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Is Labor the least worst?

By Max Atkinson - posted Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Public confidence in our parliamentarians has hit rock bottom - so how should we decide which ones to vote for? Perhaps it's time we judged our MPs on their values rather than the latest short-term scandal.

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 helps 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 made up 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 Humes’ 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, which has a grip on the public mind. 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 back down on gambling reforms once it seemed clear Andrew Wilkie’s political support was no longer needed. Whether it was dishonest or dishonourable, she betrayed his trust. But if the media and public treat unmet promises as lies, it should hardly come as a surprise if politicians treat lies as a pre-emptive breach 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 idea, perhaps more than any other reason, is responsible for the present state of political 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 ideals, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey compounded the offence with a thoughtless remark about same-sex parents, deeply insulting to Finance Minister Penny Wong.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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