Falling on one's sword



During her last year in office Gladys Berejiklian divided people over her response to the Coronavirus. Even her critics, however, praised her decision to resign from office after the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) announced that it was investigating her conduct. 

On the surface her resignation was an event without consequence. A new premier was soon chosen and politics carried on as before. But at a deeper level her resignation made a strong statement about the way in which public life should be conducted, one which holds a mirror to all involved in it. Like Shakespeare’s historically based plays it prompted reflection on the significance of the human values involved in political life.

If the reports about Berejiklian’s resignation are to be believed, it followed consultation with Party members, which suggested that she faced no legal nor political barriers to her remaining in Office. The following morning, however, she announced her resignation on the grounds that she had required ministers in her government to stand down if under official investigation, and that she also must also do so. Furthermore, the State demanded stable and undistracted leadership that she would be unable to provide during the investigation.

I found her decision refreshing and surprising. Refreshing, because she did not attend only to its political but also to its ethical dimensions. Surprising, because today we commonly take it for granted in Australian political life that politicians will evade and deny responsibility for any a priori illegal or unethical behaviour, will not resign, and will continue to act in their own self-interest and that of their party. They will ask only what they can get away with and not what they ought do.

To describe it properly Berejiklian’s decision requires words that are unfashionable. Such words as responsibility, integrity and honour. They may seem to belong to an older age as descriptions of what is expected of politicians and of public life. Responsibility has many dimensions. It requires you to be responsible to yourself by being thoughtful and measured in what you do. It also requires you to take responsibility for what you have done. You may not conceal, minimise or lie about your actions, nor deflect responsibility to others. It demands, too, that you will be responsible to others. You will see your public role as a service to the people whom you represent, and will be transparent in your actions.

Integrity and honour are words also used to describe political virtue. Integrity refers to a comprehensive and consistent set of ethical values that govern your conduct in public and personal relationships. Honour includes reference to how you are seen in addition to what you are. It implies that you act with respect in all your relationships, including those involved in your public position. It involves moral courage, fidelity, decency and transparency. To act to someone’s disadvantage behind their back would be dishonourable. Whatever may prove to have been the virtues and faults of her behaviour as Premier, Berejiklian’s action of resigning invited the association with responsibility, honour and integrity.


'In contemporary Australian public life, as in Shakespeare’s Rome, leaders fail to act responsibly, the punters and their agitators in the media move to cancel those with whom they are displeased, and honour and integrity are treated as old fashioned values.'


Many people will see these qualities old-fashioned, associating them with an aristocratic and not a democratic sensibility, with noblesse oblige and not with the cut and thrust of winning popular support. In that sense they have always been old-fashioned. Aristocracy in its derivation means rule of the best people — the most educated, ethically schooled, disinterested members of the community. It was always an ideal and never a reality. Rulers have regularly pursued their own interests and indulged their own passions while appealing to high principle in aristocratic words.

Literary accounts of public life have explored the discrepancy between the values that politicians professed and their behaviour, and the tension between good intentions and the compromises that political life demands. This is the stuff of Shakespeare’s historically based plays, all of which reflect conflicts and quandaries of his own day, notably Julius Caesar in which the ethical ideal of honour in the service of the republic motivates Brutus’ opposition to his friend Caesar’s perceived desire to become king. It eventually leads Brutus to participate in his killing. Brutus’ title to honour is praised at the start of the play, is savaged by Mark Antony in the turning point of his fortunes, but again acknowledged by Antony after his suicide. Yet his honour also leaves him vulnerable to manipulation by the conspirators to participate in the killing his friend Caesar. It leads to the suicide of his wife and to the scruples that result in the fatal failure to kill Antony as well as Caesar and then to allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral. It leads him finally to reject extorting from the poor the costs of raising forces against Antony and Augustus.

