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Ethical Challenges in Politics Part 2

Earlier this year I put up a post on the topic of ‘Ethical Challenges in Politics’ – after I was asked to give a talk on this topic at one of the churches in my electorate.

In that post I argued that at its best politics can be a tremendous force for good.  But of course there are all too many ways in which the political system can fall short of its best – including of course if the conduct of participants in the system is deficient. 

In this post, I want to talk about three simple ethical principles that politicians should follow: keep your feet on the ground, keep your hands out of the till and keep the tanks in the barracks.

The first principle recognises the danger that politicians can succumb to a sense of self-importance – and lose touch with the day to day concerns of their constituents.

I remember thinking during my first campaign - the Bradfield by-election of 2009 - that if I were to tell a psychiatrist I was spending lots of time in public spaces surrounded by large posters of my face and people wearing t-shirts with my name on them, I would surely be diagnosed as suffering from a mental delusion.

As a politician, it is all too easy to persuade yourself that you are more important and consequential than other people, and you deserve special treatment. 

That being said, there are some important corrective forces.  A particular feature of the Australian political system, inherited from the British, is that Ministers are drawn from the Parliament.  So as well as their portfolio responsibilities, they are still local MPs, facing a steady flow of grass roots issues raised with them by constituents.  I think that is a pretty healthy thing.

Keeping your hands out of the till is the second important principle: in other words, not using your office to enrich yourself personally at the expense of the interests of those you are there to represent.

With the recent ICAC hearings concerning Eddie Obeid and Ian McDonald, we have seen a textbook case of what a politician should not do.  ICAC examined the question of whether, as Minister for Mineral Resources, Ian Macdonald  opened an area in the Bylong Valley for coal exploration, to the advantage of Obeid who owned property there.

Another relevant recent case comes from the US.  Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted on charges of corruption for, amongst other things, attempting to sell the right to hold the Illinois Senate seat which was vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected US President.

Corrupt behaviour is obviously a very serious ethical failing in a politician - but a look around the world tells us that there can be much more serious ethical failings in politics. 

In Australia we take it for granted that politicians are elected in a democratic process, they will respect the rules of that process and when politicians lose office they leave – rather than calling out the tanks.

In many other countries such an assumption would be seen as simply naïve - as recent events in Egypt, Syria and Ukraine show.  There are far too many instances – throughout history and including in recent times – of political leaders who assume power and then become tyrants. 

Sometimes their conduct in office is no surprise because they assumed office in an undemocratic way.   Bashar Al-Assad of Syria inherited his office from his father – and is now engaged in a murderous civil war involving brutal attacks on his own people.  Sadam Hussein came to power by force – and used it ruthlessly throughout his reign.

In other cases a political leader is elected through a democratic process – but then discards the trappings of democracy and rules as a tyrant.  The paradigm example is Adolf Hitler, who was appointed Chancellor of Germany after his Party won over 100 seats in the German parliament (the Reichstag) in 1932. 

So the third principle of ethical behaviour for politicians, I would argue, is to keep the tanks in the barracks.  In other words, politicians should never seek to use force to override democratic will.  In Australia, this may seem such a remote danger that it is not even worth discussing.  But I think it is a point worth making – because the continued working of our system of government depends on a collective respect for the democratic will.  We should work constantly to maintain and reinforce that respect. 

The three ethical principles I have discussed in this blog post are important – and also in many ways rather obvious.  In the next post in this series, I will discuss some ethical challenges in politics which are just as important – but perhaps less obvious.