The decision by the Albanese Government to amend the form of the ‘Stage Three Tax Cuts’ – in breach of a much-repeated election promise – has not only unleashed the predictable storm of criticism from the Federal Opposition. More seriously, it has once again raised the question of integrity in politics. Yet, this is a rare case where a broken promise is in the public interest.

The making and breaking of political promises have a special significance in democracies like Australia. Governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed – and consent is meaningless if it is the product of misleading or deceptive information. That is why politicians who deliberately lie in order to secure power should be denied office. It is also why prospective governments should be extremely cautious when making risky promises.

Yet, to argue that ‘keeping promises’ is an essential aspect of building and maintaining trust and legitimacy does not entail that a promise must be kept under any and every circumstance. There may be times when it is literally impossible to keep one’s word – for example, when a government commits to build a facility in a specific location that is later destroyed in a flood. And then there are circumstances where the context is so fundamentally altered as to make the keeping of a promise an act of folly or worse, irresponsibility. President Zelensky is bound to have made many promises to the people of Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion – at least some of which it would be irresponsible to keep in the middle of a war that threatens the very existence of the State.

Some people – notably those who adopt consequentialist forms of ethical reasoning – will argue that a promise should always be broken if, by doing so, a superior outcome is achieved. Others – notably those who place a higher value on acting in conformance with duty (irrespective of the consequences) – will argue that promises should never be broken. I am not inclined to line up with the ‘purists’ on either side. Instead, I prefer an approach in there is acceptance – across the political spectrum – that:

  1. There is a clear presumption in favour of keeping promises.
  2. Promises may be broken, but with extreme reluctance, when genuinely in the public interest to do so. That is the breach cannot be justified because it advances the private political interests of an individual or party.
  3. Any breach must be only to the extent necessary to realise the public interest – and no more.
  4. Those who break a promise should publicly acknowledge that to do so is wrong and that they are responsible for this choice. That is, they should not seek to deny or lessen the ethical significance of their choice.

Let’s consider how these criteria might be applied in the case of the ‘Stage Three Tax Cuts’.

The key question concerns whether or not it is demonstrably in the public interest to amend the legislated package as it stands. This question cannot be answered by looking at the economic and social implications alone. There is a real risk that trust in government will be eroded – even amongst those who benefit from the changes. And that further erosion in the ‘ethical infrastructure’ of the nation harms us all – not least because of its own tangible economic effects. So, that fact must be weighed in the balance when evaluating the public interest. However, Australia’s ethical infrastructure is also weakened by widening inequality – and by a growing sense of desperation amongst those who feel that their struggles are as much a product of unfairness as they are of forces beyond anyone’s control.

We should never forget that the current cost of living crisis is a form of ethical failure. It was neither inevitable nor necessary. At its root lie the choices made by those who control the levers of economic and political power. As things stand, the community does not trust them to ensure an equitable distribution of burdens and benefits. That widespread popular sentiment is reinforced by daily experience. Ethics – which deals with the way in which choices shape the world we experience – lies at the heart of the current crisis.

So, if changes to the ‘Stage Three Tax Cuts’ can be shown to tilt the table in favour of a more fair and equal Australia, it will have a strong claim to be in the public interest – not least by demonstrating that power can be exercised for the good of all rather than the influential few. Thus, some measure of trust and democratic legitimacy might be restored.

Two final points. First, even with the changes, every Australian taxpayer will continue to be better off than the day before the changes come into effect. To that extent, the policy satisfies the third of the conditions listed above.

Which brings me to the final test: will the Prime Minister and his colleagues accept that the breaking of a political promise is wrong-in-itself – even if necessary to advance the public interest? That would be the brave thing to do. It would involve Anthony Albanese in acknowledging one of the toughest problems in political philosophy – the problem of ‘dirty hands’. This is when a person of principle, as Albanese clearly is, decides to accept the burden of violating their own, deepest ethical sense for the good of others. Then their sense of the moral injury they do to themselves exceeds the bounds of all criticism directed to them by others. They are wounded – and they let us see this.

I believe Anthony Albanese when he says that ‘his word is his bond’. Now, he must own this commitment and acknowledge the cost he and his government must bear in serving the public interest. That will not spare him the pointed criticism of political opponents or of those who sincerely feel their trust betrayed or their interests diminished. However, that honest reckoning is the sacrifice a good person must sometimes make in order better to serve the people.


Image by Mick Tsikas, AAP Photo

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