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Reason and passion on Israel

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 17 December 2012

Labor MP and long-time Israel supporter Michael Danby thinks it is wrong for Foreign Minister Bob Carr to oppose Prime Minister Gillard's pro-US position and change Australia's UN stance on Palestine. For Danby this is not just bad policy but wrong in principle; it is, he insists, 'unforgivable … for any minister in any cabinet government.' He seems to think it is contrary to Westminster conventions to oppose the PM's wishes.

Such a claim must, on its face, be absurd. It turns the doctrine of joint cabinet responsibility into something very different - a duty to support the prime minister come what may, regardless of cabinet and caucus views. It means disenfranchising electors who vote primarily for their representative or the party itself, rather than the views of someone caucus might choose to replace at any time.

It means there is in practice 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 to supporting such decisions would be a leadership coup - with instability and ongoing recriminations. Better to foster a democratic approach than to pay this price just because good leaders sometimes make bad decisions.


It is trite that internal dissension of any kind, and especially given the current media culture and with the ongoing speculation around Kevin Rudd, must be an electoral liability. But this is an obstacle of the course not a reason to invent a novel theory of constitutional impropriety; in assessing Danby's complaint we need to keep in mind Hume's advice that man's reason is often slave to his passions.

But the argument goes deeper: when politicians ignore their own convictions on issues of principle they fail in their duty to respect community values, which will include - as in this case - long-settled principles of international law. This is a form of self-subordination which undermines the integrity of political debates; it asks members to treat opinions on moral issues as moral values in their own right.

It explains how the Liberal Party came to oppose an apology during the long reign of Prime Minister John Howard, then change policy overnight when a new leader was prevailed on - notably by Malcolm Fraser and Malcolm Turnbull - to change course. Howard, to his credit, saw it as a matter of principle and refused, as a former Prime Minister, to attend the parliamentary sitting.

Howard's reasoning ignored the role apologies play in social and political life, as well as the idea - basic to civilised relations between nations - that governments are responsible for the wrongs of predecessors, whether to other nations or their own citizens. It also treated an excuse (that past officials had acted in good faith) as a justification; his stance may have been conscientious but it was never coherent.

Would it not have been better - both for aboriginal families and the nation - if Liberal members had acted on their own judgment and conscience in the first place and then stuck to their guns? This failure to take responsibility debases political argument across the board because they are left to defend decisions they cannot justify by community values they profess to support - the same values which inform and guide their judgment. It is hardly surprising the public has a low opinion of politicians - the doctrine of party unity puts a premium on dissembling.

Because this raises serious issues of integrity leaders tend to play it down, as Julia Gillard notably did during the 2002 stem cell debates:


'I have not at any time been required by party discipline to vote in a way that I have found did not accord with my conscience. We … need to … dispel the media spin that most of the time we are robots exercising votes and that there are very few occasions when we get our conscience out of the cupboard, scrub it down and use it to define our position in relation to a bill. We use our conscience, our moral and ethical framework, all the time.'

This, if true, would have seen more interest in a Green's motion in early 2003 to hold a formal inquiry into evidence said to support the war in Iraq, which Labor opposed. It is hard to dismiss the conjecture, given then public opposition to this war, that it did so because leaders were wedded to the alliance and back-benchers were sworn to unity. Danby seems to think this kind of obeisance is Australia's constitutional heritage, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Turning to the substantive issue - whether Australia ought to support Prime Minister Netanyahu and US policy - Carr explained, with refreshing logic, that he was acting in the best interests of Israel, Australia and the Middle East. If this is his judgment after briefings from the Department and consulting colleagues and expert advisers, on what ground can Danby accuse him of 'unforgivable' conduct?

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About the Author

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.

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