield power in the public interest, one of the most profound is that known as the ‘problem of dirty hands’.

The central idea is that it is impossible to govern without getting one’s ‘hands dirty’ – that political leaders must be prepared to set aside (and even violate) their personal ethical commitments as a matter of public duty. As with his predecessor, Julia Gillard, this is the challenge now facing the Prime Minister.

Tony Abbott made many promises prior to the last federal election – notably giving his word not to introduce any new taxes if elected. That promise has now been well and truly broken – with the Prime Minister implying that this was necessary in order to achieve a greater good; the repair of the Commonwealth budget, itself the means to a more prosperous society.

The discussion of the ‘problem of dirty hands’ normally focuses on extraordinarily grave ethical dilemmas such as the trade-off between public safety and the rights of terrorists not to be tortured. So, it may seem strange to place broken election promises under the same heading.

Getty
The messenger: Treasurer Joe Hockey. Photo: Getty

The discussion of the ‘problem of dirty hands’ normally focuses on extraordinarily grave ethical dilemmas such as the trade-off between public safety and the rights of terrorists not to be tortured. So, it may seem strange to place broken election promises under the same heading.

Too many politicians seem to think that the general public do not care about much other than prosperity. They are wrong.

However, in opposition, Tony Abbott excoriated Julia Gillard for breaking her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Indeed, Mr. Abbott placed the issue of political promise-keeping to the heart of his campaign. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s broken promises come at a time when the ethical stocks of politicians and our political institutions are at rock bottom – with the shadow of corruption falling over both major political parties.

Tony Abbott knows all of this – he has a strong ethical compass and he will not have been careless or indifferent when deciding to dirty his hands. Instead he has obviously reached the conclusion that breaking promises is the ‘lesser evil’ – and a sin that he is prepared to wear – for the sake of achieving his government’s vision for economic reform and lasting prosperity.

Consequences

So, how does the philosophical discussion of the ‘problem of dirty hands’ help us to understand what Tony Abbott should do next?

The first thing to understand is that breaking promises is not a trivial matter in a democracy. Our whole system is founded on the basic principle that the governed (‘the people’) are the ultimate source of political authority. As such, political parties vie at elections for the right to exercise political power – a right conferred by electors when they consent to be governed by their chosen representatives. Truth in politics matters – especially during elections – because it fundamentally affects the quality and character of that consent. The only consent worth having is ‘informed consent’. Australians are denied that basic democratic right – to give informed consent – by politicians who make promises that they feel free to break with impunity.

Yet, the writing on ‘dirty hands’ suggests that if the public interest is sufficiently compelling, then political leaders may actually be obliged to break promises (along with other ethical norms) – and do so even to the extent of feeling self-loathing for having violated the dictates of their own conscience.

Note – such conduct can never be justified when undertaken for selfish reasons (such as electoral advantage). One may only get one’s hands dirty in order to serve the most important interests of society as a whole – and when there is no other alternative.

Julia Gillard
Former PM Julia Gillard. Photo: Getty

No excuses sought

One of the most acclaimed writers on this topic, Michael Walzer, takes the argument one step further. Walzer makes it clear that a person genuinely committed to serving the public interest will not seek to excuse their ethical failure.

Instead, those who have served the public interest by dirtying their hands will insist on being punished. They will do so in order to send a clear signal that although such conduct may, in extreme circumstances, be necessary, it is never right.

Thus, an essential aspect of a political leader’s service is that he or she bear the cost of having transgressed core ethical obligations on which their society depends for its integrity and coherence. Is it not unfair to expect (or even to ask for) such a sacrifice? Perhaps so.

However, our society expects much more of others – not least those who serve in the armed forces. We expect those brave souls to hazard their lives when they volunteer to serve.

Bill Shorten
Opposition leader Bill Shorten: Can he take full toll of the government’s broken promises? Photo: Getty

What then might we reasonably expect of politicians – all of them volunteers? Indeed, what might a politician in Mr. Abbott’s position do if he or she wished to cleanse their hands? He or she would call a press conference and speak to the Australian people along the following lines:

One Despite facing extraordinarily difficult economic and political choices, he has laid the foundations for fundamental reforms that will benefit the nation.

Two Acting for the good of the nation has required him to break promises made in good faith.

Three Although he acted for the public good and in good conscience (dealing with the political and economic realities of the day), he also believes that Ministers should promote and uphold the highest standards.

Four Thus, he is accepting personal responsibility for his actions (breaking promises) and is resigning as Prime Minister in line with the highest standards of political morality.

Five He remains committed to public service and available to serve in other capacities.

Such a decision would be truly noble and leave an indelible imprint in the political landscape of the nation. Such a decision would be made in the image of those whose sacrifice for a greater good has inspired people for millennia. Such a decision will not be made.

The likely outcome …

Tony Abbott will take the same path as Julia Gillard did before him when facing the identical challenge, the same path as taken by every other Prime Minister who has been in the same predicament.

Unfortunately for Tony Abbott, he inherits this political legacy at a time when a toxic tide of mistrust – not just of politicians, but of politics itself – has risen to a new high watermark. We are now at the point where it will take the addition of just a few more drops of cynicism for the flood to breach the levee.

Too many politicians seem to think that we, the general public, do not care about much other than prosperity. They think that we will eventually forgive (or forget) their dirty hands when distracted by the good times they hope will come. They are wrong. And so the corrosive tide of cynicism will continue to rise.

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.

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