This is Cristina Neesham’s address in text form, on the role of culture in shaping responsibility and responsible behaviours of those engaged in lobbying and political donations. This was one of the talks given to ICAN, The Independent Community Accountability Network on the theme of “Buying Power”. Note the important point she makes below – that corporations should not be allowed to make donations “since they are not political citizens with voting rights”.
This talk was given at an event held on Wednesday 28th October 2015 in the McPhee Room, Owen Dixon Chambers, 205 William Street Melbourne
ICAN (Independent Community Accountability Network) is a community based organisation dedicated to promoting the accountability, integrity and
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ICAN 28 Oct15 Cristina Neesham
Our last speaker is Dr Cristina Neesham. She is a social philosopher and business ethicist, also interested in business development and corporate governance. Her central areas of research are the philosophy of management and organisations, business ethics and social value theory – and she has published on these topics.
Cristina has taught in several Australian and international universities and is currently based in the Faculty of Business and Law at Swinburne University. Her academic teaching includes, as mentioned, business ethics, business and society, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance, critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making and communications. Cristina is also Chair of the Australasian Business Ethics Network and Member of the Academy of Management and Member of the European Group for Organizational Studies. It’s an absolute feast of responsibilities, so appropriate for tonight.
Cristina, thank you for joining us and welcome.
Thank you everybody for coming to listen to us today and to make this conversation possible. Royce and Ken have already presented the details of the problem and gave suggestions of what might be done about it. As already mentioned, I am joining here as an ethicist and social philosopher – so I’d like to explore a less visible aspect of the problem, to complement what has been said. I will talk about the role of culture in shaping responsibility and responsible behaviours – because I think that, in a sense, we all as citizens, as part of the polis, are playing a part and are therefore responsible. I suggest that the wider community and its culture have a role in somehow indirectly amplifying the problem of political donations.
What worries me about the general attitude of the community towards this problem is the conversion of a lack of trust into cynicism, and then into a blasé attitude. And as paradoxical as it may sound, we are actually being complicit in what is going on by acting, or exactly not acting, in this way. In other words, the questionable behaviour, albeit disapproved of, is in fact normalised.
My contention is that we need a culture of professionalism in politics, and this can only be brought about by us as a public, by citizens demanding professionalism from our politicians – be it through civil society organisations, through social movements, or even individually. Now, how might we be able to do this? We have plenty of examples of how, on a regular basis, traditional professions deal with conflicts of interest.
All professions are exposed to this issue because professions by nature have to protect the public interest and the public interest has to override other, private interests. It happens to doctors when they have to protect the health of the patient and the health of society at the expense of any commercial pressures or enticements. From the Hippocratic Oath to the modern codes of conduct governing the medical profession, the therapeutic relationship has to prevail. It happens with the legal profession in having to uphold the spirit of justice (a public interest) over private interests. It happens to accountants when they have to protect the public interest by disclosing any danger or risk of fraud and by ensuring that the law is complied with.
The wider community governs ethical behaviour in the professions through a social contract. That is, if any professional is licensed to operate by the community, this is based on an explicit or tacit agreement between the profession, the professional and the public, in that the professional is trusted that they will use their privileged knowledge in the interests of the public whenever that is necessary, and that in all such cases the public interest is overriding. This principle can form the basis for a professional code of conduct for politicians – which would make them explicitly and directly accountable to the public for matters where the imperative to protect the public interest is involved.
Of course, just having an explicit code of conduct for politicians does not, in itself, guarantee a change in behaviour. Here, I would say, the integrity of recipients of donations is more important than that of the donors. When the recipients refuse to be compromised, then donors will know that the favours they are hoping for will not be given.
But how do we get our politicians to practise their activities professionally and act in the public interest? Well, how do we (as a community) construct our heroes? Who do we look up to? Who do we choose to support? And for what reasons? Do they provide exemplary leadership? Can we actually list the exemplary behaviours in which they clearly chose to act in the public interest at the expense of other private interests, maybe sacrificing their own private interests? How do we encourage and promote this sort of behaviour? Do we uphold their example in public ceremonies? In schools? To our children? These are only a few suggestions about what we may be able to do as a community to foster a culture that encourages professionalism in politics; and that treats public officials, parliamentarians, politicians in general, as professionals that have to abide by a particular, explicit code of conduct. Of course, to be able to verify publicly that the principle of protecting the public interest has been upheld, we’ll need to have in place all those measures that Royce and Ken suggested about disclosure, etc.
One other point: whenever we talk about donors – I find it very difficult to defend, from an ethical point of view, why corporations should be allowed to make political donations at all – since they are not political citizens with voting rights. If someone might be tempted to invoke liberal principles in support of corporations being allowed to do so, let me remind you that, when discussing his concept of ‘natural liberty’ in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith insisted that it needs to be protected from two main enemies: ‘great men’ and ‘great systems’ – that is, individuals and institutions with a disproportionate amount of power in society.
As political and economic power are to be kept separate, it is the role of government to ensure that natural liberty is delivered for all, and not for some at the expense of others.