The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 will no doubt be remembered for many things. I wonder if one of those will be that our political leaders collectively managed to win back the trust and legitimacy they squandered over the past couple of decades. I hope so — because as we are now seeing in this time of crisis, it really matters.
The past few days have seen Prime Minister Scott Morrison describe panic-shoppers as engaging in behaviour that is “ridiculous” and “un-Australian”. He also had a crack at the people who flocked to Bondi Beach in the recent warm weather for not taking seriously the requirements for physical distancing.
He is right on both counts. However, his message is blunted by the lack of authority attached to his office. This is part of a larger problem.
The government’s meta-narrative is now one in which responsibility for the nation’s fate is tied to the behaviour of its citizens. The message from our political leaders is clear: you — all of you, the people — must take responsibility for your choices.
Again, they are right. It’s just a terrible pity that the potency of the message is undermined by the hypocrisy of the messengers — a group that has refused to take responsibility for pretty much anything.
Consider the most recent case: the already infamous sports rort scandal, in which government ministers (including the PM) offered the “Bridget McKenzie” defence that “no laws were broken”. They wriggled and squirmed in an attempt to deflect any and all criticism. Ordinary Australians saw through the evasions, but put it all down to political “business as usual”.
I recognise that it is unfair to focus on a single incident as indicative of all that has happened to erode trust and legitimacy. McKenzie and co’s behaviour is just the most recent example of a longer, larger trend.
A more equitable reckoning would say to the whole of the political class that we are sick of your blame-shifting, your evasiveness, your self-serving hair-splitting, your back-stabbing, your blatant lies (large and small), your reckless (no, gutless) refusal to accept responsibility for your errors and wrong-doing, and your loyalty to the machine rather than to the people you are supposed to serve.
The split between ethics and politics was not always so evident. For Ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, each was a different side of a single coin. Ethics dealt with questions about the good for the life for an individual. Politics considered the good for the life of the community.
The connections were not accidental — they were intrinsic to the understanding of the relationship between people and the communities of which they formed a part. As Umberto Eco once observed, the ancient world was a place of depth populated by heroes. In contrast, we moderns are fascinated by glittering surfaces and find satisfaction in celebrities.
The shallowness of much of modern life has fed into our politics — an arena within which marketing spin too often takes precedence over substance.
Some seek to excuse this tendency by saying that our politicians merely reflect the society they represent. It is said that we should demand nothing more of political leaders than what we expect of ourselves.
Really? Is that really good enough?
Let’s write to our politicians, phone their offices, and bombard them with messages of encouragement. Let’s ask them to rise to the occasion — to prove to us (and perhaps to themselves) what they could be. Let’s appeal to the neglected idealist living buried beneath the callouses. Let’s tell them that they are needed; that they have a noble calling.
Let’s enrol them in our dream of a better democracy — one that truly serves the interests of its citizens. Let them be our champions. Let them drive out of their ranks anyone who refuses to be and do better.
Let’s imagine what it would be like if, at the end of this year, we were proud of our politicians and the quality of government they had offered us at a time of crisis.
Dr Simon Longstaff, AO, is a philosopher, focussing on applied ethics. He has been Executive Director of The Ethics Centre (formerly the St James Ethics Centre) since 1991.