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Where the rot begins

By Max Atkinson - posted Friday, 21 February 2014

The idea is simple and compelling: the duty of elected members, whose offices and salaries are funded from the public purse, is to serve the community, not their own interests, the interests of supporters, or those of their party.

While no politician will dispute this, few seem to realise it is ignored whenever they suppress their own judgment and conscience in the name of party unity. Members clearly owe the party a duty of loyalty - they are elected with its support and funds - but there is no sense, at least in Australian politics, that this is limited by a duty to the public.

The idea that party unity has priority runs deep in the marrow of our political life. It is a formal requirement of the Labor Party, whose members sign a pledge to support the caucus and - despite occasional claims to the contrary - also drives Liberal Party politics. The Liberal idea of loyalty is less egalitarian, however; it is owed to party leaders rather than to a caucus majority - this leaves Ministers free to ignore caucus and a Prime Minister free to ignore his Ministers.


In late 2012 Julie Bishop condemned then Foreign Minister Bob Carr for supporting Cabinet against PM Julia Gillard on a foreign policy matter; the authority of the leader was, in her view, sacrosanct.

In a recent Counterpoint program Amanda Vanstone, a former Minister in John Howard's Government, confirmed this attitude to the role of leaders. In the course of reminding listeners that Australia's Constitution is silent on the role of Ministers - that it is a matter of Westminster convention - Vanstone confirmed it was accepted practice for Howard, with perhaps one other Minister, to reserve certain matters for himself, on the assumption that Cabinet would defer to his experience and authority as leader.

Perhaps the most dramatic example in recent years was the party's unanimous support for Howard's refusal to apologize, on behalf of the nation, for wrongs done to aboriginals; followed by its near-unanimous support for the apology when Brendan Nelson became leader. No less memorable was the decision, taken by Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, to join in the Iraq War - after ruling out a Senate inquiry to examine the evidence alleged to support claims of WMD. In both these cases all party members simply followed the leader.

In previous papers it has been argued that, on important issues of principle, this delegation of responsibility by elected members - whether to a caucus or to party leaders - is an abnegation of the primary duty politicians owe the public. The essence of this argument has been around since the latter part of the eighteenth century, when the British philosopher/parliamentarian Edmund Burke, speaking of the duty of a politician at Bristol in 1874, famously asserted:

It is his duty …to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. …. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in Burke, with major books by Russel Kirk, Conor Cruise O'Brien and Jessie Norman - the last-named is both a philosopher and, as a member for Hereford in the UK, an influential Conservative politician. Much of this interest suggests a concern to clarify what modern conservatives reallystand for, given a long history of first opposing - only later to approve - major reforms in the name of social justice, humanity and human dignity. Arguably underlying this search is a sense that a political theory must rest on the values common to a community, not the interests and preferences which divide its many groups and factions.


However that may be, no one challenges Burke's theory of duty and the priority it gives to conscience. Instead, because the difficulties it poses for political parties seem insurmountable, it is dismissed across the spectrum as high-minded rhetoric, impractical other than for minor parties. This ignores the fact that, when someone commits to act 'on conscience', they intend to act on a conscientious judgment of values they see themselves as sharing with the community, at a certain level of abstraction - they mean to act on their own understanding of what is fair or decent or honest or humane, whatever the views of others, and regardless of whose interests it serves.

This point is worth reflection because it is easy to forget that the only way to treat values as substantive standards is to act on one's own judgment. If someone asks me if the Iraq War was justified, if there was a duty to apologize or if same-sex marriage is wrong, I cannot answer by citing someone whose views I respect or an opinion poll, much less the Government's policy - what counts is my own judgment and the reasoning it rests on. Because there is no way to validate this - no test to prove which view is correct - I might seek to avoid an irksome responsibility by denying there are community values, but this claim is much easier to assert than to defend.

This suggests a connection, ultimately conceptual, between judgments of conscience and the ordinary, everyday values which govern social life and politics - they cannot be understood other than through their interpretation by whoever claims to respect them, as do all politicians who profess the importance of fairness, freedom, honesty, humanity etc. It suggests the appeal to such values is part of what it means to act in good conscience on social and political matters: one stands 'on principle' by acting 'on conscience' - it means acting on one's best understanding of what these values call for.

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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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