Diagnosing the great Australian sickness


Nations, like ordinary citizens, from time to time need to have their health checked. Who better to consult than Dr Hippocrates and his humours? In the period before Tony Abbott's deposition the choleric element dominated in Australia, full of sound and fury. This has been followed by the preponderance of the sanguine humour, expressing itself in that sunny optimism that makes light of problems.

Doctor with stethoscopeBut more recent events suggest that the humours are again in chronic imbalance. The intransigent and brutal treatment of people, including women and children, due to be returned to Nauru, is not unexpected. It confirms the same readiness to exclude people from the protection of the law and to give untrammelled power to the executive that characterised previous governments.

The choleric humour again predominated in government, although in the populace the automatic shrug of the shoulders may suggest an imbalance of the phlegmatic.

The decision of the CSIRO head to cut its research capacity to monitor climate change and to focus on mitigation, as well as the entrepreneurial language in which the decision was announced, shocked many scientists, who insisted that effective mitigation depended on knowledge.

Government silence on the issue confirmed that after the commitments made last year concern for the environment will now yield to business as usual. Such loss of short term memory and lack of responsibility may indicate the preponderance of the sanguine.

The deal done to eliminate minor parties from the Senate was a predictable response from the larger parties to protect their interests. These interests were already defended by the identification of parties on the ballot paper and in the provisions for public funding. The independent senators had been important in rejecting legislation that did not serve the common good.

Like the bottle of Johnny Walker discovered in the hospital bed of a recovering alcoholic, this narrow focus on immediate self-interest to the neglect of a larger reality suggests the predominance of the melancholic humour.

These examples suggest that the core weakness in the Australian constitution has not been removed with the accession of Malcolm Turnbull. It supports the diagnosis that Australian political life is an ethics free zone.

This does not imply that politicians individually do not consider the ethical dimension of the daily decisions they make in their lives. Nor paradoxically does it suggest that no ethical framework guides political decisions.

In fact they are controlled by the ethical principle that the end always justifies the means, and that the narrow self-interest of the party, its electability and its supporters is to be served, whatever the cost to people, the nation and the world.

By this principle it is justifiable to incarcerate innocent women and children and to multiply the horrors of Manus Island as a means to stop the boats and so win elections. It is also justifiable to ignore the claims of the environment in the interests of short term profit, and to amend voting in the senate in order to entrench party control over legislation and public funding.

The ethical principle that the end justifies the means is so antithetical to and corrosive of ethical reflection, that it creates an ethics free zone. It identifies what is right with what is in your narrow interest. It does away with personal responsibility and, when made habitual, it regards reflection on what is human, on what is right and wrong, as otiose.

In this ethics free zone any talk of values and responsibility are merely decorative rhetoric.

Initially, of course, people will respond to government initiatives in terms of their own self-interest, while accepting on trust the government's assurance that it has some ethical compass. But they soon recognise self-interest when they see it, and assume that the rhetoric of common good and national interest that accompany it are mere persiflage. They become alienated from politics.

Perhaps that is why a final health test proved so surprising. Although the Labor Party's proposal to sharply limit tax concessions through negative gearing and superannuation were widely criticised for not being in the Party's self-interest, they were accompanied by improvement in the polls. People were surprised to see ethical values actually embodied in potentially unpopular policy.

In politics ethical conversation must begin with reflection on the inherent value of each human being and the interconnectedness of human beings. It can then move on to what we can rightly expect of others and what others are entitled to expect of us.

Such conversation will inevitably place limitations on self-interest both of governments and of citizens. Perhaps that is why ethics free zones are so attractive despite being a health risk.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Hippocrates, humours, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew, that is one of the most provocative and inspiring discussion ethics and morality (I know you didn't use that last word) that I have seen in ant print or on-line journal for a long, long, time. And the solution to the ethics free zone? Doesn't it have to be about voting for ethical people, rather than our preferred parties, and irrespective of whether we agree with them or not?

Ginger Meggs | 02 March 2016  

Not sure about Johhny Walker Andrew. Surely more likely to be a bottle of cheap plonk! But to your case which is powerfully out; can we hope from the Labor Party that it might see that there are votes in an ethical response to the asylum seeker disaster? Would Shorten think that, on the back of the response to negative gearing, he might announce "redemption " of the incarcerated people on Manus and Nauru and win political support for that ethical but perhaps cynical ploy? Certainly the wonderful campaign being conducted by the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA) led by Hesuit Sicial Services seems to be getting traction.

Mike Bowden | 03 March 2016  

Oh the benefits of an education in the Greek classics. Father Hippocrates did well to see some effect the spleen had on a person's soul/mind/spirit. Today doctors of medicine might be more inclined to reverse the causation and the malaise psycho-somatic. Andrew makes a good point. In a self-diagnosis over recent years I have felt phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric and melancholic. Partially I now believe by becoming too involved in what was going on in the body politic of which I was only a tiny droplet of blood (Handing out 'How to vote cards'). This year I have resolved to detach with love from the body politic and have attached myself to a prayer and meditation group where I have found some sort of balance for my various humours. I still run the risk of relapsing by reading Eureka Street but there is enough balanced political commentary to assure me I have made the right decision.

Uncle Pat | 03 March 2016  

I'm as delighted to see Andrew's focus on ethics as I am disappointed to see such a lack of ethics in the policy decisions of so many of our politicians. I deplore the sending of desperate asylum seekers to off-shore 'hell-holes'; the failure to address the growing gulf between rich and poor in Australia; the cutbacks in overseas aid that will see many more poor people die, the pro-coal policies that make us an international pariah on the climate mitigation issue, and the unethical changes to the voting system to benefit those already well entrenched in political power. By accepting that the end justifies the means, our politicians are adopting the same philosophy as terrorist groups like ISIS, where decapitating their opponents is seen as justifiable. I'm an elderly man, and I have never seen so many of our political leaders sink so low. How can they sleep at night? They've made me ashamed to be an Australian.

Grant Allen | 03 March 2016  

I agree Ginger Meggs! Such amorality requires ethical people front and centre in Australian politics. I wonder how Pat Dodson will go?

mary tehan | 03 March 2016  

To add a question to Ginger Meggs comment, how shall we know these ethical people in order to vote for them? It seems that belonging to a party requires decisions made by others to be supported by a politician. That rules a lot out on such ground alone, and that we should often cast our vote for independents.

Peter Horan | 03 March 2016  

How should we know them? Good question Peter, but I think that is 'by there fruits' that we will know them. What they've done, not what they've said about others, their own ethical judgments that they've made when it will hurt, not the 'moralities' or 'political positions' that they would like to impose on others. There are some, though not many, among the current ranks of federal politicians. But identifying the individuals means ignoring the party brochures and doing the research ourselves, and that's getting easier given the expansion in the digital world where it's becoming much harder for polls to hide.

Ginger Meggs | 04 March 2016  

And now the electors in New England will have the opportunity to choose someone of proven principle over a self-styled 'political fighter'. If only we had similar contests in a couple of Sydney's northern beaches electorates.

Ginger Meggs | 12 March 2016  

Thank you Andrew you have identified our common malaise. I have been highly incensed by a number of issues the latest the rushed self serving changes to the Senate vote on the grounds it better reflects voters intentions which I put in the same category as turning back the boats or incarcerating the poor humanity within stops drownings. Pius reasons which upon dissection are simply self serving pap.

Marie Ryan | 22 March 2016  

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