Australian citizens who care about the ethics of democracy –of being a citizen– should make a stand for improving the quality of public debate. This most recent election campaign was notable for the thoroughness with which it sullied every topic that was raised. The discussion on the office of the Governor General is a place to start to demand some standards of debate.
Crikey, along with many others, has not been slow in putting some opinions in the public arena. Crikey’s example, however, is a bit novel: two barristers put their opposing opinions shortly and succinctly: Peter Faris and Greg Barnes. Does the Governor General have a conflict of interest when she is called upon to make a judgement about which party should be called upon first to form a government? Fortunately, both deal with the rights and wrongs of the matter rather than the legal detail: it is an ethical matter fundamentally rather than one of legal technicality.
Unfortunately, Peter Faris deals with the matter as if he were trying to convince a jury at the end of a court case: using arguments with too much emotion and too much presumption about the character of other people and of their relationships. (Crikey)
The task of working out the rights and wrongs of a particular situation and what would be a good decision can be very difficult for a number of reasons. Some reasons are fairly open to shared scrutiny: conflicting goods and responsibilities, others less so: conflicting motives emotions. Appeals to emotion may well be manipulative when they turn out to be attempts to suppress considerations of good outcomes and commitments.
Peter Faris spends a good deal of his 400 words describing the character of Bill Shorten, the GG’s son-in-law: “once faceless man, a powerbroker”, ” chief executioner in the removal of Kevin Rudd”, Shorten’s “ambition … will want the full benefit from that powerful connection”, “ALP king maker”. So, according to Faris, Shorten’s character painted in this negative way means that the Governor General is “obviously” biased. How did Faris jump to that conclusion? Is character infectious: does a cynical son-in-law mean that the mother-in-law has no hope of integrity?
Faris seems to be playing on an emotional infection: persuading us that Shorten is not to be trusted means we must now suspect the integrity of the GG. Character IS somewhat infectious, especially if “character” is understood inside “culture”. Surrounded by people who consistently treat others with suspicion, incessantly calling into question their motives, where strident attack is a common form of communication, most individuals will begin to think that this is “normal” and he or she is likely to conform to the surrounding culture. However, that takes time and requires that there are no or few counter-examples. There are good reasons to believe that Bill Shorten’s character, of whatever stripe, does not establish the culture at the Governor General’s dinner table, as Mr. Faris would have us believe.
Australia has just gone through an election campaign where ethical values were notable by their absence. No-one from either major party attempted an ethical assessment of the fear-laden cry of “beware the boat people!”, no-one stopped to look at people fleeing for their lives, they all kept applying cynical colours to the “people smugglers”, no-one stood up to remind the nation of the ethical debt it continues to have with its indigenous peoples, the great moral challenge of climate change disappeared behind short-term ideas about the cost of living, no-one talked about the world that our inaction is creating for our grandchildren, no-one talked about the need to ready ourselves for a US-led mother of recessions that is still to come. When Andrew Wilkie finally produced “ethics” as a value for decision-making, ABC preeminent reporter Kerry O’Brien interpreted that cynically as merely dressing up personal likes and dislikes. (7.30 Report) Fortunately, Wilkie pointed out to him that “lying” is unethical; it isn’t just a matter of what suits.
The hung parliament and the high informal rate can reasonably taken to be an ethical judgement on campaigns run too much by the cynical calculation of what expression and promise might persuade those “swinging” voters in western Sydney and Brisbane. The spectacle was uninspiring to say the least. There was very little avenue for voters to express the best of their own humanity. A lack of value like this leaves a vacuum which is soon filled with suspicion and cynicism, a culture where we view others, and ultimately ourselves as far beyond the reach of any appeal to integrity and honesty, a culture that provides an appearance of “natural-ness” to Faris’ method of putting his case. Faris needs a situation where Shorten’s character “infects” the Governor General’s. The clearest evidence that such a context does exist is to be found in Faris’ own methods of argument rather than in any objective consideration of Quentin Bryce’s character.
So should the GG stand aside? The first focus should be on the Governor General herself rather than on her son-in-law. She is the person whom we would want to act with integrity: with her eyes firmly fixed on her responsibilities and the good of the country. She needs to be aware of the many factors at play both within her own personality and in her context that militate against integrity. She needs to be able to act despite all of them. As Greg Barnes points out, there are many such factors (Bill Shorten’s character –whatever that may be– and relationship to her is one), and no Governor General has been free of them.
A second focus should arguably be the current political climate (what currently dominates from the culture). Because values in the culture have taken such a battering over the last few years, it would be good if the Governor General acted to strengthen what is good about political culture –what Faris precisely fails to do– rather than simply rely upon it. This is a good reason for her to find a clear and satisfactory way to deal with the –at least perceived– conflict of interest. But resigning is not a way to do that, it merely caves in to the clamouring voice of cynicism. Perhaps she can find a way to pass this particular duty on –some have suggested to NSW Governor Marie Bashir– and in so doing makes a stand for authentic values in our culture, for integrity.