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Political Responsibility

The prospect of a hung parliament following the upcoming election has raised several interesting ethical issues. One such issue which has been discussed is what are the responsibilities of the party which holds the balance of power? Should members of that party support the party holding the majority of votes or follow their own party policies?

Politicians are public officials whose charge is to act in the public interest. In voting on policy, the overriding principle governing their decisions should be to support that course of action for which there is most reason to support. What we have reason to do and choose is a hotly contested philosophical topic. However, some points can illuminate political debate.

Whether a member of party who holds the balance of power should vote for majority policy or party policy turns on which policy there is most reason to support. This will depend on the context and circumstances. It also turns on how likely one’s own party policies are likely to track what is right.

In determining what is right and best, it is important individuals and parties do not follow ideology, but engage in rational deliberation, gathering and weighing evidence, considering appropriate values.

The values which should govern policies must be publicly defensible values. They must not be personal, idiosyncratic or purely ideological. I have written on the role of conscience in the delivery of medical care [(2006) “Against medical conscientious objection”  BMJ]. I argued that personal conscience should not constrain the delivery of legal, beneficial desired health care, regardless of one’s personal morality. In a similar way, politicians should set aside their own personal values and moralities and follow a publicly defensible reason when choosing policies. What matters is not what an individual or party care about, but what is defensible to a secular public.

Serving the public interest is not serving a majority party or other party. Parties exist as a means of attempting to find the best policy for the public which they serve. But ultimately it is the public and whole electorate that matter. Individual politicians should choose that policy which best serves them, not themselves, their party or some other party.

In 1996, conservative Catholic MP from Victoria, Kevin Andrews, introduced a private members’ bill which ultimately overturned the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, which permitted euthanasia in the Northern Territory. This Act was produced by a democratic process led by Marshall Perron. Euthanasia at that time had wide support in the Northern Territory, Australia and Andrews’ own electorate. The intervention, on conscience, by Andrews was an act of political irresponsibility. It did not serve the public interest but served his own particular set of moral values. This kind of political action is what must be avoided in the situation of a hung parliament and in parliament in general.

In choosing to be a politician, we should choose set aside our own personal morality and strive to find those reasons which best serve the public interest. All civilised countries will eventually permit assisted dying. The interference of personal values and party politics only serves to increase the suffering of those who are denied assistance in dying by such delays. But this is not merely an issue for euthanasia. In all political debates, we need a reorientation to find the public interest, not merely provide a platform for the expression of individual or party values.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. “In choosing to be a politician, we should choose set aside our own personal morality and strive to find those reasons which best serve the public interest.”

    I totally agree and this was exemplified by the Tory/Labour war time coalition in 1940 which was formed by putting the national interest over and above party political ideology.

    However by the same criterion a significant number of incumbent MP’s, who have defrauded or seriously abused the expenses system, should not only resign but should also be disciplined and fined by the Parliamentary authority, audited by the Inland Revenue and in some cases prosecuted in the courts.

    Apart from the 4 or 5 exteme cases that have already been brought to the courts this is clearly not going to happen, so the excellent moral imperative that is the core or this particular thesis is undermined by moral turpitude that afflicts a significant number of parliamentary members !

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