Playing politics raises dilemmas

I wanted to write an article about virtue this week, following on from the recent themes of honour and respect. However the federal political situation seems to be building towards more climactic acts of irrationality; so it seems appropriate to talk about ethics and politics and maybe we can fit virtue into the discussion too.

Rush Kidder is an excellent US business ethicist and he commented recently on the enormous divide between campaigning and governing. Campaigning, he said, is about having a broad grasp of many issues, but the mental agility to conceal the superficiality which comes with knowing something about everything. However governing requires depth of knowledge, stability of purpose, mastery of the fundamental problems and the ability to draw out solutions.

Attacking your opponent might work in a campaign; but negativity is not a desirable trait in a prime minister. Whilst political opponents create the false impression they are clearly different from the competition and the electoral choice is between 'myself and the right policies' or 'my opponent and the wrong policies', the reality is that governing is about right versus right choices. Should we spend the limited budget on health or education or policing? There are always many competing good causes that need more money.

When choosing between right versus right questions the morality of our politicians becomes an important defining feature. Sometimes politicians must compromise because both sides are right and no one person or one ideology can completely control policy. But this need to compromise should not extend to core ethical principles such as honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion.

When political leaders make election promises which are impossible to keep, exaggerate and twist their opponent's words to launch personal attacks, show a lack of compassion for those in genuine need and apply different rules to determine their own remuneration, they fail the honesty, respect, compassion and fairness tests. We know they were just trying to win an election or position for the next one; but each unethical act makes them more unelectable.

Kidder suggests we need to know whether a potential national leader has anything meaningful to say on ethical issues. Do they understand the specific moral problems that confront politicians and how would they deal with them? What is it they believe can never be compromised in the pursuit of national goals? How have they dealt with moral problems in their past? What ethical values most define them?

To enable the public to understand the integrity of the people we elect requires a depth of political discussion extremely rare in this country. Only the politicians and the political journalists who interview our political leaders, can change the course of the superficial and misleading discussion we are currently asked to consume and adjudicate on.

So what are the ethical virtues we should demand of those that govern? I notice loyalty is not on the above list of core ethical principles. Maybe it should be? Does a deputy leader have a responsibility of loyalty to their leader?

If Rudd returns out of an act of self preservation by Labor MPs in the belief they'll win more seats at the next election, then they've learnt nothing from the manner of his demise. However if Gillard's leadership has been rendered terminal in part by the way in which she ascended to power, then maybe there is an ethical lesson for other politicians to heed.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

Geoff is off teaching and researching in China for a few months, so Stewart Hase's Psychologically Speaking will appear weekly until his return. Happy travelling Geoff from all of us at The Echo.

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