Monday, June 13, 2011

In Search of a Moral Compass

The Current Events
Andrew Wilkie, MP, accused Labor of losing its moral compass on live exports (of cattle, in particular) and in its treatment of refugees. 

The public backlash after 4-Corners graphic video report on the slaughter of cattle forced the government to impose a 6-month ban on live export of cattle to Indonesia. Joe Ludwig,  Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, had his hands full managing the new stories about the mistreatment of Australian cattle in some Indonesian abattoirs, and responses from the National Party, and cattle graziers from northern Australia. They depend heavily on live exports. He has not responded to the comments about Labor’s loss of its moral compass, but did respond to the 4-Corners report with a statement that read, in part,
"I asked industry at the beginning of this year for proposals on how welfare outcomes could be improved, particularly after animals arrive in importing countries. I am currently considering these proposals.” Mr Ludwig’s full statement can be read at
If true, this might go some way to answering Andrew Wilkie’s assertion about Labor’s moral compass. However, reports can take an indeterminate amount of time to consider, once in government hands, and the test will be how quickly Mr Ludwig responds, and in what manner.

Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, was quicker to respond to the assertion that Labor had lost its moral compass. He told The Age
''everyone has got their own moral compass … the government's moral compass is driven by trying to avoid the risk of [people] getting on boats, and to increase our humanitarian intake''.

So, exactly what is a “moral compass”?

The terms ‘morals’ and ‘ethics are often used interchangeably. They are somewhat different.
Morals represent the shared beliefs of a group or society about what is 'true’ or right in behavioural terms. Morals are not the exclusive domain of religions, or religious groups. Different societies have different moral codes, sometimes at odds with religious groups within their society.

Ethics refers to a study of what is right & wrong; and how that determines our actions. Some things are deemed to be absolutely right or wrong. For example, murder, rape and child abuse are seen as absolutely wrong. However, in many cases, what is ethical behaviour is much more difficult to determine. Ethical behaviours are commonly written as “professional standards”.

However, what is ethical, need not be moral, and neither might be legal. Extreme legislation such as that allowing slavery, or apartheid, made such actions legal, but almost everyone would say they were neither moral, nor ethical.

The Centre for Defined Ethics says that
“a Moral Compass promotes the intellectual idea of a moral vision that's based on a worldcentric vision and the necessity for care towards each other.”

Do Governments & Political Parties Have a ‘Moral Compass’?

If they did, I suggest they have lost it.
Members of the ALP’s right-wing factions have said privately to journalists that if they don’t effectively demonise boat people, and send them to long-term detention, or off-shore, they believe they will not win the next election. Our society’s ‘morals’ are that these people do not deserve to be treated humanely, because they arrived by boat, and used people-smugglers to get here. Voters’ morals & ethics are not based on ethics requiring “the necessity for care towards each other”. Labor’s policy is based on matching, or being even harsher than, the Liberal-National Parties’ policy. The policy of both Labor and Liberal-National parties is based on what will get us elected. John Howard’s successful strategy was to demonise refugees, and it changed our society’s morals. Those morals have been reflected in the treatment of other refugees, such as those granted asylum after working for, and helping, Australian troops in Afghanistan. They have reportedly been vilified and subject to racial abuse in Queensland and Victoria. Labor’s policy on those asylum-seekers that arrive by boats is based on political expediency, and the desire to be re-elected, not on any moral compass.

The Liberal-National Parties’ policy contributions, in Opposition, are confined to: ‘No’; and a burning, and largely unstated desire to return to the extremism called Howardism: demonising all asylum seekers; personal wealth at the expense of societal wealth; redistribution of wealth to those with more, and to private companies; and with IR controls in the hands of politicians and big business, not courts.

The previous Labor government passed the so-called Part 3A Planning legislation. It allowed the Minister for Planning to arbitrarily introduce regulations, over-riding local planning laws; environmental and heritage laws; and  put a straitjacket on the courts. It allowed approval of for example, the approval of a car park at the Barangaroo site without the developer having to clean contaminated soil; it allowed the approval of coal-seam gas extraction on farmland. There appears to be not much influence of a moral compass there.

The current Liberal-National government in NSW proposes to introduce IR legislation that will straitjacket the IR court. Like the Part 3A Planning laws, a Minister will determine what judgement the court will make. It is motivated by a right-wing desire to attack public-sector unions. That is, it is based on political extremism. There appears to be not much influence of a moral compass there.

Our political parties are not guided by any moral compass. They are guided by ‘spin doctors’ and party power-brokers whose only desire to gain political power, and to keep it.