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Electing leaders

AROUND ELECTION time there is often the conversation about whether we expect normal moral standards in our elected leaders.

It would seem reasonable to expect the same values of honesty, loyalty and integrity in our national and state leaders as we look for in ourselves, our friends, workmates and family.

Generally, we don’t.

Voters are no longer surprised by expediency that professes decades of friendship, but initiates a coup. It would seem few speak with their vote when told a promise may not be a core commitment or that truth isn’t the same as absolute honesty.

However, this may not be a case of our disheartenment with those we trust as leaders. It may be a recognition of our own low standards.

Alan Demack, a Uniting Church member in Rockhampton, was Queensland’s first Integrity Commissioner. The former Supreme Court Judge said the very nature of our democratic system lends itself to self-centredness.

“When we have an election we put our votes up to auction,” said Mr Demack.

“The political aspirants put in their bids and our vote goes to the most attractive bid. So it’s inevitable that political parties put polls and perception ahead of principle.”

He compares the process to the consumer decisions we make when brand loyalty loses out to low price.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, according to the old word “sin” there’s always a degree of dishonesty in our relationships with other people.

“We are very rarely fully frank with anyone and we will always seek our best advantage.”

Dr William Ransome, Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, suggests cynical voters who choose to label elected officials as bad people working in a ruthless business, should reconsider a leader’s role.

“First and foremost, we expect our political leaders to act efficiently and effectively for the vision of our common good for which a majority of us has voted,” said Dr Ransome.

“In doing this, we can recognise that they are often under pressure from an extraordinary range of competing interests and must act in the full glare of public attention.

“Our political leaders also have to deal with a level of pragmatic detail that is more complex, urgent and important for the whole community than most of us will ever face.”

Situational ethics seem to outweigh absolute morality.

Mr Demack questioned whether there is such a thing as absolute honesty unless it’s applied in very uncomplicated situations. It may be simplistic to view events such as the replacement of the Prime Minister through the selective filter of the 24-hour news cycle.

According to Mr Demack terms such as “betrayal” spring easily to our lips and headlines.

“We do that sort of thing regularly and not only in politics.

“That is normal human behaviour, but we dress it up in various ways to feel better.”

By the nature of their work, politicians’ decisions have consequences reaching far beyond the personal. Dr Ransome said we should expect our political leaders to have integrity, be loyal, and to behave honestly.

“We should also hold them publicly to those standards, whether at the ballot box, in the media, or at town hall meetings.
“But we also owe it to our political leaders to recognise the special and sometimes extraordinary circumstances in which we expect them to live up to our standards, and to accept that, like all of us, they will occasionally fail to live up to those standards.”