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Of Good Character? Politicians and the Virtues

Monday, 1 October 2012  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

The most recent Quarterly Essay (Vol. 47, 2012) was David Marr's piece entitled “Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott”. It sought to explore what kind of man is this most successful, yet quite unpopular leader of the Opposition. In detailing the history of his political involvement going back to University days, Abbott is portrayed as a complex individual with many weaknesses and strengths; a bully as well as a charmer. Of all the events related in the essay, one really captured the imagination of the press: an allegation of intimidating behaviour to a woman who had defeated him in an election for the SRC. She said, “He came up to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head” (p. 16). Tony Abbott replied that he had no recollection of the incident and that “it would be profoundly out of character had it occurred” (p.17).


Since the publication of David Marr’s piece, there has been a steady stream of commentary which, to my mind, raises a number of age-old questions relating to the importance of character. One of them is “Which is more important—good character or right actions?” To put this in the political context, without in any way implying this is the choice Australians face at the moment, “Would you rather a Prime Minister who is a good, admirable person, or one who enacts the policies you agree with?” Being of good character was for thousands of years of primary importance in morality, such that the answer to the question “What is the right thing to do?” was answered by “What a person of good character would do in the circumstances”. This was largely true of Christian ethics, too, until the Reformation tended to shift emphasis to doing the right thing by obeying divine commands. Recently, due in large part to the work of Stanley Hauerwas, there has been a revival of interest in character among Protestants with the recognition that Jesus' teaching supports such an approach. In addressing the Pharisees who were meticulous in obeying the rules (doing the right thing), Jesus emphasises that it is the heart, not external actions, which is most important: and that being comes before doing: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit … For a mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:33-35). Later, Jesus says to them, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence…. On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23: 25-28). So should we choose people of good character for decision-making positions, because we could then trust them to do the right thing, to make good and wise decisions. They would, in Jesus terms, bring good things (actions and decisions) out of the good inside them—their heart or character.


How do we recognise a person of good character? Traditionally, it is seen in the possession of certain traits: virtues rather than their opposites, the vices. But which virtues? The question of what counts as a virtue is not as straightforward as it might seem. The 'cardinal virtues' celebrated in antiquity are courage, temperance, practical wisdom (phronesis) and justice. To these, Thomas Aquinas added the 'theological virtues' of faith, hope and love. But we find many others in the scriptures such as the 'fruit of the Spirit' in Galatians 5. A virtue is a character trait a human being needs to flourish or live well. Virtue ethics is teleological: that is, what counts as a virtue depends on what you understand as the goal of human existence. What does human flourishing look like? Different understandings of this will lead to a different virtues being prized (Aristotle considered humility a vice) and different interpretations of these virtues (Aristotle saw courage as demonstrated best in battle, Hauerwas sees it best in martyrdom).


A number of traditional Christian virtues such as chastity and marital fidelity are no longer much admired in liberal societies, and indeed (unlike in the U.S) there seems to be agreement in the media that these aspects of a person’s life should be considered irrelevant to whether they are suitable for leadership in public life. Interestingly, the story in The Quarterly Essay of Abbott’s decision not to marry his pregnant girlfriend because marriage would rule out the priesthood (which at that stage he was still considering) but also applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, received no attention. It was old news, but it also seems that the press is much more forgiving of sexual misdemeanours than other kinds. Yet the issue of fidelity is central to Tony Abbott’s attack on Julia Gillard’s character in relation to her “broken promise” on the carbon tax. Fidelity in some areas is still valued. But surely a disposition to keep or to break promises would be manifest in the whole of a person’s life, not only in a single aspect of it.


Why did the allegation of Tony Abbott’s punching the wall create so much commentary? Public perceptions of Kevin Rudd were also damaged by allegations of losing his temper with a woman (an airline attendant). What do these incidents (if true) tell us about the character of each? And does that have implications for the suitability of either man as a Prime Minister? Of course, we cannot assess someone’s character on the basis of one incident, even if established to be true. We can all act 'out of character' and many of us might have a violent outburst in unusually trying circumstances. Virtues and vices are expressed in dispositions, in habits or patterns of behaviour, not isolated incidents.


Another issue is the degree to which character is inflexible or can be changed. Several commentators were keen to emphasise that the incident allegedly involving Tony Abbott took place during his student days, with the implication that he has matured and left behind such irresponsible behaviour. As Christians, we would want to affirm that people can change, either through habituation and practice (according to Aristotle), though the potential for such change is limited when people rely on their own resources, or more significantly from a Christian perspective, through conversion and being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ.


A certain level of passion and anger, or at least indignation, is expected in politics. Julia Gillard is sometimes accused of being too bland, and arguably is seen at her best when she displays genuine emotion, even anger. On the other hand, the discipline of keeping one’s temper under control is very necessary for politicians, especially in the context of provocation, and often hostility, for example in Parliamentary debates and media interviews. Anyone who had a settled disposition to lose their temper, or to intimidate or bully others would, in my view, not be of the good character required of those in leadership.



Gordon Preece
October 2, 2012, 2:23PM
A fine, typically nuanced piece, Denise. You draw helpful lines between issues arbitrarily kept separate on liberal individualist lines between private and public, like fidelity in marriage and fidelity in word. Also interesting to link Abbott's temper and Rudd's temper both in relation to females. I know it wasn't your brief but The Age front page a couple of days ago had the picture of 30,000 people marching down Sydney Rd, showing solidarity with the murdered Jill Meagher and with women in general, alongside a report of Alan Jones' chronically mysoginist and threatening language towards the PM and other women. Habitual repetition reveals character. It's good to see people standing up to try to stamp out violent language and deeds towards women. It's a spectrum, but it's joined by character or lack of it.

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