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The case for integrity

By Max Atkinson - posted Thursday, 7 April 2016

It's like … when you see an injured gazelle like in a mudflat, just sort of flailing around, it was like that except the gazelle is pretending to enjoy the mud bath.

This is an unlikely picture of Penny Wong, Labor Leader in the Senate and normally the most composed of politicians. It was, however, the view of a recent pannelist on Q and A, a journalist who recalled watching in dismay as she tried to persuade the public she supported traditional family values. But it was largely lost on the media, which often seems blind to this kind of moral ambivalence.

Likewise on the ABC's Insiders show for Sunday, 4th March - West Australian Senator Joe Bullock's resignation from politics on a matter of conscience was noted. There was no discussion but the panellists agreed it was 'a mistake' for Labor to insist members toe the line on gay marriage. They did not, however, explain why it was a mistake and it did not seem to matter - some members act on their principles, others do not - it is all part of the rich tapestry of political life.


It was a full program, with many interesting issues to discuss, but it was a pity they did not pursue Bullock's decision and the example it set, or ask why it was forgotten by the press gallery almost as soon as it was learned that a distinguished aboriginal leader, Pat Dodson, had agreed to stand for his seat.

For despite a reluctance to address the issue the role of conscience in politics is important, as is the doctrine of unity and the practice of so-called 'conscience' or free votes. In January 2012 Julia Gillard had, as Prime Minister and despite her own views, negotiated a 'conscience' vote on same-sex marriage which in July 2015 was extended through the next two government terms. It was part of a deal whereby after 2019 all members must support leader Bill Shorten's marriage equality.

The deal reflects a party division over a contested philosophical issue - whether same-sex marriage is a basic human right, as had been argued by former Labor heavyweight John Faulkner and by Penny Wong herself - in which case it should not be left to individual choice - or whether it was a matter of private morality like one's religious beliefs, which should be left to a member's conscience as a matter of respect and dignity.

However that may be it is not hard to understand why observers see conscience votes as primarily a means to let off steam and maintain loyalty - members are permitted to defend their views to the public where it will not affect votes, and on matters which are not important enough to insist on unity. In crude and simple terms an issue of conscience is pretty much what the party, guided by the leader's strategy, says it is.

By contrast, people outside the political world treat acting in good conscience as a matter of integrity and a value in itself, whatever one's social or political interests or ambitions. In the ordinary, everyday world of personal and community relations it is a matter for respect and honour to be accepted as a person of principle, someone who can be relied on to speak the truth and act on their convictions.

This view got a brief but passionate hearing on the next night, when the ABC's Q and A program invited panellist Josh Zepps, Australian satirist, radio broadcaster and TV presenter on leading US channels, to comment on the state of politics in the United States.


I think it would be a mistake to read too much into (Trump's) candidacy, other than the fact that Americans are sick and tired of being lied to by politicians. They're sick and tired of the artifice of politics and, you know, it's the same here. I remember a few years ago I was watching Q&A and Penny (Wong) … was put in the position of having to defend the Labor Party's policy, and, as she is talking about how she believes in traditional marriage, it's like you know in the nature documentary when you see an injured gazelle like in a mudflat, just sort of flailing around, it was like that except the gazelle is pretending to enjoy the mud bath.

This puzzled host Tony Jones

Josh, there'd be a lot of people asking themselves right now how you got from Donald Trump to Penny Wong . . . . So give us some sort of insight into why it is that Trump is not only winning currently … but he could end up being the Republican candidate for President …

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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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