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The Coalition and the mandate myth


George Brandis on Q&ASince the Federal Election there has been much discussion of the idea that, because democracy means respecting the will of the people, elected members have a duty to support the government's 'mandate'. Accordingly, they need not inform themselves and act on their own judgment because the people have spoken. It would not have impressed Edmund Burke — the father of conservative political philosophy — who said this betrays, rather than serves, constituents.

Liberal Senator George Brandis supports the mandate theory. On Q&A for 9 September he said Labor has a duty to help repeal the carbon tax because 'it has got to respect the wishes of the majority'. As Attorney-General he is chief Government adviser on the law, including principles implicit in our system of government. Despite this, cynics might think he wants new senators to give Liberal bills an easy passage.

Public servants have a duty to obey the government; but although elected members are public officials they are not public servants. Like all citizens they must obey laws which give effect to policy, but there is no additional duty to assist the government to make laws and no duty not to repeal them.

The idea that popular opinion can impose a duty rests on a misunderstanding. It makes sense only from a sociological perspective, which sees morality through the eyes of someone describing the practice of a community of which he is not a member. From this standpoint we might agree that shared beliefs on moral issues constitute the morality — withholding our own opinion because we mean to clarify, not judge, their culture.

This detachment is not possible in ordinary moral disputes, where we appeal to values we see ourselves as sharing with others. When we argue from this 'internal' point of view we appeal to the values themselves, not the opinions others hold, or the interpretations they offer. In fact we appeal to these values to judge their opinions. Accordingly, when we say that a policy is unfair, or does more harm than good, we mean it is unfair or unwise, not that most people think it is; we mean this is what they should support and what the government ought to do.

The fact that Brandis thinks public opinion is itself a moral reason suggests a deep scepticism about values. The same might be said of Julie Bishop's criticism of Labor when it rejected Julia Gillard's policy on Palestine. It arguably explains John Howard's claim that the Iraq War was justified by the security and commercial benefits accruing from 'the alliance' — the idea that one might kill innocent people to further such interests is an abnegation of both international law and the values it stands for.

However that may be, we need to see how this idea of duty fits democratic theory. The least controversial account rests on a surprisingly modest claim — the representatives of the majority have a stronger right to make the rules than others; whether their rules are wise or moral is a matter, not of counting opinions, but showing they accord with community values, including ideals of fairness which justify democracy.

In the same way, when people in public life speak of acting on principle they mean to assert the importance of values they see themselves as sharing with the community, which they believe support the policies they propose — as when Labor proposed the Gonski reforms and a national disability insurance scheme. The latter gained support from the Liberal Party and may become law; but its merit as a contribution to a just society does not depend on this support — nor would the fairness of Gonski be proved if Labor had won the election.

Finally, some might point to the current impasse in the US. Republicans, led by Tea Party members opposed to big government — especially the compulsory insurance of the Obama health care Act — are refusing to pass a money bill to fund the Administration; critics remind them the President has a mandate, confirmed by successive elections as well as an Act of Congress, which they have a duty to respect. This, surely, is a valid criticism.

The refusal is wrong, not because it rejects a mandate or a majority view on health policy, but because of the means used to force its repeal. To refuse supply compromises the ability to govern and to administer the countless welfare and social justice policies a President inherits, quite apart from the unfairness to public servants, inconvenience to the public, and serious risks to security and global financial stability. It is wrong for these reasons and the case they make that it subverts democracy.

There is no need for a further, dubious claim that public opinion has some mysterious moral authority.

Max Atkinson headshotMax Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania. His main areas of interest are in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment.

Topic tags: Max Atkinson, George Brandis, mandate, Edmund Burke



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Existing comments

Thanks, Max, for a considered view on mandate. I think I heard our new AG also stress that Senators are obliged to respect the magic of mandate. Does he suggest that the Senate is no longer a house of review based on States' representation? If so, why have a Senate?

john murphy | 11 October 2013  

What an unbelievable piece .People who vote don't have "values" that they take to the ballot box and they should not expect the people they elect and pay for to respect their values and vote ."Values "are the role of left intellectuals . When Gillard chose to ignore her mandate and give us a carbon tax we did not give her a mandate for the people decided labor had to go .We live in a democracy , we have values , we vote and expect what the majority voted for to be implemented .

John Crew | 11 October 2013  

The problem is that the carbon tax does not serve the Libs. the reality is they couldn't give a rats about the people. Mind you Labor has been guilty of the same at different times

Clem Schaper | 11 October 2013  

A welcome warning to anyone who thinks that the election of a party to government is the same as letting them do whatever they like. I have been hearing conservatives all my life who, when their people form government, smugly assert that they have a ‘mandate’ to push through their plans. Often these plans were not given notice during the campaign, so who voted for those plans? An Opposition is here to hold the government to account, not just to attack with its dogs. This is what is going to happen when the Abbott government goes into Parliament. It’s how the system works. The mind of the electorate on individual issues is not the same as its reasons for voting in a party. 95% of the nation wanted a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, but is that what everyone on Abbott’s front bench privately believes should happen? Abbott says climate change is ‘crap’. This is not the majority view of Australians.

