Walking the thin line between representation and autonomy has never been easy for politicians, says Rachel Hollick.
For some time now, there has been a growing distrust of politics and politicians. The Edelman Report says Australia has slipped in the list of nations ranked according to trust in politicians from equal 12th last year to 15th. This is from a list of just 28.
Part of this is due to the belief that politicians cannot be relied upon to act in the interests of their constituencies. In other words, given the choice between self-interest and the interests of the people, politicians are believed to consistently act in their own interest, advancing their own agendas and careers rather than concerning themselves with the interests of electors.
History reflects this, with governments often pushing their own legislative agendas contrary to popular opinion. For instance, the Baird government during its term implemented economic reforms largely unpopular with the electorate, which amongst other things included the privatisation of the state’s electricity network.
At first this was considered a betrayal of the public interest, as the majority did not agree with the case for liberalisation and the government seemed to be pursuing what some described as an ideological agenda. The backlash in opinion was swift at the time.
However, when it was revealed that this pursuit of government interest actually benefited the people, they abandoned their original misgivings and began to realign their interests accordingly, in favour of the privatisation.
As such, this raises the concept of government autonomy, whether or not the government should have ability to implement its own legislative agenda independent of the public interest. The concern often being that where government is able to dominate constituent interests this will necessarily lead to abuses of power and negative outcomes.
Sir Edmund Burke highlights in his speech on representation there is a role for the independence of government decisions. This is because where the government is able to exercise its autonomy it can seek the maturity of judgment and consideration which supports the best interests of society and hence outcomes.
After all, we must talk of the distinction between what is considered to be in the collective or public interest, in terms of what should or should not be done legislatively speaking, and what is in the best interest. For while the former is what the majority of society agrees, the latter is a value judgment based on the knowledge and ethical framework of policy makers.
Henceforth, so long as politicians approach the decisions with the seriousness of judgment owed to their constituents, it does not necessarily follow that the autonomy of government leads to abuses of power or negative outcomes claimed by many.
Consequently, we must consider the fact that despite our prejudices government may actually be trying to pursue our best interests, although what that specifically means differs depending on their particular ethical framework. As such, we should as far as possible remain open minded on the issue of government policy, considering its merits rather than focusing on preconceived ideas of what we would have had instead.
After all, we as humans do not have all the answers and pure democracy does not always lead to the best outcomes. As former British prime minister Winston Churchill said: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” ~ Sir Edmund Burke