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Moral v national interest: does anyone care anymore?

By Nahum Ayliffe - posted Friday, 15 December 2006

Just what constitutes a worthy moral issue in federal politics? Do the constituents, soccer mums and baby boomer consumers actually care about political leadership on morals anymore? Or is self-interest king?

Kevin Rudd, perhaps in a pitch to social democrats, has spoken of the need for the “light on the hill” to be reactivated. Earlier this year in the Monthly magazine, Rudd identified three moral issues that he hopes will register with voters, namely climate change, the treatment of asylum seekers and global poverty.

Referring to theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudd’s appeal for politics to speak on behalf of the voiceless in our society is stirring, but will it flutter the hearts of Menzies’ forgotten people, those of the expanding middle class? Perhaps it was the underlying economic philosophy, so articulately highlighted by Menzies in his iconic 1942 speech that has so captivated the desires of working men and women, such that our social conscience has been slowly forgotten, first by public officials, and then by society at large.


The catalyst is always in historical evidence and it is in light of this, that the question must be asked, just what national issues over the past decade of economic success have been determined on moral grounds? And contrary to some who share my Christian faith, the moral issues cannot be simply limited to matters of a sexual nature. In most cases, due to their intensely personal nature and the limited impact of political and philosophical Puritanism, these are the moral issues of least importance to society.

But just how many political decisions have given moral issues due consideration over the past decade? With very few exceptions, policy has been determined solely on the catalyst of national interest. Prime Minister John Howard’s stance on guns, taken after the Port Arthur massacre, may be one of the few exceptions to this rule.

The military intervention in Timor, commissioned after decades of kowtowing to Indonesia, is today overshadowed by our subsequent commercial arrangements over Timor’s natural resources. Rather than acting on the litany of moral justifications for our presence, Australia intervened on the basis of national interest, and primarily that of economic reward.

In light of Fiji’s recent request for military support, it would be depressing if our intervention hinged on economic interests.

Recent foreign policy interventions have provided some rebuttal for this point, as Australia has provided military support to peacekeeping and security operations in the Solomon Islands and Tonga over the past year. While neither country is a major trade partner, Australian exports, primarily natural resources, represent the Solomon Islands’ highest imports.

In Tonga, Australian imports are their third highest. Earlier this year, On Line Opinion author, Tim Anderson, suggested to the Australian Review of Public Affairs that successive Australian governments have pursued foreign policy objectives that are solidly underpinned by a neo-liberal and neo-colonial philosophy.


And perhaps the philosophy of neo-colonial national interest is as valid a catalyst of public policy as any other. However, the failures of such a policy foundation to provide accountability on moral issues is particularly topical.

In every one of the 22 cases investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman into the wrongful incarceration of persons by the Department of Immigration, serious deficiencies were highlighted. In many cases, those wrongly detained were Australian citizens and many had mental health problems. Perhaps we are now hearing the voices of the “voiceless,” but is society interested in preventing such injustices from occurring in the future? There are over 200 cases that are yet to be investigated.

And on the issue of unjust detention, another Australian can be found in the headlines. December 9 marks five years of incarceration without trial for David Hicks. And while his American defence is lobbying the Australian Government, only minor parties and marginalised Liberals are vocalising their concerns about his plight.

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About the Author

Nahum Ayliffe gets paid as a Youth and Family Worker with the Uniting Church in Victoria, and writes for thrills. He has been a Federal election candidate twice, and a small business operator once. He has a degree in Commerce, is studying theology and is a religion and politics junkie.

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