Monday, July 06, 2009

Ethics in politics - are they mutually exclusive?



Speaking at a seminar some years ago, the Queensland Ethics Commissioner presented an example of an ethical dilemma. Asking the group to indicate when they perceived an unethical point had been reached, the Commissioner gave the following ‘hypothetical’ example:

A senior Public Service officer was recruited with a contract package that included a private plated vehicle. Part of this officer’s package allowed for this vehicle, maintained and fuelled by the government, to be used after hours in a private capacity by the senior officer. “Did anyone see a problem in this,” The Commissioner asked? A few old crusty Public Service types (me included) did but not many raised their hands.

“OK,” he went on, “The vehicle in question was also allowed to be driven by the officer’s family when not being used in an official capacity. See any problems with this?” A few more raised their hands but still only a small percentage of the seminar’s participants.

“OK. Police were then called to an accident involving this vehicle that was being driven by the teenage son of the senior officer, late at night.” “Who thinks there is a problem?” About half the audience now had their hands up.

“The police then had trouble extracting the young man from the vehicle as he was covered in dozens of pizzas he was in the process of delivering,” was then next and final part of the story. At this stage, roughly two thirds of the audience thought they had a problem with the ethics of this situation.

However when those who didn’t have a problem with the ethics of this situation were asked why, (and the majority of these seemed to be from a Local Government background), most said that as the officer’s contract allowed for family members to drive the vehicle after hours, no law had been broken. The fact that the taxpayer had to pick up the insurance and repair bill along with the fuel bill was apparently not seen as a problem. Also, that a profit making enterprise was being conducted using a taxpayer funded vehicle also seemed to these people to be of no concern.

Imagine my surprise when I was discussing this ‘hypothetical’ years later with a number of senior officers and one confessed that he was the Personnel Officer of the Department this incident occurred in and had to make a ruling on it. His ruling was the same as those who said that no problem existed as the provisions of the contract had not been broken.

So what’s ethical and what’s not? What benchmark should be used to evaluate political malpractice and who should apply it?

In an article titled “MPs thumb noses at ethics,” by Steven Wardill on the 4th of July 2009 in the Courier Mail, the retiring Queensland Integrity Commissioner Mr Gary Crooke, QC warned:

“… that MPs were thumbing their noses at conflict-of-interest criticisms.
His comments came on an extraordinary day in the Gordon Nuttall trial, as former premier Peter Beattie contradicted claims from his successor, Anna Bligh, that she did not need to declare a free family holiday last year.
Ms Bligh told Brisbane District Court this week there was no need to declare the stay at the Sydney mansion of Thiess director and friend Ros Kelly.
However, Mr Beattie yesterday told the court any holiday gift given to a minister should be declared.
"We both know what we are talking about and the answer is yes," Mr Beattie said when asked if a declaration was needed.
Mr Crooke said the actions of MPs risked undermining public confidence and compromising gains in ethical standards.
Mr Crooke said he was often aware of politicians and senior public servants who did not seek the Integrity Commissioner's advice because they believed in their own ethical compass."There is a danger, a very real danger, that . . . an individual is so confident of their own ethical approach to anything that confronts them that they won't heed whatever is thought to be the conflictual aspect," he said. "But, in fact, they fall into the trap of engaging in a practice that, objectively, is seen to be inappropriate."

Mr Crooke also criticised the growing practice of "pay-per-view" politics that has emerged on both sides of politics as a key fundraising mechanism.
He said politicians were only "trustees" of elected positions so they were selling something they had no right to.
Ms Bligh, who eventually declared her holiday after it was revealed by the Courier-Mail, yesterday said the job of the integrity commissioner was vital to ensure ethical behaviour.
She defended pay-per-view fundraising, saying the donations were publicly declared.
"In the Australian political context, these arrangements are seen for what they are, they are political donations," she said.
But Mr Crooke, a senior counsel in Queensland's Fitzgerald inquiry, said the practice struck at the heart of public administration and both sides of politics appeared to be keen to take the money but reluctant to debate if they should.
"One of my abiding fears is that if something like this is done and cannot be justified in principle, there a developing tendency in public
administration for people to say: 'If we just do it and tough it out people will forget about it'," he said.
"That is the worst type of apathy and if we are talking about trying to improve public standards there has got to be accountability and justifiability for anything that is done at the top level."

Now if this is the current situation in Australia today, how can we ‘cast aspersions’ at PNG? Most stories and articles about PNG these days continually focus on the negative aspects of political corruption and malfeasance at the highest levels.

In comments on the article on the 4th of July 2009 about today’s PNG by Dave Tacon titled “As things fall apart”, Phil Fitzpatrick comments on the ‘PNG Attitude’ site:

“… it’s almost a mandatory requirement for stories about PNG. I suspect that Dave Tacon knew that without the negative sensation, including the title, his story wouldn’t have otherwise been published.”

Is this therefore the situation most journalists find themselves when an editor calls for an article on PNG? Is this why in PNG Attitude, the PNG Governor General called on PNG writers to write about only good things that are happening in PNG today?

In a Christmas message from the Queen years ago, she raised the dilemma of the modern world. “No news is good news,” she said, “But it seems these days that good news is no news.” Christian culture and standards have been used for centuries as a basis to develop and interpret Australia’s and PNG’s legal system. But has this worked effectively or even just worked?

Surely any ethical debate about a politician’s actions should ultimately focus on outcomes and not inputs. Otherwise, there is a tendency to start tripping over the trees while losing sight of the forest? Could there be a more practical way ahead? After all, what we really want are politicians who by their actions, can improve our existence and not make it worse.

So how could a new, but still ethical approach work? Could and should we put to one side the current ethical standards that have evolved from our legal system? If we were to do so, what benchmarks would we then have to evaluate whether a politician was behaving ethically and correctly?

What about creating a “Commission of Political Truth and Objective Resolve”. Imagine if all politicians were held accountable for their time in office and responsible for achieving what they said they would do prior to being elected? Imagine if there were to be a publically issued report card on each elected member prior to the next election? Surely the acid test aught to be whether the lives of their fellow countrymen and women were demonstrably better off for a politician being elected?

Now how would both Australia’s and PNG’s politicians then stand up to assessment I wonder?

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