July 27th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

TRADE: Sugar industry study backs failed policies, not new solutions

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: SA Govt to ignore Drug Summit call for harm minimisation?

ICC: a clarification (letter)

It's a cruel world ... (letter)

Welfare equity? (letter)

Islam and Australia (letter)

COMMENT: After Cheryl Kernot - character is important in public life

ASIA: Hong Kong: deflation and Big Brother

BIOETHICS: It's fact - life begins at fertilisation

COMMENT: Liability insurance and the abortion industry

COMMENT: How to uphold Australian 'culture' - plagiarise

BOOKS: 'ALIVE: The True Story of the Andes Survivors', by Piers Paul Read

COVER STORY: Why the Kashmir conflict won't go nuclear

EDITORIAL: The maternity leave morass

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Telstra sale splits minor parties - but will it be enough?

Government should act to secure super savings

MEDICAL SCIENCE: Nerve cells used in spinal cord regeneration trial

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Empty vessels at the old corral / Short-termism

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After Cheryl Kernot - character is important in public life

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, July 27, 2002
It is interesting to hear the moral posturing that emerges after some politician is caught with his or her pants down. With yet another revelation of political immorality, former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett started sounding like a theology student: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. None of us are Christ-like. This is an unnecessary breach of a person's private life."

This is a good example of the sort of fuzzy thinking going on concerning the issue of public versus private morality.

We are being told that we must keep the private life of political figures separate from their public performance.

Politicians' personal lives, in other words, should not concern us. As long as a politician delivers on the economy, or jobs, or whatever, the way they live at home should bother no one.

However, such a view just doesn't stand up under close scrutiny. What we are talking about here is the issue of character. The issue is not muckraking, or dragging up the past, or politicians being put under the spotlight.


A politician, like any public leader, should have certain standards. We expect that politicians bring many qualities to the job, among them, honesty, loyalty, commitment and faithfulness.

Character is all of one piece: something that effects the whole person, both private and public. What a person does in private tells us a lot about what that person will be like in public. If a person is willing to cheat on his wife for example, is it not likely that he will also cheat on the electorate?

This false dichotomy between private and public life just does not hold water. If a person is known for dishonest financial dealings with family and friends, surely that tells us how the person will act as a treasurer, bank manager or politician. If a person is known to be a chronic liar, surely that fact is relevant to whether that person should be voted for.

This is not a question of being judgmental and throwing the first stone. We all need to be judged, and self-judgment is the best place to begin.

But a society that says a person's moral condition has, or should have, no bearing on public life is asking for, and will get, trouble.

One might as well dispense with the police, law courts and any other semblance of morality. All societies, and all individuals, need a moral code to survive. Moral anarchy may sound good in theory but is not possible in practice.

The bottom line in all this is the issue of integrity.

Integrity still matters. Simply defined, integrity is the difference between what you say and what you do. Or put another way, integrity is what you do when no one is looking.

Character counts, both in public and in private. And in a relativistic age such as ours, it matters even more.

Our real problems today are not economic problems. Nor are they political problems. Our real problems have to do with values, with character, with morality.

A country can survive a current account deficit, but it cannot for long survive a value deficit. And the first place to begin in restoring this value deficit is to reaffirm character, integrity and morality, both private and public.

It is interesting to note that character was the only consideration enumerated by the American founding fathers as relevant to qualifications to serve in public office. A person's politics, philosophy or ideology may be important, but the most important qualification is character.

Character counts

Without good character, good government is not possible. Indeed, more than one commentator has noted that morality, more than anything else, is the key to a healthy and lasting democracy.

Politics skills can be learned, policies adjusted. But without character, a nation will soon flounder on the rocks of moral relativism.

We are seeing such an unravelling of the commonweal now. The need for leadership based on character and values is now our most pressing need.

We need to recall the words of George Washington in his farewell address:

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."

We have paid a terrible price in the false separation of morality from social problems. Australia's (and America's) rising tide of social pathology will only be reversed when we once again acknowledge that character and morality are not optional extras, but are the essence of civilised society.

  • Bill Muehlenberg is National Vice President of the Australian Family Association

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