AU CONTRAIRE | 11 October 2013  

What a sadly garbled response that is from Mr Crew after the intellectual balance of Dr Atkinson's piece. As Mr Murphy's response reminded respondents, we have a bicameral Parliamentary system, each chamber "representing" a "majority" ["mandate" if one prefers] which is achieved by a different means. The one in the House of Representatives "prevails" ONLY because the Constitution gives solely to that House the power to initiate money Bills [and controlling the money is the one pragmatic basis for government]. Otherwise the "House" has no ascendancy -- moral or other -- over the Senate. And a democracy is more complicated than a slogan like the "Will of the People" -- even if it is possible [or desirable] to discern any such simplistc thing: real democracy is trying to achieve the reasonable compromise such that any law which results will be acceptable to the "minority" [which might be as big as 49% of the population] as well as the "majority". Finally, it's truly disturbing to read that Mr Crew seems to believe that the "Right" operates without values: many good conservative Australians would, I think, be very distressed to read that dismissal of them and their "values".

John Carmody | 11 October 2013  

So, John Crew, 45.5% (Libs, Nationals, LNP, CLP) of the primary vote is a majority, is it? And just because the two party preferred vote tipped the Coalition over 50% doesn't mean that those who ultimately put the Coalition before Labour or the Greens were in favour of Coalition policies. There isn't a mandate.

ErikH | 11 October 2013  

Thank you Max for a thoughtful essay. People don’t just elect a government. They elect a Parliament and from that Parliament the Government is formed. All elected politicians represent specific interests (as well as their electorates) and it follows that all politicians have a “mandate” or reason for being there. The strength of these competing “mandates” is determined on the floor of the Parliament, that is, by the number of supporters. The idea that the majority party “mandate” must be supported by everybody, without opposition, does not respect the nature of the parliamentary system where opposition is a legitimate, even necessary part of the system. The suggestion at the other end that a Government’s “mandate” is limited to the policies it took to the election and it has no right to make decisions outside this narrow frame ignores the changing nature of politics and the world itself. We elect our parliaments to make decisions and some decisions we will not like or support. We can try to influence our decision makers but the authority to make decisions is theirs. In the end the “mandate” will be determined by the numbers in the Parliament, as it should be.

Brett | 11 October 2013  

Just because in the election I voted for a particular political party, it cannot be said that I agree with all of its policies. In the recent election, there was no party I was in complete agreement with and my choice was based on which party I thought likely to do the least harm.

Margaret McDonald | 11 October 2013  

Some politicians in the past--notablyVictorian DLP members in 1955--have sacrificed their jobs and careers for a principle. They did not see "themselves as sharing with the community". Rather did they know they were in a minority but believed in justice denied to them.

Bill Barry | 11 October 2013  

Thanks Max for helping me with the concern I have had for sometime that "mandate" = " right to capture the minority". I now have some reasoned arguments to support my strong unease at the way in which conservatives seek to use the notion of mandate to oppress the minority.

Tony Macklin | 11 October 2013  

The Abbott government can't have it both ways. It's decisively odd that Senator Brandis did not raise the notion of mandate when his party was in Opposition. As much as he'd like to erase the memory of a reculcitrent Opposition, history will judge his party's performance now that it is in government. So far, in less than a hundred days, the ground they step on seems shaky. The Right will always blame the Left for highlightig the fact that there's more to politics than simply winning votes. Historiclly speaking, the 'values' that the Right promotes often disadvantage those who are at the margins of society, either socio-economically or ethnically.

Alex Njoo | 12 October 2013  

Who was first to evoke the Coalition's brand spanking new Mandate. Perhaps the honours go to the man who lost the Opposition Leader's mantle due (apparently) to Peter Slipper's voting for Mr Abbott - Malcom Turnbull. Turnbull responded to a "group of students that started an online petition on change.org calling on Mr Turnbull to reconsider the Coalition's fibre-to-the-node plan for the ''superior'' fibre-to-the-premises network. It has attracted more than 266,400 signatures since being launched by Queensland student Nicholas Paine the day after the September 7 election. Mr Turnbull responded with a blog post saying he would not ignore the election result or walk away from one of the Coalition's ''most well debated, well understood and prominent policies''. ''Democracy? I don't think so,'' he wrote on September 12." [source - http://www.canberratimes.com.au/it-pro/government-it/26000-raised-for-nbn-campaign-in-malcolm-turnbulls-electorate-20131011-hv243.html ] Whatever, that -"Democracy, I don't think so", sums up every claimed Mandate, in my view.

WHO's on First ? | 14 October 2013  

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