Australia is a representative democracy. Citizens who are equal, with a shared responsibility for good government, elect people of different backgrounds and perspectives to set community standards. Those elected are not obliged to tell the truth or act in the public interest or forbidden to act in their own interests or the interests of their supporters. They can also enact unjust laws. The law is an expression of power, not justice, and Parliament is almost supreme.
Since the calibre of those elected is extremely important, it is essential that voters are well-informed, especially now we live in a complex, multicultural nation where multiple interests are in constant conflict and almost every decision attracts strong dissent.
Self-interest is a powerful human impulse. Even so, as Earl Warren, a former US Supreme Court chief justice, pointed out decades ago, "In civilised life, law floats in a sea of ethics. Each is indispensable to civilisation."
Australians might be more comfortable calling "ethics" the "pub test", but most implicitly accept that society functions best when we respect each other, give each other a "fair go", support the underprivileged and protect the future. Of course, not all agree. A substantial number of people regard ethics and empathy as barriers to success. Many politicians are in that category.
Politics today is a clash of interests, not ideas. The established parties, which receive large sums of public money to finance their campaigns, are controlled by professional, "whatever it takes" politicians driven by self-interest and ideology and addicted to vested interest funding.
To them, political ethics is merely an amusing oxymoron. Power provides a rich opportunity for personal and political advantage: cronyism, the sale of access and influence and the misuse of public money are now scandalous. There is widespread public contempt for politicians who themselves repeatedly assert that (other) politicians act improperly and accuse each other of misconduct and egregious character defects. Nonetheless, the major parties stubbornly resist effective oversight of politicians' conduct.
The "winning is all that matters" conduct from politicians affects community attitudes. Australian society is gradually becoming less egalitarian and more cynical and self-centered as economic policies redistribute wealth upwards, widening the gap between "haves" and "have-nots" and producing a largely powerless underclass.
In the circumstances, community unrest and political instability are inevitable, as is the eruption of disruptive ultra-nationalist groups which promote sham nostalgia, foster prejudice, rebrand ignorance as common sense, encourage resentment toward an educated, progressive "elite" and mislead the gullible with crazy theories and empty promises. Not all their supporters are malcontents and ratbags. They also thrive on the anger felt toward the political establishment by ordinary people who see themselves as outsiders.
The same dark populism has taken root in other democracies. Freedom of communication is essential to democracy; responsibly exercised, it helps voters make informed decisions. It is also democracy's Achilles heel because of the ease with which it can be exploited. Modern technology makes mass deception and vicious personal abuse easy, especially for those with public voices.
Politicians will find it impossible to regain public trust unless they behave like normal, honourable people: treat everyone equally, tell the truth, explain decisions, disclose any direct or indirect benefits for themselves or their allies and do not:
- mislead or deceive or withhold material information unless it is in the public interest;
- have regard to any matter except the public interest when making decisions;
- spend public money for any purpose except the public benefit; or
- directly or indirectly use public office or information gained in the course of public office for personal or political benefit.
At the moment, that is an impossible dream. However, we owe it to today's children and their children to do what we can. Reform is possible despite political opposition if enough voters really value true democracy.
The obvious starting point is an effective national anti-corruption organisation, an independent parliamentary integrity commissioner with investigative powers and a multi-party parliamentary committee to penalise breaches.
Those to whom democracy is less important than ideology are of course free to vote as they choose and to continue complaining as political chaos escalates.
Tony Fitzgerald is a former judge, who led an inquiry into corruption in Queensland.