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Ethical Challenges in Politics Part 3

In my last blog post on Ethical Challenges in Politics (Part 2), I discussed ethical issues faced by politicians, which I summarised as: politicians need to keep their feet on the ground, keep their hands out of the till and keep the tanks in the barracks.

While these are some of the more obvious ethical issues faced by politicians themselves, there are also less straightforward ethical challenges posed by the very nature of politics. Let me mention three of the less obvious ethical challenges: for governments, it is the temptation to take the easy road; for elected members, it is a rigid refusal to compromise; and for citizens, it is disengagement from politics.

The first of these is the ethical dilemma faced by Governments which makes the easy road appear to be the most attractive. I had this in mind when, in giving my maiden speech in 2009, I observed that:

“There are always voices raised against reform, and it takes political courage to introduce change. That is why the politicians whom I admire are the reformers—people like John Howard, Peter Costello, Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett; people who have invested their political capital to deliver better outcomes for the people they were elected to serve. I do not admire politicians who see their objective as upsetting as few people as possible, who manage to a daily media message rather than long-term objectives and who avoid at all costs any meaningful reform.”

The period from 1983 to 2007 saw a list of important reforms which were not easy to implement at the time. Although these reforms delivered a substantial net benefit to Australia, there were plenty of people who lost out as formerly protected industries were exposed to competition. Today we are seeing a similarly intense debate over the future of Australia’s car industry.

The great challenge for reform-minded Governments is that there will always be losers in the process – the hard road will not keep everybody happy. In his book ‘Dog Days’, Australian economist Ross Garnaut identified the lack of political will to face this challenge in saying: “A new ethos has developed in which there can be no losers from reform. Business has asserted a property right to continuing benefits of regulatory mistakes… Households have been led to expect that no policy changes will cause any of them to be worse off.”

Similarly in the book ‘Why Nations Fail’, authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson note that economic growth can progress “only if not blocked by the economic losers who anticipate that their economic privileges will be lost and by the political losers who fear that their political power will be eroded.”

The second less-obvious ethical challenge is politicians who take an overly rigid position and refuse to ever compromise. Gough Whitlam summarised this concept when he said that in politics, “Only the impotent are pure”.

We see a good example in the entrenched partisan divides of the current US political system.  Compromise is criticised as an ethical weakness. In 2013, this refusal to compromise over the budget resulted in a 16-day shutdown of the US Federal Government.

In my view, a preparedness to compromise is a necessary element of a civilised and workable political process. The ethical judgement is knowing when to compromise and when not to – in the words of the well-known prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

A third less obvious ethical challenge in politics today is the disengagement of citizens from the political process. A healthy democracy depends on informed and engaged citizens playing an active role in the political process – and the recognition that being a citizen in a well-functioning democracy is a responsibility as well as a right.

These three challenges may be less obvious, but they are very important.  In my next post in this series I will discuss some of the corrective mechanisms in our political system, which can help participants in the political system to avoid succumbing to the rich array of ethical challenges which I have mentioned.