In mid-December Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop argued in this journal that Cabinet ought to support a Prime Minister not vice versa. She condemned Foreign Minister Carr for urging a higher UN status for Palestine, against the wishes of Julia Gillard, but strongly supported by Labor and the UN. This theory of political duty puts Gillard’s wishes above Australia’s national interests, those of Israel and Palestine, principles of international law, and the need for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Surprisingly, she did not invoke the kind of reasoning which justifies Westminster doctrines such as joint cabinet responsibility, which enables a government to survive divisions within the ministry. Her argument is pragmatic in a different and ultimately trite sense - ‘a prime minister who loses authority will not last long.’ The same is true, of course, if she spends her time reading romantic novels; and because the point seems so obvious most readers will dismiss the criticism as rhetorical.
But while the reasoning may seem trivial and the motive political, there is no reason to doubt the strength of Bishop’s conviction that, because a prime minister’s ‘authority’ depends on getting her way in Cabinet, supporting her is more important than getting the right policy - more important, that is to say, than respect for values of fairness, freedom, humanity, justice, benevolence, dignity and so on which justify government actions. Her thinking reverses the normal order, whereby a leader who gives sound advice will increase her authority; For Bishop what counts is the fact of support, not whether the views are sound.
This interpretation of loyalty, combined with a conservative politics, helps explain why there has been so little controversy in the Liberal Party over the years on issues such as the Iraq War, the apology, refugees, same-sex marriage, gambling reform, euthanasia etc. which divide the nation. It helps explain why there were only five ‘conscience votes’ under Howard and why ‘crossing the floor’ is so rare. But this impressive record of unity is also a history of moral self-subordination and, contrary to the Deputy Leader’s views, a matter for shame rather than pride.
She is, in fact, taking to an extreme a doctrine of unity which applies even more rigidly to Labor, and is largely condoned by the media - a doctrine responsible for much of what has debased Australian politics. To understand why, consider the issue of reconciliation: the Liberal Party denied an apology during the long years of the Howard administration, then changed its stance as soon as it became expedient; that is, as soon as a new leader was appointed and prevailed on - notably by Malcolm Turnbull and Malcolm Fraser - to change course. No one sought a ‘conscience’ vote when the policy began or when it was rejected but all members, with the exception of John Howard, joined in the celebratory sitting in Parliament House.
Likewise with Labor; it now seem astonishing that, despite Labor’s opposition to this war, no member would support a Senate inquiry into the evidence said to justify it, the most important being the claims now known to have been fabricated byRafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed ‘curveball’ by American and German intelligence officials. It is hard to dismiss the conjecture, given public opposition to this war, that this was because Labor leaders were wedded to the alliance and back-benchers were sworn to unity. They were against the war, but an official inquiry might offend US sensibilities.
There are additional reasons to reject Bishop’s view of loyalty - the most obvious being that it is undemocratic, and that it disenfranchises those who voted for their representative or the party itself, or indeed for the principles it stands for, rather than the views of someone caucus might replace at any time. It means there is no way to counter a Prime Minister's hasty or ill-considered judgments (such as the 'citizens' assembly' as a guide to policy and the breach of promise with Independent Andrew Wilkie). The only alternative must be a leadership coup - with its instability and ongoing recriminations.
There are also the long-term effects, including those which underlie a now familiar complaint about the standard of politics, not just in Australia, but in the UK and the US. The recent presidential elections have seen a degree of misrepresentation which shocked even hard-boiled pundits, and is now a matter of national concern. The same casual disregard for honesty may explain the inability of Liberal supporters, as well as the media, to distinguish between a breach of promise and a deliberate lie, when they attack Julia Gillard on the carbon tax.
But these objections pale against an argument which, because it rests on the nature of the obligation an elected member owes the community, is also one of political philosophy. For in criticising Carr, Bishop has ignored a duty - which all politicians profess - to respect community values; she has ignored the fact that this entails acting on one’s own judgment; it is, in truth, part of the logic of arguing from values. It was explicit in Edmund Burke’s famous statement of political duty at Bristol in 1774:
‘It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs …. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These . . . are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
Burke’s view, supported by Westminster theorists, is that members represent constituents - they are agents to serve their interests not delegates to do their bidding. But the priority Burke gives to conscience also rules out members acting as delegates of the party, an interpretation of duty which still makes sense, but subject to an important exception: this is required by a distinction, familiar in legal theory, between issues of principle and policies which serve community goals. On issues of principle, such as war, the apology, same-sex marriage, election finances reform, constraints on freedom, euthanasia, hate-speech, gambling reforms, etc., Burke’s approach is still the only way to take community values seriously.
Policies which serve community interests are different. Because no government will have the resources to pursue all its goals at the same time it must choose between worthy programs, such as whether to fund a new highway or another hospital. In such cases unity is the only way to fulfil electoral promises, and the only way to advance the general wellbeing of a community - one step at a time. On matters of principle the issue is whether there is a duty to act, or not to act, in a certain way - a wrong decision will violate rights; on matters of policy a government is free to choose, since no one has a right to preferential treatment.
Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.