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Guilt by association no way to judge politicians

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Guilt by association no way to judge politicansGuilt by association has a long history. Jesus Christ was put to death, ostensibly because he ate with sinners and tax collectors, and counted sex worker Mary Magdalene among his close friends.

Clinical psychologist Professor Gil Straker-Bryce wrote about it in the last issue of Eureka Street. Her point about its stranglehold on politics has since been illustrated in spectacular fashion by events in Federal and WA state politics, following revelations of politicians' meetings with 'disgraced former WA Premier' Brian Burke.

She said: "It is vital that we understand the psychological processes that may inform us as we come to judge not only parties and policies, but individual politicians too."

On Saturday, Federal Human Services Minister Ian Campbell was forced to resign after admitting he had allowed Mr Burke to meet him in his office last year. There was no evidence, nor even suggestion, that Senator Campbell had conducted himself in an improper manner during the fleeting encounter. That didn't matter. It was the meeting itself that did the damage.

It is now acknowledged that guilt by association is a sine qua non in politics. It's hard to know where they draw the line. If he'd been approached by Burke at a social function, or seated next to him at a dinner, would he be required to look the other way?

What makes it even more disturbing is the fact that the guilt by association was engineered. It did not arise from a chance occurrence, like Americans confusing Democratic presidental candidate Barak Obama with Osama Bin Laden. (Arguably that's worth a laugh, although it's not an excuse for them to superimpose the moral demeanour of Bin Laden on to the public persona of Obama).

Guilt by association no way to judge politicansThe guilt by association with Brian Burke was personally concocted and prosecuted by John Howard and Peter Costello, two of the most powerful and responsible leaders in the country. Moreover Kevin Rudd is not merely victim, he is complicit. Instead of having the moral fortitude to repudiate the whole idea of guilt by association, he gave it credence by arguing that his contact with Burke was only incidental.

Nobody's saying that we should not judge the moral standing our politicians. Indeed that is what the political process is all about. What's missing is the acknowledgement that we need to exercise a sense of discernment in sorting out the good from the bad. For we can have good meetings with bad people, and bad meetings with good people. Being able to tell the difference is what reflects our own moral instinct.



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I thought that an excellent editorial and one needed to bring a bit of balance back into the public debate. I have never been a great fan of Brian Burke's politics but, and this is also despite his conviction I do believe he is basically a decent bloke of integrity. He must wake up of a morning these days and ask God "what in the hell have I done to deserve all this that keeps landing in my life". I am sure there are lobbyists on the Australian landscape who basically are corrupt individuals and who would sell their own grandmothers for sixpence with scruples. Is Burke's problem that he has engaged in lobbying from "the other side of the tracks" to the big end of town and he seems to have been fairly successful at it?

I remain extremely sceptical that Brian Burke is half as bad as some in the media and politics have made him out to be. All that said I also think the Australian community does need this discussion at the present time as we establish fresh standards about the ethical and moral rules that need to apply in the behaviour of lobbyists, politicians and in the case of bureaucrats-cum-free-enterprise-cowboys recruited to bureaucratic positions as we saw in the case of the AWB behaviours.

Brian Coyne | 07 March 2007  

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