The moral of this story is politicians are immoral
I have a regular segment on a community radio station in Sydney that often takes its subject matter from listeners’ email requests.
Unsurprisingly, this week I received a number asking me to explain the causes of the London riots.
My initial response was that the causes are complex, and we should ignore the many knee-jerk reactions emerging.
Yes, there are thugs and looters. Yes, there is a certain degree of anger built up because of unemployment levels and austerity measures. And yes, there is a section of the British population who have no experience of hope: their outlook is so bleak that such actions are undertaken without consideration for the future.
I wanted to emphasise that none of this excused what was happening: it was just that it will take a while to understand the complex mix of issues that led to these events.
The one thing British politicians from Prime Minister David Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband down have been citing is today’s young people lacking of moral fibre. Here is what David Cameron said during the emergency sitting of the House of Commons:
“We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate.”
Morality is an issue that many politicians seem all too ready to draw on when judging others, but the truth is moral disintegration is something that begins in the highest levels of societies. The moral compass is something that is easy to talk about, but can only be portrayed through actions.
There are many examples of British politicians failing the morality test with the MP expenses scandal an obvious one.
Likewise in Australia, many of our political leaders have shown a lack of moral fibre.
If we begin with the Prime Minister, she has failed to acknowledge that she broke her no carbon tax pledge. As an economist, I support the need to place a price on negative externalities including pricing pollution, something that we have failed to do adequately so far.
But the Prime Minister needs to honestly acknowledge her changed position.
Likewise, we have seen the Opposition Leader clearly state his support for a carbon tax, then in Monty Pythonesque-type style, simply argue that’s not what he said.
Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have shown no moral fortitude when it comes to refugees.
Both Gillard and Abbott have attempted to make political mileage from some of the world’s most vulnerable people rather than take a position that would solve some of the problems at their very source.
For example, there is more effort in the ludicrous Malaysian, Pacific and Papua New Guinea solutions, than putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to end the persecution of the Tamil population.
We do not have to look far to see the way morality has made way for political expediency.
Abbott supports the false advertising campaign against the pre-registered limits on poker machines. Scott Morrison made political mileage out of the Christmas Island refugee tragedy. Political donations continue to influence the major parties. Our democracy is for sale.
Tony Abbott argues that when elected Prime Minister, his first phone call will be to the President of Nauru to re-open the refugee detention centres.
Maybe while they are chatting, Mr Abbott can also chat about Australia’s moral obligation to Pacific nations who are most vulnerable to human induced climate change: something that the President of Nauru has noted many times.
Then there is the way our economic realities have given way to our moral obligations: Australia continues to have a thriving arms export industry. According to Austrade, Australia’s arms trade is estimated to exceed $600 million: where is the morality in that?
Then there is the decision by Treasurer Wayne Swan to rule out placing any ethical guidelines on Australia’s $74 billion Future Fund - even though it has invested in firms producing ‘cluster bombs’.
This is made worse by the way that the Australian government has found a way to skirt around the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. While Australia is one of more than 100 countries to have signed the convention (including many of our allies), the US remains the key exception.
In attempting to keep onside with our most powerful military ally, the government drafted legislation filled with loopholes that undermine both the spirit and intention of the convention. This is because the proposed legislation paves the way for our forces to assist in activities that are explicitly prohibited by the convention.
None of these things are meant to justify a brick through a store window to snatch and grab a handful of mobile phones. Rather, any moral fibre that is said to be lacking in such acts seems small fry compared to some of the actions noted above.
If our leaders want to see our actions encased in morality, then they need to lead by example.
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