Uniting Business Network North Sydney

Noel is an ethicist, theologian and social commentator and is Adjunct Professor in the Key Centre for Ethics, Law Justice and Governance, Griffith University.

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Uniting Business Network North Sydney

Ethics in Public Life: Retrospect and prospect.

Noel Preston AM
Adjunct Professor, Key Centre for Ethics, Law Justice and Governance, Griffith University

Ethics in Public Life

Looking Back Looking Forward

By Noel Preston


Noel remarked that “Ethics and Public Life is very topical”.  He explained that “public life” extends beyond just a “political life”.  We all share in “public life”, beyond our “personal life” and therefore have a stake in “the public good” or “the public interest”. The focus of Noel’s talk was, “politics and public officials”, and the concluding question ‘What responsibility does religion have in all this?’

Throughout his talk Noel’s guiding principle was American social philosopher, Michael Walzer’s definition of public officials (elected or appointed) as “citizens in lieu of the rest of us: they are to specialise in the common good. Which involves(1) the idea of the Common Good as a touchstone for good public policy and decision making, and (2) as “citizens in lieu of the rest of us”, MPs and others in government having a vocation, a calling to public service.

A most significant influence was 1970s period when Noel was studying “social ethics” in the United States. Just as he was leaving there the Watergate scandal surfaced, culminating in ‘Nixon quits’ headline of the New York Times August 9th 1974: A very low point of public office.  It generated a whole US movement toward establishing ethics measures and anti-corruption agencies in many jurisdictions. This continued unabated with other regulations introduced such as  whistle blowing protection measures, etc., extending into all spheres of life.

The question is “has ethics regulation of the public sector worked?” Have we reached the point “where we are trying to take the politics out of politicians, like puritans rooting out sin” as the Seattle Weekly editorialized article “Ethicsgate” (July 8, 1992) wrote.

Where does POLITICAL ETHICS stand?

Generally we regard politicians as about as trustworthy as used car sales persons – Noel is not so cynical. According to the American Christian Ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, politics is “an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate, and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”

Many people mistakenly believe that politics is a product of pure power while ethics is wholly idealistic. Neither view is accurate or acceptable. Both should share a quest for the best possible in an imperfect world. Through politics we may aim to approximate the ethical objective of the common good, and through ethics we may keep sensitivity to that objective alive in the body politic.

Noel (a Queenslander) has been a close observer/participant of “ethics in public life” in Queensland for over fifty years. He witnessed how abuse of office individually and collectively had toxic effects in the community, costing some their careers and spreading a poisonous, demoralising virus through systems of government. During that time there were two corrupt Police Commissioners, disgraced politicians and some other shady prominent public figures brought to account.

Noel’s Vocation (as a minister of religion and an academic) was shaped by the Joh Bjelke Petersen era and the Commission of Inquiry under Tony Fitzgerald which dismantled that era. After years of social justice activism as a clergyman, in the late 80’s he became an academic whose teaching, research and publications focused on ethics and government. Ongoing public advocacy and interpretation of the ethical basis for the reform agenda which flowed from the Fitzgerald Inquiry were central to his role as an academic.

It has long been Noel’s belief that a most important ingredient for a public sector ethics regime is the availability of independent advice, particularly around potential conflicts of interest. That is, giving “prior advice”, ethics advice confidentially to MPs and senior public officials before they enter into a morally hazardous arrangement. However, overall nothing can prevent misconduct. That’s why we need bodies like ICAC.

In Queensland we call this officer the Integrity Commissioner and this role works well around conflict of interest advice and the monitoring of lobbyists.

What has never been addressed properly is the unethical culture of political parties. Noel referred to “the sleaze scandal” in the UK, the home of the Westminster system. A well respected judge, Lord Nolan, headed an inquiry which produced a significant report in 1995. Within it he nominated “Seven Principles of Public Life”:  selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership.

This list is a reminder that personal integrity matters, even though public sector ethics is built on the role, the office, not necessarily the character of the incumbent. This referred to as Ethic of Role which relates to the purposes of the institution within which the role is practiced.

The critical matter here is whether the ethical indiscretion interferes with the exercise of public responsibility. A more substantial concern is raised here if we reflect on war criminals that base their defense on the argument: “I was just following orders, fulfilling my role”. Clearly, in most cases that is no ethical justification but, then again, non-elected public officials have a clear ethical obligation to carry out the will of their political masters. How absolute is that requirement?

Lord Nolan’s list omits the qualities of acting justly or with social responsibility.  How does this fit with the Walzer statement that the specialty of the vocation of public office is to work for “the common good”. What does the term mean?

Elsewhere I have written: the common good requires policies which give priority to the needs of the disadvantaged or disempowered, giving all in a community access to social goods……the idea of the common good points beyond economic welfare to wider dimensions of cultural enrichment… (And)… will include the interests of future generations as well as non-human species. (Understanding Ethics, chapter 9).

My conclusion is that a focus on politics as a vocation, and the common good, would put social ethics at the heart of political practice.

Finally, what responsibility and role do religious groups have in the body politic? As a part of civil society, religious groups should continually call governments to account especially because religious groups should understand what is meant by a ‘vocation’. Also their business is ‘public service’ and the ‘common good’.

During Question time Noel fielded many interesting and varied queries covering a mixture of Ethical issues. The key underlying themes in all his answers were that each of us in living our individual public lives should work for the ‘common good’ guided by ethical principles, and regularly interact within our various communities so that our Ethics remain relevant.

Note: Noel has recently published two books titled ‘Understanding Ethics’ (4th edition) (FederationPress) and ‘Ethics with or without God’ (Mosaic Resources).