As a study in honour Julius Caesar explores the potential conflict between the honourable treatment of friends and the honourable service of the nation, and the ambiguous demands of the latter when democratic institutions had largely been captured by wealth and demagoguery. Mark Antony is a man for the times in being well connected, being single-mindedly loyal to Caesar and his advancement. He is also willing to befriend and use others as expedient, to trim Caesar’s will leaving his wealth to the populace, and to employ his gift of rhetoric to enrage the populace against Brutus. Shakespeare sets this drama of conflicted honour and its consequences within a cosmic tent that stresses the larger significance of often grubby and confused human actions. In the play omens and portents, storms and monstrosities accompany the killing of a political aspirant. Not only Caesar and Antony, but the moral universe, is affronted by his murder.

Shakespeare’s detached view of public life as a play of passion, marked by the inevitable gap between the service of the public good that the players avow and the wickedness or self-deception of their actions, speaks to our own day. He uncovers the messy human reality that underlies public life and rule and gives texture to the human relationships and behaviour in which high rhetoric is actually embodied. In Julius Caesar no one acts with consistent integrity. It is an aspiration. Nor do they act responsibly without inner struggle. In that sense the play speaks to the politics of today, of every day.

Equally, however, the play’s focus on honour offers a specific challenge to public life today. It is also that posed by Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation. In contemporary Australian public life, as in Shakespeare’s Rome, leaders fail to act responsibly, the punters and their agitators in the media move to cancel those with whom they are displeased, and honour and integrity are treated as old fashioned values — rhetorically useful but of no value in real life. The difference from Shakespeare’s Rome is that in contemporary society there is no cosmic tent of which honour is a pole, no higher world in which to consider the consequences for society of irresponsibility, lack of honour, dishonourable behaviour, and of pervasive cynicism about values.

In such a society the lasting importance of honourable behaviour needs public witness. That is the significance and the gift of Berejiklian’s resignation. It affirms the value of honour, integrity and responsibility, invites praise rather than pity for those who act in accordance with these values, and stirs anger rather than weary resignation when they are condemned. It may also make us more tolerant of people whom we believe pay only lip service to honour. As Oscar Wilde, that stern moralist, once remarked, ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue’.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian resigns after ICAC announces investigation into conduct. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ICAC, Gladys Berejiklian, NSW premier, integrity



submit a comment

Existing comments

Current Australian political life has more in common with those TV clowns of yesteryear, Zig and Zag than Shakespeare. Gladys Berejiklian is of Armenian origin. Her parents were decent, hardworking battlers. She is, I believe, a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the oldest Christian denomination, dating from Apostolic times. In the corner of the Empire my ancestors were serving in for five generations, Armenians, who were middle class traders in the main, had a reputation for probity and loyalty. Ms Berejiklian has displayed both. She had no case to answer.

Edward Fido | 14 October 2021  

Her popularity in office, and the overflowing gratitude in the form of notes and flowers left at her electorate office after her resignation, reveal the depth of feeling the people of New South Wales felt for Premier Gladys Berejiklian. This is not the usual way we respond to politicians - even if we admire their work (!) we tend not to be too gushy about it. Gladys is different: something about her persona, the serious intent, the enthusiasm she exhibited for her work. At times, she received plenty of criticism from media and political rivals yet Gladys retained her popularity. Even as her integrity has been questioned by her involvement with a fellow member of parliament I cannot quite condemn her. Maybe it's old-fashioned loyalty to an ideal I glimpsed.

Pam | 14 October 2021  

Dear Father Hamilton: It is nice to read all those nice comparisons you gave to people in history who "did the honorable thing"; however, there is a second, more obvious reason for her resignation-guilt.

However, the Commission is the decider on that score, so you, with the rest of the interested people[and frankly, I really couldn't care less, as politicians are renown liars ], will just have to sit back and wait for their decision.
Good luck!

