While a popular view aligns Liberals with conservative values and personal freedom, and Labor with egalitarian values and social reform, no-one argues that freedom and fairness are incompatible – Australians, in particular, enjoy a high standard across the board.

When times are good Labor is not bothered by excessive profits and Liberals are happy to fund health, education and welfare. Hence a major factor is how well the economy is managed – the Treasurer is never far from centre-stage in the theatre of politics. It is a challenging task, given the inexact nature of economic science and the vagaries of global trade, international politics, wars and natural and financial disasters.

There is, however, a factor which may undermine his efforts regardless of these forces and the skills he brings to the job. This is his sense of the values he sees himself as defending. In recent times the Treasurer has been shocked and dismayed to find his budget widely condemned, including by leaders in the world of arts, education, business and industry. Their concern is that he does not understand what fairness means.

This criticism applied to the (now abandoned) parental leave scheme, a favourite of the Prime Minister, who believes working mothers should be treated equally in terms of reimbursement of salaries by government. Abbott also argued, in much the same off-the cuff way, that this would not be a burden on the revenue if the scheme were funded by large corporations.

The same criticism applied to the six-month gap before unemployment relief kicks in, the 20% cuts to tertiary funding and to the co-payment, meant to send ‘a price signal’ to deter needless visits to doctors and create ‘the biggest medical research endowment fund in the world’. There was, however, no attempt to justify the claim of over-use, nor explain why those on low incomes should fund the research.

A need to clarify what fairness means

Critics see this lack of fairness as pervasive, with a reluctance to reduce the ‘debt deficit’ by ending the exploitation of superannuation schemes, negative gearing, income-splitting devices and other tax-avoidance methods available to those on high incomes. Nor, it seems, did the Treasurer ask himself if taxes should be increased on the wealthy before services were cut to the poor – this was ruled out by election promises, as was any increase in the GST.

All of which suggests a need to clarify what fairness means. In political theory it means each citizen has equal value. This calls for treatment ‘as equals’, which may not be the same as ‘equal treatment’. It means those who choose not to work cannot complain when others reap the rewards of their work. But it also rules out giving taxed funds to the wealthy in a scheme to aid working mothers; this ignores the difference between those in need and those who can afford to make their own arrangements.

The problem with the budget was its superficial interpretation of fairness as a political principle – When Abbott, Hockey, Mathias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg committed themselves to equal treatment of working mothers, they assumed it must be fair because the percentage of salaries paid out was the same. This formulaic approach opened the door to what must have seemed a politically-expedient policy.

A famous example of the need to ask if equal treatment is fair is the 1954 American civil rights ruling in Brown v Board of Education. For decades the Supreme Court had said the ‘equal protection’ clause of the Bill of Rights was satisfied by equal per capita funding in separate schools. In rejecting this interpretation the Court in Brown found it had engrained a deep sense of inferiority in black children, discouraging them from the trades and professions – the effect had been to condemn blacks to a low standard of living.

Certain assumptions underlying capitalist economies are simply wrong

While no-one thinks their own judgments are unfair, few politicians seem prepared to treat questions of fairness and social justice with anything like this commitment to realism, scholarship and common sense. One reason may be a reluctance to accept the underlying idea of treatment as equals, which calls for equal respect for citizens as such, and equal concern for their interests as members of the same community.

This ideal, if taken seriously, must challenge any theory of political duty. It is implicit in the work of economists Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, who believe that certain assumptions underlying capitalist economies are simply wrong – and that government oversight is needed to counter market forces which see extreme disparities in wealth, but little or no relief for those in need.

It offers a guide for politicians who have no clear sense of the duty they owe the community, or how it relates to the duty they owe their party. If arguments over the requirement of fairness and freedom are a natural and necessary part of any political system which respects these principles, governments must, in much the same way as courts of justice, look to the best interpretation.

This aspirational idea of political duty challenges the current polarisation of political debate, and the scepticism about values which appears to underlie it. In particular it questions assumptions behind popular metaphors like ‘safety net’, and ‘trickle down’, which portray minimum standards of education and welfare as concessions to a sense of decency and good will – more like a charity or benevolent society than the requirement of a duty to recognise an important right.