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Does fairness matter?

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 6 October 2014

Perhaps the most striking feature of the budget debates is the government's refusal to discuss the question of fairness. It is now conceded that, while early claims of a financial crisis were overblown, there remain serious problems in matching spending to revenue. But Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, in one interview after another, ignores this issue; he insists the public must accept those cuts the government wants, regardless of the impact on lower income groups.

At the same time the government pursues a multi-billion dollar parental leave scheme its own Productivity Commission has rejected because it gives women on high earnings a proportional salary regardless of need. The issue is an unfair allocation of scarce funds which could be put to child care needs. The Prime Minister has said this is not a 'public' cost because it is paid for by a 1.5% levy on 3000 wealthy companies. But since selective taxes can be used for any constitutionally valid reason - including to reduce debt - it must still be weighed against health, education and welfare cuts.

It is, in fact, a reminder of what is easily forgotten in a polarised politics - that government has a range of choices. It can, for example, reconsider its priorities. An obvious example is the ambition, despite a serious budget imbalance, to fund the 'world's greatest' medical research centre by a co-payment scheme. This, it says, will also deter needless visits to a doctor, a claim backed by no evidence that people are abusing the system. However that may be, ignoring present health needs to compete with private industry in this way raises another serious fairness issue


A Treasurer can, of course, restructure taxes to balance the budget more equitably. PUP Senate Leader Glenn Lazarus says this would risk 'political suicide' given a strong election campaign of no more taxes. As journalist Paul Bongiorno pointed out on Fran Kelly's Radio National Breakfast Show on August 26, the government is now caught in a bind by a promise it should not have made. There is still, however, a question whether it should reconsider the no taxes pledge in order to honour a more fundamental commitment, and this calls for a closer look at the idea of a mandate.

For while governments must do their best to keep election promises, their responsibility to the community is broader. They must, to cite obvious examples, defer or ignore promises for reasons of national security or because floods or other natural disasters have priority; or because keeping them will risk financial instability. And if material facts change so as to render the promise a waste of public money, or self-defeating, it has a default duty to protect the interests of the community.

In such cases we criticise the government, not for breaking promises, but for making careless or foolish commitments, knowing the public will rely on them, and some might suffer loss. We need to clarify if new circumstances justify the decision, and if the government responded with competence, a sense of the moral cost of breaking its promise, and a readiness to mitigate harm. These issues call for thoughtful analysis by journalists and opinion writers.

A government must also respect community values, especially those which define rights, such as rights to vote, free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, a fair trial etc. If keeping a promise will undermine citizens' basic rights there is a duty to defend them, however much it disappoints voters; once again we condemn it for making careless or irresponsible promises, not for breaking them.

One such value - perhaps the most important because it is arguably the foundation for the above rights - is the principle that a government must treat all citizens with equal concern for their interests and equal respect as members of the community. This broad principle of fairness calls for treatment as equals which is not the same as equal treatment - those who break the law are treated differently for that reason and those who choose not to work cannot complain when others reap the rewards of their industry.

While the Liberal Party constitution recognises no such principle of fairness, this does not mean party members think it is less important as a social and political value. Rather, their concern for fair treatment is guided by a conservative tradition which warns against radical change - a cautionary principle for which the 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, deeply upset by the excesses of the French Revolution, is widely seen as the founding father. This conservative claim is, however, easily inflated; in essence it reminds us that long-established practices and institutions are likely to have benefits not immediately apparent to the casual observer.


This prudential idea - compatible with any political theory - helps explain a history of initial resistance to social justice reforms which almost all conservative politicians now accept. The list begins with the great Reform Bill of 1832, and includes the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, old age and disability pensions, unemployment relief, the basic wage, employee and road-accident compensation schemes; as well as national health cover, equal pay, no-fault divorce, legal aid, and regulations to constrain markets in the public interest.

The present polarisation treats Labor's concern for egalitarian values as incompatible with liberal ideals of freedom and personal responsibility. But it is not hard to show fairness has a unique status in any political theory based on community values: If, as liberals argue, the freedom to choose one's life and take responsibility for its success is a prime value, this argues for extending its benefit to all citizens, including those disadvantaged by such unchosen factors as illness, disability, poverty, unemployment, and exploitation by those who abuse their market freedom or union power.

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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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