Tim Smith: do our leaders govern 'for the people' anymore?

By Tim Smith

November 27, 2015

What are the nature and purposes of democratic governance? Is it to provide “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? Is it more than that?

And what are the principles that underpin democracy’s nature and purposes and should guide all those who participate in the legislative and executive arms of government?

In addressing these questions, we need to take into account the unavoidable realities of our present democracy structures, including particularly those realities that can put their purposes and underlying principles at risk.

For example, consider the competing values and obligations that members of parliament inevitably bring to office from the moment they are elected. Add to that their commitments to the pursuit of power for themselves and their parties, and, once gained, its retention.

It is difficult to imagine a more conflicted office.

Consider also the conflicted position in which they and our public servants are placed every time they have to consider any reform to strengthen the different components of the government integrity systems — such as the freedom of information regimes, the requirements for disclosure of political funding and lobbying, and the integrity watchdogs such as the Auditor-General or Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity or the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.

“Many of our elected representatives appear to approach their decision-making by applying a contrary principle: whatever it takes.”

The Hon Fred Chaney argued that guidance was to be found by identifying and choosing the decision that will best serve the broadest public interest. Provided that is done, it may be said that we have government “for the people”? But is that what has been happening?

About 100 years ago, the response to the question — “What are Democracy’s guiding principles for MPs and public servants?” — would have been that they, having been entrusted by the people (directly or indirectly) with power, must ensure that, when they exercise it, they serve the public interest in priority to their personal and other private interests.

That principle was once recognised as a fundamental ethical principle which all holders of public office should apply. It was, and is still, a principle of the common law. It is a special fiduciary relationship.

It should be fair and accurate to say that public office is a public trust and that holders of public office are our public trustees. But the unfortunate reality now is that the vast majority of us, including public officers, have for some time been unaware of the principle at all, let alone of either its ethical or its legal aspects.

Many of our elected representatives appear to approach their decision-making by applying a contrary principle: whatever it takes.

And in the public service, is it the business model? But whose business is it and who are its stakeholders?

Concern about the state of our democracies has been steadily growing.

People familiar with the history of democratic governance since the 1970s compare the 1970s and 1980s (when bi-partisan decisions were made in the public interest on issues such as refugees and the economy) with the last 20 to 30 years where that has not been possible because politics has come to dominate the decision making process.

There is also concern about the extent of the disengagement of the people from political discussion and politics in general.

These developments have coincided with the growing lack of awareness of the public trust principle becoming virtually complete in our communities.

A genuine revival of the principle would have a significant impact on the way we and our public trustees approach major policy issues, including issues such as the right of the people to know what their Public Trustees have been doing and their reasons, including their use of the vast resources we entrust to them.

We would approach such issues conscious of the standard of conduct required — that those who hold public office must put the public interest ahead of their personal interest and other private interests.

There is another significant aspect. The public office/public trust principle not only sets the standards by which holders of public office, and those assisting them, should be guided in exercising their powers as our public trustees.

It also should guide us, the beneficiaries of that trust, in how we respond; for, while holders of public office are obliged to use their best endeavours to satisfy those standards and take action when those standards are breached, it is we, the beneficiaries of the public trust, who carry the ultimate responsibility to ensure that those standards are honoured. By disengaging, we are in breach of our obligations.

We must find ways to restore the public office/public trust principle to our own consciousness and that of all holders of public office.

Only then can we hope that the principle will again be respected and applied by all who share the responsibility to do so in our democracies.

Tim Smith is speaking at the Melbourne School of Government’s Democracy in Transition conference, December 6-8, in Melbourne. This article was co-published with DemocracyRenewal.

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Read more of The Mandarin‘s democracy series with DemocracyRenewal:

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