In Cambodia, included in the celebration of the new year is a washing ceremony. You dip your hands into scented water in order to wash off the old year and to wash in the freshness of the new.
The image is appropriate for Australian public life at the beginning of 2004. Much that is squalid and stale cries out for washing and renewing. We can think of particular policies and the harsh execution of them, like the continued detention of children, welching on our responsibilities to the Turkish Kurds who sought asylum, sending asylum seekers back to likely death, going to war on Iraq on fraudulent grounds and refusing to contribute to reconstruction. And you can find other instances in the policies that will engage Eureka Street’s attention during the year.
But the grottiness in Australian public life today goes beyond particular policies and events. It lies in a pervasive calculation in the exercise of power. That calculation is shown in economy with truth, in the understanding that ministers should not hear from the public service truths that might implicate them in immoral actions, in the expedient nonsense devised to avoid the obligation to respect human dignity or to honour international commitments.
Calculation also rules in public discussion, when sour abuse of opponents becomes the preferred form of argument, when mistakes are never acknowledged, and when power is preferred to truth. Humanity and reason are expendable.
A cynic might ask why we would expect governments or newspaper columnists to do anything other than lie. And this cynicism appears to be shared by most Australians. But the consequences of devaluing truth and virtue are large, as becomes evident when we reflect on older political philosophies of kingship.
The rule of the king was instinctively seen to image the rule of God. When the nation was governed well, the wisdom, reason, love of humanity and lack of envy recognised in God’s ordering of the world were mirrored in the king’s government. He was expected to rule reasonably, to pursue the universal good, and to act without vindictiveness or partiality. The king was a public figure who bore himself in a way that inspired respect for the divine order and commended the common good to his subjects.
Implicit in this view of rule is the conviction that good government is not merely executive but exemplary. Governments must commend the virtues that are necessary within society. These include a level of trust, a commitment to a national good that goes beyond individual interests, an impartiality based on a respect for all persons, an honesty that respects agreements, and a commitment to act reasonably. By embodying these qualities, a government and public bodies will commend them to the citizens. Neglect of them will lead to alienation.
No-one now would advocate a return to kingship. In modern democracies, the heavy reliance on the king’s virtue has been replaced by structures of accountability and review designed to exclude arbitrariness and conflict of interest. But the exemplary function of government remains enshrined in the assumption that the government should be a model litigant, one inspired by benevolence and reason, and not by the simple desire to win or by vindictiveness.
In any political system, truth and virtue matter and need to be commended by public example. The miasma that hangs over Australian public life today comes from the corruption of reason and moral seriousness. A government that prefers calculation to reason does not only cause personal suffering. It also weakens confidence in the foundations of society and of government itself. To wash away these things, the waters of the new year will need to be singularly powerful.