Al Jazeera’s explosive investigation, “How to Sell a Massacre”, exposed the One Nation party’s attempts to weaken Australia’s gun laws with pro-gun PR training and donations from the National Rifle Association.
The party joins a growing group of our politicians who have recently behaved unethically.
Already in the first weeks of 2019, a senator attended a rally of far-right extremists using A$3,000 of tax payer money; another accepted the gift of a family holiday from a travel agent with political connections; and the prime minister flew to Christmas Island at a cost of A$60,000 for a PR-laced 20 minute press conference.
Given this dismal record, unethical conduct will likely feature again in the months ahead, and in myriad forms. It’s no wonder Australians are disillusioned with the standard of politics.
It’s time all nine of Australia’s parliaments join thousands of professional organisations and devise a common code of ethics for their members.
Past attempts to ‘clean house’ have sadly failed
Initiatives over more than half a century to manage unethical conduct in the political realm have proved ineffectual. John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull made paltry efforts – knee jerk reactions essentially – to rein in the shabby behaviour of their own ministers, asserting only a prime minister could determine the offender’s fate. Such judgements would surely lead to arbitrary rulings and bias.
Where independent commissions against corruption have been established, defining their goals and procedures has proved problematic. With corruption and conflict of interest as their principal points of focus, a plethora of other forms of misconduct have been given short shrift.
One would imagine the threat of an enforced, humiliating resignation; the possible end of a parliamentary career; and heartbreaking effects on the offender’s family would deter politicians from behaving improperly.
Yet unethical conduct continues.
A model for a code of ethics
There is nothing new in what I am proposing. Indeed, it is rare today to encounter a professional body that has not established a set of ethical principles to guide their members.
So why should politicians, who have the most pivotal jobs in the nation, not follow suit?
One model they can draw from is the code of ethics of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), with which I have been involved for 30 years.
In 1990, our members determined a code of ethics could help instil in us a commitment to “cultivate and maintain the highest ethical standards” in our care of patients.
The resulting set of morally informed principles was devised in collaboration with college members, key stakeholders in the mental health field (advocacy organisations like SANE and MIND) and, most relevantly, people with experience of mental illness.
The 11 principles of the current code cover readily recognisable aspects of psychiatric practice, among them respecting patients’ dignity, maintaining confidentiality, providing the best attainable care, obtaining informed consent and never denigrating colleagues.
Most of the ethical challenges politicians face are also readily identifiable, falling under the rubric of always respecting their constituents and never forgetting to place the national interest ahead of their own.
And given politicians across the country grapple with similar ethical dilemmas, we can envisage a single code to serve them all.
How would a code for Australia’s politicians be devised?
Many options present themselves. One possibility that echoes the procedure followed by RANZCP would see the country’s parliamentarians setting up an independent working group charged with the task of devising an ethical code aimed at promoting their moral integrity.
The group could be chaired by an esteemed judge and comprise retired politicians, one from each state and territory and one federal. They would be highly respected for the moral integrity they exhibited during their parliamentary career. A moral philosopher and a legal scholar, both experts in the domain of professional ethics, would consult to the group.
Their initial step would be to invite submissions from all parliamentarians, past and present, relevant stakeholders and the community at large.
Copies of an advanced draft would be distributed to all current parliamentarians, requesting feedback, substantive and stylistic.
Taking the feedback into account, representatives of each parliament would unite to review the penultimate version and submit any final suggestions.
And like RANZCP and may other organisations, it would be revised every five years. It would bear in mind new developments in ethics, relevant societal changes and how the code improved politicians’ conduct during the preceding five years.
A common criticism of codes of ethics is their lack of teeth. While the RANZCP much prefers to use its code to promote ethical behaviour and moral integrity, serious consequences for any transgressions prevail, including the radical step of expulsion from the college.
Steps would be taken to remind politicians, the very people who have had a hand in devising the code, that its principles apply directly to them and warrant their continued attention. Any ethical misconduct would be dealt with by the offender’s parliament following an agreed procedure.
On a positive note, ethical conduct would be highlighted at every opportunity.
This would include ethics workshops for newly elected MPs; an annual ethics conference for all MPs with participation from moral philosophers and international parliamentarians; and ensuring the national code is readily available online and in all nine parliaments.
Nothing to lose
I may be regarded as naive in proposing a code of ethics for all the nation’s parliamentarians.
However, given its widespread acceptance by thousands of professional organisations universally, establishing a code for politicians devised by politicians is worth a shot. There is nothing to lose except the funds allocated to the process should it flounder.
Given so many politicians have breached moral principles over the years, at times placing our fragile democracy at risk, we need to act vigorously and without delay. Australians deserve politicians of integrity who they can trust and respect unreservedly.