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Ethical Challenges in Politics: Part 1

Recently I was asked to speak at a breakfast discussion series held by Gordon Uniting Church in my electorate, on the topic of “Ethical Challenges in Politics.”

As I reflected on the topic while preparing my remarks, some points about ethics in politics seemed obvious – given that for much of 2013, we were all transfixed with horror by the daily revelations from ICAC.  Did NSW Mineral Resources Minister Ian McDonald really arrange for a mining lease to be granted over land in the Bylong Valley – where his mate Eddie Obeid just happened to own property?

But I felt that there also were some less obvious observations to be made - such as what politics can be at its best, and what the role of a citizen in a democracy is, compared to the role of a politician. 

Now I would be the first to concede that politics is frequently not at its best. I like to cite Winston Churchill’s aphorism: democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others.  Churchill’s point, I think, is that democratic politics is a flawed, messy, all-too-human process. But it is vastly better than an autocracy, or a dictatorship, or a military junta. 

At the breakfast event where I gave the speech, I was struck by the discussion it prompted – and so I decided to reprise some of the arguments in my blog. In today’s post, I want to start with the argument that politics at its best can be a tremendous force for good. Inevitably a discussion of ethical challenges in politics will focus on instances of the political process going wrong, so for the sake of balance I wanted to start with instances of politics going right. 

My first example of when politics gets it right comes from a terrific recent book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.  The authors, an economist and a political scientist, argue that ‘inclusive’ political structures lead to nations being wealthier - and having a more equitable distribution of wealth – than the alternative which they call ‘extractive.’  Britain, they point out, had more inclusive political structures than most other nations in Europe, and this was why the industrial revolution began in Britain. To quote (from p 208):

The Industrial Revolution started and made its biggest strides in England because of her uniquely inclusive economic institutions. These in turn were built on foundations laid by the inclusive political institutions brought about by the Glorious Revolution.  It was the Glorious Revolution that strengthened and rationalized property rights, improved financial markets, undermined state-sanctioned monopolies in foreign trade, and removed the barriers to the expansion of industry. It was the Glorious Revolution that made the political system open and responsive to the economic needs and aspirations of society.[1]

In other words, the political process in Britain positioned that nation to capture the economic benefits of the industrial revolution more quickly than other nations.  This was to Britain’s strategic advantage in geopolitical terms.  But it was also to the advantage of its people as Britain became wealthier and the quality of life of the average citizen improved.

My next example is the economic reform process in Australia, from the early eighties to 2007. In the nineteen eighties Australia had an outdated economic model, with rigid labour markets, high tariff walls and heavy government ownership and control of many areas of the economy.  As a nation we were going backwards: notoriously Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew described us as being at risk of becoming the poor white trash of Asia.

Australia’s political system managed to drive a difficult but necessary reform process – which was in the national interest even though it threatened many individual or sectional interests. The reforms included floating the dollar; opening up the banking sector to foreign competitors; and reducing tariffs. Many of the key reforms were supported by both major political parties – indeed this was a key reason why the process succeeded.  Today, our economy is more competitive, more flexible and more efficient – and we are vastly more prosperous as a nation.

An interesting piece of evidence of the success of this reform process is seen in the Credit Suisse 2013 Global Wealth Report, which ranks nations according to average wealth per adult.  Australia ranked second highest at $US 402,578 per adult, behind only Switzerland.

Average wealth is one measure: but a nation can have high average wealth if a tiny number are billionaires and everyone else is in poverty.  So a better measure is the median wealth per person – that is to say, if you rank every adult in the country by his or her wealth, what is the level of wealth which puts you precisely in the middle, with half of the population wealthier than you and half less wealthy.

The country which has the highest median wealth per person is Australia.  In other words, not only are we a wealthy country – our wealth is more evenly distributed than many other countries.  That is the public policy pay off from the hard reform work of the political process in Australia over the period from 1983 to 2007. (Of course, after six years of policy indolence under Labor, the recently elected Abbott government is now beginning a new process of economic reform.) 

Politics is not just about economics – so my third example of politics at its best is the 1967 constitutional referendum.  90.77% of the nation voted ‘Yes for Aborigines’, in the words of the slogan used at that time. The referendum amended the Constitution to give the federal parliament the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be included in the census. This was an example of a political process which recognised that something was not right – in this case the treatment of indigenous Australians – and worked to introduce a change to improve things.

In my next blog post on the topic of ‘Ethical Challenges in Politics’, I will turn to some of the obvious ethical challenges in politics, and discuss three in particular: keeping your feet on the ground, keeping your hands out of the till and keeping the tanks in the barracks.