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Public opinion and democracy

By Max Atkinson - posted Thursday, 3 July 2014

Richard Cooke, writing in the June edition of The Monthly, condemns politicians for ignoring public opinion. His thoughtful and informative essay on the causes of the present discontent looks to the demise of two-party politics to restore substance to democratic ideals; but is there any basis for this optimism other than that it might restore integrity to political debate by challenging doctrines of party unity? His account of the problem, persuasive as it is, arguably ends where the debate begins.

The failure by most parties to distinguish issues of principle from ordinary, everyday matters of party policy - where unity is justified - means most politicians give up conscientious judgments of controversial issues; instead they defer to party opinion, a form of moral self-subordination which is difficult to defend. Hence the apology, where Liberal views changed as soon as Howard was replaced; no less egregious was the refusal by members of major parties to examine the evidence alleged to justify the Iraq War.

This misplaced loyalty on important matters of principle conditions members to defer to party leaders - themselves vulnerable to hubris, focus groups and media advisers - and ignore their primary duty to the public, the source of their salaries and offices. But if party unity is more important than acting in conscience on an informed judgment - and doing so for the public good - no one should be surprised at the loss of trust and debasement of public debate when these members are forced to dissemble.


By contrast, Edmund Burke's theory of political duty insists members are representatives, not delegates - their duty is to serve the interests of constituents not do their bidding. This means acting on a conscientious judgment of what best serves these interests, not deferring to the opinions of electors, or indeed anyone else. The challenge Burke poses to contemporary politics is how far this theory of a non-delegable duty can be ignored in a modern party system.

Although Cooke cites Burke with approval, his assertion that the theory meant candidates 'reflected the wishes of their constituents' misreads the passage he cites from the famous Bristol speech. Perhaps this is why he misses what is intuitive but arguably of unique importance in Burke's political philosophy - his sense that acting in good conscience is, in the end, the only way to take community values seriously.

But the problem goes deeper: the description of this theory as a 'sentiment' shows the inadequacy of a sociological approach to problems of political philosophy, including the duty of elected members. Theories of duty may well reflect sentiments but they are at heart interpretations of a responsibility - which no-one seriously denies - to serve the public. To contribute one must argue for the best interpretation of this duty; but this means a commitment to the enterprise and the values which give it meaning viz. fairness, human dignity, freedom, honesty, etc. Political theory is no more a spectator sport than politics itself.

This engagement also permits a clearer understanding of what democratic theory means: in its most defensible form it means that representatives of the majority have a stronger right to make the rules than any other person or group - but it says nothing about the wisdom or morality of the rules they make or the policies they support. These are justified by showing they are required by, or are in accord with, community values - not popular opinion; how else could we argue that this opinion is wrong? The difficulty many protagonists have with this distinction is well brought out in the author's reference to David Marr.

But this logic of argument must undermine Cooke's own conclusion that '… if the political class is determined to change Australia's social contract, it has to do so with some semblance of consent. It will need to put the popular will on par with powerful interests' (note the disengaged 'if'). But the 'popular will' - if this means majority opinion and not something from the world of German Transcendentalism - is no more relevant as a justification than the interests of Cooke's powerful groups. The real question is why we should treat either as a substitute for argument from shared values, including an ideal of fairness which insists government treat all citizens as having equal value.

If this makes sense the problem is not that politicians disdain public opinion, but that they ignore community values, which tell us whether and why this opinion counts. It is, for example, conclusive in deciding who should make the rules because this is the least unfair method, but it counts for nothing on matters of law and justice because these determine our rights, and rights are anti-majoritarian claims - they trump popular opinion just as they trump majority preference and interests. The fact that we have legal and political rights shows democracy does not give moral authority to a majority - if it did, those in power would be free to outlaw opposition parties and punish dissenters at will.


Although Liberals continue to pay homage to Burke as the father of conservative political philosophy, they join with other parties (and most journalists) in ignoring his idea of political duty and the role of conscience in defending community values and the rights they support - rights which define the line between mob rule and any democracy worth defending; this is a high price for the public to pay for party unity.

Why do politicians treat the values which ornament their speeches as less important than the views of party leaders? Is it because they see them as matters of choice, useful to sell policies but not to justify them? This idea that values are not obligatory would explain Cooke's own disengaged stance and instrumentalist approach. His advice to 'the political class' to give more authority to public opinion makes sense if ordinary, everyday values have no intrinsic relevance - if there is no duty to take them seriously.

The idea that we are free to pick and choose our values, in part because it fits a culture wary of religious claims and intellectual pretention, and in part because it is easy to misread as an affirmation of tolerance and respect for others, is very much in fashion. One could ask almost any first year university class if they think we all have different values and find confident assent. But if we ask what would be the point of argument if each side can only insult the other by insisting their values are superior, we are likely to be met with blank stares.

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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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