After 70 years in and out of government the Liberal Party remains deeply uncertain about egalitarian values; it has never been able to articulate a general principle it could defend in its constitution alongside traditional liberal values.

It is not the only party lacking a coherent political philosophy – the ALP Constitution still aims at the ‘socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’, albeit now qualified by the rider ‘to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields’. No one has taken this seriously since Chifley’s failure to nationalize private banks in the 1940’s.

It does not mean Liberals lack a sense of fairness, or cannot take the lead – the ‘golden years’ of Robert Menzies’ free tertiary education are a tribute to his convictions as much as to his authority as leader and, although this policy eventually became too expensive, the Liberal charter still supports affordable equal access, now more often cited to justify public funding of private schools.

But the party has never addressed the larger question why, if the freedom to choose one’s path in life is important, it should not be pursued across the board for all citizens, by policies which minimise the role of other artificial barriers – not just those due to a lack of educational opportunity but including health, disability, unemployment and other vicissitudes of fate.

It has, to be fair, endorsed Labor initiatives once they are shown to be effective and affordable. Hence the entrenched status of age and disability pensions, the basic wage, unemployment relief, employee and road-accident compensation schemes, as well as universal health cover, no-fault divorce, legal aid, child care and regulations to constrain markets in the public interest. But most of the time it sees itself as a champion of small government, citing conservative theories to ignore egalitarian values.

It was, therefore, something of a surprise to see Education Minister Christopher Pyne on Q and A recently seeking to justify the ‘debt levy’ on egalitarian grounds, and no less surprising to see him howled down by critics. One might have thought Labor supporters, in particular, would welcome this endorsement of a principle central to its philosophy and raison d’etre and widely used to justify its ill-fated mining tax – that when extra revenue is needed to resolve urgent financial problems, the rich should pay more.

But Senator Penny Wong, Leader of The Opposition in The Senate – like other critics – opposes the levy because, she says, it is wrong to break election promises of no new taxes and no surprises (even if Labor did not make them and strongly supports the distributive principle Pyne invoked). Her second reason seems more of a debating ploy: the debt levy does not address ‘structural’ problems behind the disparity in revenue and spending. It is a ploy because the Treasurer clearly does not see these as alternatives.

Readers will have their own views on the need to arrest an accelerating debt as soon as possible while devising long term, equitable and complex reforms to increase taxation without compromising health, education, defence, employment, infrastructure, foreign aid and other goals. It is, however, important to recall why there has never been a constitutional duty on government to keep its promises.

Governments must, to cite obvious examples, defer or ignore promises for reasons of national security or because floods or famine or other natural disasters have priority; or because keeping them will risk the nation’s financial stability in ways not envisaged when they were made. But the threshold is not set by epic events – if material facts change so as to render an election promise pointless, or a waste of public money, or self-defeating, the government has a default duty to protect the interests of the community.

In such cases we might criticise the government, not for breaking promises, but for making careless or foolish commitments, knowing the public will rely on them, and some might suffer loss. We need to clarify whether new circumstances justify the decision, and if the government responded with competence, a sense of the moral cost of breaking its promise, and a readiness to mitigate harm if appropriate. These issues call for thoughtful examination by journalists and opinion writers. Most take the easy path and go on the attack; which is why hardly anyone challenged the Coalition’s claim that Julia Gillard was an inveterate liar.

The Government must also respect community values, including those justifying citizens’ rights, such as rights to vote, free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial etc. If keeping a promise will undermine the rights of groups or individual citizens, government has a duty to defend them, however much this disappoints or offends voters; In such a case we should, again, condemn it for making promises, not for breaking them – unless, of course, it had no intention to keep them.

We should not forget that a mandate is a promise by government to do its best to implement a program. But what if it is now clear the policy is dangerous or pointless or will not work, or costs too much, or will compromise the rights of citizens or derail more important promises? Government must have the courage to risk embarrassment and try to show it acted responsibly, for reasons of the above kind.

What is worrying in Labor’s current posture is its determination to pursue the debate in the most opportunistic way, ignoring its own philosophy and convictions, and any attempt to assess the merits of a proposal which may or may not be in the public interest, simply to remind us it is not the only party to break a promise.

Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in legal theory and international law.