abbott, abortion, alp, branch-stacking, candidate, civic duty, conscience, democracy, election, end justifies means, ethics, federal, feminism, liberal party, minor parties, mishka gora, morality, politician, politics, pre-selection, rudd, september 7, voting, woman-centred
Contrary to whatever the title of this article may suggest, what follows is not a fairy tale. Although politicians may not be noted for their scruples, I am not one to excuse bad behaviour with the childish argument that everyone else is behaving badly. Nor am I one to forbear from exercising my judgement for fear of upsetting the boat. The way I see it, the ship has been hulled, and we need to do more than man the pumps. Even fothering and careening may be insufficient, however, and that raises the question of lifeboats. But what have lifeboats got to do with the mythical beast called the ethical politician?
Our last resort (our lifeboat), whether in the public or the private sphere, is our conscience. When all else fails, when totalitarianism and corruption win the day and we find ourselves denied basic rights, when might tramples upon justice and notions such as freedom and habeas corpus have been rendered utopian, there is the consolation that we did what was right. As my parents told me repeatedly, and as I now repeatedly tell my own children, the world is not fair, and when the bad guys win it is crucial that we can say that we acted morally or ethically, that we did not sully ourselves like our enemies. We need to know that we have not unwittingly become the monsters we were fighting.
As the election fast approaches, I hear more and more people advocating desperate remedies for both the disastrous ALP government under which we have long suffered and the general atrophy of Western society and culture. Now, I am not averse to desperate measures in desperate times, quite the contrary, but I am increasingly alarmed at what desperation means to some people. Desperation, for me, does not mean being irrational or unethical. It does not mean sacrificing my children to ‘appease the gods’, and it does not mean supporting one unethical politician merely in order to displace another, even if one is preferable. I may vote for one of them as the lesser of two evils, but support is quite another matter. What I am saying is that in 1930s Germany I would not have joined the Communists even if they were the most obvious opposition to the Nazis.
In case I am being a little too obtuse, let’s raise the problem of “faceless men” deposing our elected Prime Minister… twice in just over three years. This isn’t an isolated practice. Before we even get to elect a candidate, the party faithful get to pre-select the candidate, often leaving us with an unenviable choice between two candidates we don’t want to vote for, plus a handful of varied candidates, none of whom have any chance of being elected. The obvious solution to this is if people of common sense and goodwill engage in the civic life and offer us poor voters a better choice. So far so good. But what if this doesn’t work? After all, the politicians I’d rather vote for are scattered across a number of parties, including both major ones. Even if they were all elected, and I don’t have much confidence in that happening, their party affiliations would prevent them exerting sufficient influence to make a real difference.
This is the point at which some people suddenly become blindly irrational and unethical. When it comes to voting, they advocate that we vote for the Liberals in order to get rid of the stinking ALP government, even if it means voting for a candidate who has principles fundamentally opposed to the ones I hold. When it comes to civic involvement, they suggest we shouldn’t join whichever party appeals to our beliefs but once again that we should throw our lot in with the Liberal Party. Still further, they suggest we should all conglomerate in particular branches in order to pre-select the ‘right’ candidate, even if it means rallying inactive members to defeat the votes of active members and removing an incumbent candidate, that is one elected by the wider populace, and replacing them with someone less experienced but perhaps far more ruthless. My question to these people is: how is that any different to Julia Gillard stabbing Kevin Rudd in the back and vice versa?
The response I almost invariably receive to this question is a less-than-artful dodge accompanied by bleating about how awful it would be if Rudd were re-elected. Now I should probably note at this point that I dearly hope that Australians have enough sense to vote for a change in government on September 7. However, I am not willing to violate my principles and subvert the democratic process in order to achieve this. Nor am I going to relinquish my membership of a minor party (that is democratic enough to not have a party line which I must ‘toe’) in order to join a major party in which I do not believe and which demands that I make my conscientious beliefs submissive to party policy. If this means another term of ALP ineptitude and corruption, so be it. And if this means (on the state level) abortion legislation that makes it easier for women to kill their unborn children, so be it. I am not responsible for how my neighbour votes. I can be a political commentator, lobbyist, or activist, but I am responsible for my vote alone, and I am not going to desecrate that sole democratic privilege by voting against my conscience in the false belief that the end justifies the means.
