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The blind leading the blind, 1568.Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Capodimonte Museum.

In mid-December Liberal Party Deputy Leader Julie Bishop complained in Online Opinion that Foreign Minister Bob Carr had undermined the Prime Minister’s authority on a UN vote. He had ‘run a guerrilla campaign’ among the backbench to ‘get his way’ in Caucus, so as to ‘roll her’ in Cabinet. Such treachery must be condemned because ‘a Prime Minister without authority cannot function … for very long’.

Her criticism is surprising because, as a politician and lawyer she knew Carr infringed no constitutional rule or convention; it was, in fact, common or garden Westminster politics, with members free to discuss proposals and compete for support until caucus had ruled on the matter. She was, it seems, committed to a view of loyalty which goes a good deal further than doctrines of unity and joint cabinet responsibility – ministers must support a Prime Minister’s views even before Cabinet addresses them.

This view of politics helps explain why there has been so little controversy in the Liberal Party on issues such as the Iraq War, the apology, refugees, same-sex marriage, gambling reform, etc. which have divided the nation. It explains why there were only five ‘conscience votes’ during Howard’s reign and why ‘crossing the floor’ is so rare. For this impressive record of party loyalty is also a history of moral self-subordination and, contrary to the Deputy Leader’s views, a matter for shame rather than pride.

She is, in effect, taking to extremes a doctrine of unity which is responsible for much of what is wrong in politics. To understand why, consider the issue of reconciliation: the Liberal Party denied an apology during the long years of the Howard administration, but changed this policy as soon as it became expedient; that is, as soon as a new leader was appointed and made it possible to change course. No one sought a ‘conscience’ vote when the policy began or ended but all members, with the exception of John Howard, joined in the celebratory sitting in Parliament House.

Likewise with Labor, whose members sign a pledge of loyalty. Looking back, it now seems astonishing that, despite its opposition to the Iraq War, no member would support a formal inquiry into the evidence said to justify it, including claims now known to have been fabricated byRafid al-Janabi, known as ‘curveball’ by US and German intelligence officials. It is difficult to dismiss the conjecture, given public opposition to this war, that this was because Labor leaders were wedded to the alliance and back-benchers were sworn to unity. They were against the war, but an inquiry might offend US sensibilities.

It is time to ask if it would not have been better – for aboriginal families and the nation – if Liberals had acted on their judgment and conscience in the first place, and better for the nation and the world if Labor members had taken personal responsibility to examine the case for war. Quite apart from these failures, the doctrine of unity debases politics across the board because members must defend what they cannot justify – at least not by the values they appeal to outside politics.

On the present issue – whether to support a higher UN status for Palestine – it is clear that Bishop sees herself and fellow ministers as obliged to accept Tony Abbott’s opinions, regardless of the nation’s interests, much less those of Israel and Palestine. It gives his views priority over principles of international law as well as a need to defuse tensions and secure a lasting Middle-East peace. In Bishop’s world these substantive matters are not determinative; whether they play any role at all will depend on Abbott’s wishes.

This is why her theory of duty must be rejected as profoundly irrational. When people take a stand on a matter of principle, to oppose a war or racial discrimination, or to support reform of gambling or election finance laws, they do so for reasons of fairness, humanity, justice etc. they believe are important, and see themselves as sharing with the community. But their case rests on a judgment of these values and how they apply; the fact that it is their opinion is no part of it – even less is it relevant that someone they admire – be it Mahatma Ghandi or the leader of the Liberal Party – has a view. To cite this as a reason is to misunderstand the logic of argument – it treats opinions as values when it is the opinion itself which must be justified.

To put this in more general terms; a moral system based on values is inherently personal in that no one can justify a judgment on a matter of principle by citing someone else’s opinion. When politicians do this under a doctrine of party unity they abdicate their duty to defend community values – they violate, in Edmund Burke’s terms, a ‘sacred trust for the abuse of which they are deeply answerable’.

Someone whose politics is guided by values will assess opinions in light of principles of humanity, justice, benevolence, fairness, human dignity etc., and respond accordingly. In considering the apology he will look to the merit of arguments that past officials did what they thought best, and that a government is not responsible for the wrongs of its predecessors. He will judge these claims (which John Howard asserted) for himself, not defer to someone else’s opinion, regardless of their status.

This leaves a puzzling question: how can this accomplished politician and lawyer, indeed a prospective Prime Minister, criticise Carr for doing what anyone who cares about the substance of politics – to serve the interests of the community while respecting its values – takes for granted? The only explanation which comes to mind is a deep and abiding scepticism about values. It suggests the greater danger to public life may not be fundamentalism, but a deep conviction that there is no such thing as moral truth, only the shifting sands of opinions.