Since the election there has been much talk of the government’s ‘mandate’. It underlies two claims; first that a government has no right to introduce policies not in its platform; secondly, all members have a duty to support its major policies – the latter was the first matter raised on the ABC’s post-election Q and A program on September 9th.

JAMES WILSON, a member of the audience: ‘This question is for Tanya Plibersek. The Coalition this Saturday was given a clear mandate by the Australian people, with the repealing of the carbon tax playing an integral role in the platform on which they ran. Will you seek to block the passage of a bill to repeal the carbon tax in the Senate and, if so, how can you justify this given that the Australian people have made their opinions on the carbon tax quite clear.’

TANYA PLIBERSEK: ‘My opinion is that … over a third of people voted for the Labor Party, knowing that we support a price on carbon as the best and most efficient way of reducing carbon pollution… The people who voted for us, voted for us on the assumption that we would vote for carbon pricing, to keep it, to keep strong action to protect our world…’

ATTORNEY-GENERAL GEORGE BRANDIS: But Tanya, if I may, the people who voted for you did vote for your set of policies and the people who voted for us voted for our set of policies, and the electorate, by a very clear majority, chose us.

TANYA PLIBERSEK: Fine and then you will get it through the House of Representatives.

GEORGE BRANDIS: No, if I may finish. There comes a point, if you’ve got any respect for democratic values whatsoever…

TANYA PLIBERSEK: Oh, this is so rich. Tony Abbott said no to everything for three years. He said no to tax cuts to small business.

GEORGE BRANDIS: The minority has got to respect the wishes of the majority.

JOURNALIST LENORE TAYLOR: … people’s views about what constitutes a mandate and what it entitles them to do tend to change dramatically when they move from Opposition into Government … I think in the case of the Labor Party, if they abandoned carbon pricing now, really the electorate could be entitled to wonder what they stand for because they’ve fought so long and so hard on it.

One can imagine similar conversations around Australia. For when people talk of a mandate they mean a right to put into practice policies which led to the winning party’s success. This may not be everything in the platform but on major issues – the big ticket items – the idea of a mandate is part of their sense of constitutional propriety. It means politicians need not inform themselves and act on their own judgment because the people have spoken. Edmund Burke, the father of conservative political philosophy, said this betrays, rather than serves, constituents.

Brandis disagrees – he says Labor ‘has got to respect the wishes of the majority’. As Attorney-General he is the most senior lawyer in the nation and chief adviser to Cabinet on the law, including principles implicit in the system of government. Given the limited experience of new Senators, and the likelihood they will hold the balance of power after July, a cynic might see this as an attempt to ensure Liberal bills an easy passage.

However that may be, his view that we should defer to a majority has a superficial appeal which, in time, can undermine the habit of judging public opinion against community values. This is, presumably, what we mean when we say majority rule does not mean mob rule.

No one disagrees that public servants must do the government’s bidding; but while elected members are political officials they are not public servants. Like all citizens there is a duty to obey laws giving effect to policy, but there is no additional duty to assist the government to make these laws – any more than there is a duty not to repeal them at the first opportunity.

In the absence of a clear law or constitutional convention – there is none – the only rational basis for the Brandis claim is a conviction that majority opinion is itself a good reason; that the mere fact – if it is a fact – that most people believe carbon pricing is the wrong way to go gives rise to a duty (call it social, moral or political) to co-operate in its repeal.

Such a claim can make sense only from a sociological perspective, one which looks at morality through the eyes of an anthropologist describing a community of which he himself is not a member. From this standpoint we might say their opinions on what is right and wrong actually constitute the morality – while withholding our own opinion because the task is to clarify, not judge, their culture.

This detachment is not possible in our own moral world, where we appeal to values we see ourselves as sharing with others. When we argue from this internal point of view we appeal to the values themselves, not the opinions others hold or the interpretations they offer. Accordingly, when we say of a rule or policy that it is unfair, we mean that it is unfair, not that most people think this; our concern is what they should support and what government ought to do.

This raises a troubling question: the idea that public opinion can give rise to duties suggests a deep scepticism about this direct, personal commitment to values, a scepticism which in recent decades has been intellectually fashionable. However that may be, we should ask how Brandis’ view fits our understanding of democratic theory. The most basic, bare-bones version, which I have argued for in previous papers, says only that the majority have a better rightto make the rules. Whether they are moral or sensible willbe a matter of opinion but opinions cannot be justified by counting them – only by showing they accord with our values, including ideals of fairness which justify democracy.

In the same way, when people in public life talk of acting on principle they are asserting the importance of values they see themselves as sharing with the community, and which support the policies they propose – as when Labor proposed the Gonski educational reforms and a national disability insurance scheme. The latter gained the in-principle support of the Liberal Party and may become law; but its merit as a contribution to a just society does not depend on this support -any more than the fairness of Gonski would be proved if Labor had won the election.

This is the logic of Lenore Taylor’s view that Labor is entitled to support carbon pricing; it makes sense if based on a conviction that, all things considered, it best serves the interests of the community. If Labor resiles from this because the public prefers another party with a different approach to global warming we would be right to question their integrity.

At the time of writing US Republicans, led by Tea Party members opposed to big government, and especially the compulsory insurance model of Obama’s Health Care scheme, have been refusing to pass a money bill to finance the nation unless it is repealed. Supporters reply that Obama has a mandate, confirmed by successive elections and an Act of Congress, which they have a duty to respect. This, surely, is a valid criticism.

Not really; the refusal is wrong, not because it rejects a ‘mandate’ or majority view on health care, but because of the methods used to force its repeal. By withholding supply Republicans undermine the President’s ability to administer the countless welfare and social justice policies he inherits, quite apart from the gross unfairness to public servants, inconvenience to the general public and serious risks to national security and global financial stability. It is wrong both for these reasons and for the case they make that it subverts democratic government.