Allow me to elaborate. I do not have the omniscience to justify altering my vote for the sake of the bigger picture. I would need to know how every other person will vote in order to evaluate whether changing my vote would be justified. In other words, it is irrational to compromise my individual vote for the sake of the possibility that sacrificing my vote might bring about a preferable overall outcome. Furthermore, in our electoral system we vote for someone to represent us from our electorate. Most of us don’t live in Griffith or Warringah, so we don’t get to vote for Rudd or Abbott. If I don’t vote for my local ALP or Liberal candidate simply because I find Rudd and Abbott ‘on the nose’, I am not only undermining our electoral system but being irrational and discriminatory. I am responsible for my vote alone, not the unforeseen consequences of my vote interacting with thousands of others. Not only does the end not justify the means, but I would be an idiot to think that I can justify rejecting a good candidate or voting for a bad candidate on the basis of my opinion of their leader. That would be about as rational as refusing to vote for a Catholic because you have a poor opinion of the Pope.
Specific policies raise similar issues. There is a growing trend of politicians defending a political stance based on what they think will most appeal to others rather than being honest about their motives. Sadly, Christian pro-life politicians are no less guilty on this front. I have seen Christian politicians across the board evade questions about abortion or same-sex marriage. Many defend voting against abortion with claims they are protecting the interests of women, that the basis for their stance is that abortion harms women. As true as this may be, it is transparent and pointless dishonesty. Voters of varying opinions sense the lack of conviction or courage, and most will also consider it fatuous. A politician who is willing to hide their core principles behind trendy arguments lacks credibility.
Furthermore, dodging the central issue can also discredit valid factual arguments. It is a fact that a very small proportion of women using RU-486 experience life-threatening side-effects. However, the persistent focus of pro-life politicians on this fact, when it is obvious to anyone (except the most dim-witted) that their real issue is with the extermination of nascent human life, has led to many doubting the veracity of this fact, simply because those spouting it cannot be trusted to be candid.
This abortion-harms-women approach is particularly illuminating. Ostensibly, it suggests that if abortion were found to be highly beneficial to the health of the mother it would no longer be objectionable. Of course, it would remain an issue, because ultimately abortion is about the unborn child. If pro-life politicians believe abortion is wrong per se, then their blathering about the harm to women is just a ruse. The principle they’re invoking for the sake of votes, women’s rights, is something they don’t really believe in and are willing to betray when push comes to shove. Alternatively, they may be genuine feminists, believing that abortion is wrong because of the harm it does women, in which case their drivel translates into caring more about the killers than the victims. There is, of course, one more possibility, and that is that these politicians are so morally contaminated that they fail to understand the taking of a human life is wrong and that the fact that it damages the perpetrator is totally beside the point (even when the perpetrator is the victim’s mother)… or perhaps too conceited and ambitious to realise that homicide should never be swept under the carpet, especially by someone whose aim is to govern and make the laws of our land.
I could go on for pages about the various (self-) deceptions politicians employ, about the hypocrisy of “undercover” Christians, or the shameful antics of candidates who use vague aspersions and branch stacking to defeat members of their own party. However, the point of this article is to elucidate the pitfalls of the political life, not to write a guide about how to unethically succeed as a politician. What all these cases have in common is such an obsession with the goal (which is usually meritorious if only in the minds of those possessing that goal) that it seemingly justifies the means. Of course, there is no justification for an immoral act, no matter how good the intended end, and when contemplating a course of action we should be forward-looking, mindful of whether it is legitimate, not backward-looking and hoping to justify a dubious past. A legitimate act doesn’t need an excuse.
So what about the ethical politician? It seems to me our best chance of glimpsing more of these mythical beasts is by being ethical in our voting practices. If we plot and scheme, we only contribute to the unethical trend of politics. If we want representatives and legislators, rather than self-serving politicians, the only way to stop the rot from spreading is to say “the buck stops here”. We need to eschew politics and embrace ethics. We are the grass-roots of change.