JOHN WILLIS | 14 October 2021  

What this article is saying is that there are some positions for whose occupants there is no presumption of innocence. That idea is emphatically disconfirmed by the constitutional practice in certain countries that after impeachment, there must be trial. In those jurisdictions, as seems quite reasonable, impeachment on its own is accepted to be morally insufficient. As for accusation being a distraction from duties, distraction and duties to whom? ‘Whom’ are the ‘People’, each of whom is a moral agent who can decide whether he or she ought to allow the accusation to distract, and each of whom can apply the golden rule to her- or himself.

We’ve gone away from the notion of sub judice. Post-the Garden, every person and institution is fallen, every accuser can be as mistaken as the original Accuser, and every person of the ‘People’ to whom duty is due can be as fickle as the crowd from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The golden rule is the duty owed by one image and likeness of God to another. Sub judice is what that duty is that is owed by one image and likeness of God to another whose dignity has been disparaged by an accusation yet to be proven. Salem or McCarthy are not sins. Each is merely one sin repeated many times.

The provenance of Western justice are the images which can relevantly been drawn from Judaeo-Christianity. The proceedings on the evening of Holy Thursday were prosecutorial, not judicial, because verdict could only be issued from Gabbatha. If Eucharist is re-presenting an unjust penalty, why isn’t resignation before proven cause re-presenting the premature penalty of the crown of thorns?

roy chen yee | 14 October 2021  

Bless me Father, for I have sinned; its been a while since my last confession, around 15 years with time off for good behavior after the conviction. The seal of confession has come under scrutiny in a manner which is not too dissimilar to the ex-Premier's demise. The expectations that the person listening must report certain (sexual) criminal activities that may become known to them under the seal is controversial enough but that the priest commits a crime by hearing and not reporting is tied back in NSW law, applied to all persons. O'Farrell spoke succinctly of this in 2012. Back closer to topic, the Premier is sworn to duties, failure of public officials to perform duties falls under non-feasance, misfeasance and malfeasance. Defending being recorded by police as party to a conversation with another minister about possible personal financial gain by position of office is a frightening proposition; I wait for ICAC, the Premier didn't. Lots of people might get away with "I heard but wasn't really listening..." but a State Premier might whet another sword and a raise a few eyebrows with "I don't need to hear that..." Thanks Andy, and thanks Gladys; I wish her well and expect to see her federal successes.

ray | 15 October 2021  

Fr Andrew, the allocation of grants is always a double edged sword. Luckily there's no Federal ICAC or Scomo would have to explain the $43m grants from Defence to Servgate, ostensibly for Indigenous Homeless Housing (Coleman's charity), and the $913k granted to Hillsong Emerge.
Despite that, all I can see Gladys is guilty of is having a dodgy boyfriend and she is suffering for his admitted shortcomings.

Francis Armstrong | 15 October 2021  

Thank you Andrew. But many seem to have also pointed out that she in effect blamed the ICAC for their very untimely announcement, which left her without any choice; In that case, maybe it is not as clear a case as you posit of her falling on her sword because she accepted the ethical implications involved. I guess that she may have just accepted that though the outcome of the investigation was unknown, that it was better for the NSW Gvt to continue almost seamlessly, as some of her predecessors have done in similar circumstances, so that the public can move on rather than there be a lot of pressure from them and the media which could impact on the NSW Gvt, if she tried to potentially continue as Premier or even as an MP.

Jim Potts | 15 October 2021  

The only thing I can fault Ms Berejiklian on is her dreadful choice of men and him an Irish-Australian Catholic too!

Edward Fido | 16 October 2021  

Like everyone else, I have no idea if Gladys Berejiklian has done anything unlawful or unethical or against a code of conduct. ICAC will check that out. But I just want to acknowledge that as the history of child sexual abuse in the Church has so sadly demonstrated, we can admire someone, like them, and respect them, and then come to terms with the fact of some wrongdoing. We usually prefer people to be all good or all bad. But we need to remember that people who do good things can also sometimes do bad or wrong things. It is a hard lesson and makes us feel very uncomfortable!

Beth Gibson | 16 October 2021  


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up