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The politician who can't be bought


Andrew WilkieNewly-elected Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie is basing his quest for power on ethical conduct. There’s nothing new in this. As we have been reminded many times, former prime minister Kevin Rudd promised to address climate change because it is ‘the greatest moral challenge of our generation’. His failure to do this cost him his job and his party majority government.

Wilkie’s point of difference appears to be that he quickly follows his words with action. In 2003 he resigned from his job at the Office of National Assessments and blew the whistle because he believed the Howard Government was deceiving the Australian people. He said it was falsely claiming that intelligence reports supported claims Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Faced with a difficult decision last week, he did not disappoint those who welcome bold principled action. Tony Abbott offered $1 billion to build a new hospital in Hobart, as part of an attempt to gain his support. Instead Wilkie opted for $340 million from Jullia Gillard, which was only enough to renovate the existing hospital. He considered Abbott’s offer an extreme example of pork-barrelling. Gillard’s winning $340 million was much more equitable, as it formed part of a $1.7 billion package spread over a range of hospitals around the country.

Wilkie said afterwards that it was ‘quite intoxicating’ to have been offered that amount of money, but ‘I’m smarter than that. We need to make sure this is not just an instance of pork barrelling.’

Many other politicians would have just taken the money, and indeed Wilkie has some explaining to do to his electorate after turning down a brand new $1 billion hospital. But as we know from the electoral backlash Rudd suffered after retreating from the climate change moral challenge, voters do care about matters of principle. Wilkie has also made it clear that he cares about the treatment of asylum seekers and wants to see an emissions trading scheme, so it’s quite likely we could see action on those fronts.

His role is more that of an agitator rather than a leader. Although the imminent decision of the three country independents could return him to obscurity, it’s just possible that he could prompt Abbott, Gillard and others to adopt a form of leadership that gives all of us ownership of the difficult decisions that face us as a nation. It is in the nature of many Australians to want a better world, and they’ve been let down by leaders on many fronts. As John Menadue said recently in a paper for the Centre for Policy Development:

‘We don’t need charismatic or authoritarian leaders to make the ‘right’ decisions for us. We need adaptive leaders who can help us all support necessary but hard decisions. We need leaders of such quality across our whole community who can appeal to the better angels of our nature.’

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: Andrew Wilkie, politics, election 2010, ethics, morality, abbott, rudd, gillard



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Existing comments

How can one be ethical if they support abortion?

Trent | 06 September 2010  

I agree, we definitely need principled leaders who can first be 'better angels of our nature' in thought and action and who will then touch the 'better angel' in whole communities when "walking the talk" is obvious and lived. Our leaders need too to be agitators so the comfortable are afflicted and are forced to overcome apathy and act for the sake of all peoples.

Deirdre Penhale | 06 September 2010  

The same way Thomas Aquinas was I guess Trent.They have (for whatever reason) not come to see it for what it really is.
Seems to me that those of us who have seen this carry have some responsibility for not having convinced them-especially those who are demonstrably trying to be ethical.

margaret | 06 September 2010  

Ethical...ethical ! First Wilkie, a number os times, mentioning the word and now Mullins !! there is a Spanish proverb that goes...' when your neighbour tells you how honest (read ethical) he is, go out and start counting your sheep'. Wilkie will do a McKew and be gone next election having all the time knew that he was going to vote for a government that was on the skids ! In the next 48 hours, we will see how 'ethical' the three remaining Independents are when they decide between the party that the electorates doesn't want, Labor, and the party most closely aligned to their voting preferences. These independents are no more than blackmailers and deserve to be trounced at the 2013 elections.

philip | 06 September 2010  

My understanding of ethical is that one sticks by one's principles. On that basis, Wilkie is an ethical man. I don't like his stance on abortion but that doesn't make him unethical.

Erik H | 06 September 2010  


Ethics realtes to morals and abortion is immoral. Sticking to one's belief in abortion does not make one ethical !!!

philip | 06 September 2010  

The Liberals seem so good at making up catchy and meaningless grabs that they've even infected out colleague, Philip.

The proposition that the Independents must 'decide between the party that the electorates doesn't want, Labor...' and the other party (which by implication the electorate does want) is not supported by logic or the principles of electoral law. The most that can be drawn from a Hung Parliament is that both parties have made 'the electorate' unhappy. The oft repeated mantra that the electorate have somehow rejected Labor may be following Abbott's lead, but it is wrong. If the electorate didn't want Labor they would have voted in the Coalition. That simple. But actually they didn't. So the proposition that they didn't want Labor is, quite simply, meaningless political propaganda.

Marion Barker | 06 September 2010  

Thank you Michael, I am sick and tired denigrating, slandering, Wilkie! one supposedly incisive analysis, by 'an experienced analyst 'form the ABC, described him as 'a rug salesman' incorporating all that is shady, shoddy and shameless in such people.
Many years ago such 'agit-prop' had some humour, now it is just smut, written people who are helpless, hapless and hopeless

Thank you again for bringing reality to the current political analysis by the 'ABC INterpretive Dance BandicooT'

John McQualter | 06 September 2010  

My sense of Wilkie is that he knew who he was going to support before he talked to Abbott. He then played one of the games people play ... called "set you up and knock you down." I believe that his request to Abbott for money for the Hobart Hospital was obviously insincere ... he just wanted some reason to justify what he had already decided.

So the sanctimonious "shock horror" expression and sucking-in of breath at Abbott's pork barrelling, having given no indication of that at his conference with Abbott, was in no way convincing. Of course, the Labor Party, as another political party, would not dream of porkbarrelling ...! So I guess Andrew Wilkie understands which party is more ethical.

If Wilkie loses his seat next time round, I believe it will be well-deserved.

Robert Rennick | 06 September 2010  

It's far too soon to be writing such an assessment of a man that we barely know, especially in the role of politician. I understand that we are all seeking honourable politicians to admire, its a laudable quest. However we should give them time to deliver before we assess their ethical base I would have thought.

Carol | 06 September 2010  

I can't believe i'm hearing this! He just waited for some dirt so he could look good making a decision he'd already decided on. And why did he blab all the details?

Scary stuff that anyone thinks he's ethical..

Michael | 06 September 2010  

What do you want? Sainthood for Andrew Wilkie? Please get real and have a good look and tell me if you can trust him!

Beat Odermatt | 07 September 2010  

No one is ethical if we judge them on every single decision they make, so singling out abortion as something that makes Wilkie unethical is hardly fair. What about his outspokenness on Iraq? That was gutsy and ethical. On the balance of issues, he is clearly more ethical than many other pollies.

Having said that, there are quite a few people who believe that his revealing the details of Abbott's $1billion offer was not ethical as it betrayed the details of a private conversation. Not sure what I think of that yet.

Nils | 07 September 2010  

Ethics are just groups of ideas agreed to by groups of persons who believe that they are are true and agree to abide by them.

On the other side Morals are concerned with what is true and what is false, there are no each way bets.

When the Greens follow their fully informed consciences then they may happily do so despite the fact that these may be morally wrong.

We should aim to teach MORALS and not ethics in our schools, universities etc.

Peter | 09 September 2010  

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