Chapter two

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CHAPTER TWO: Principled and Pragmatic Justification of Policy: Distinctions, Compromise and Balance

From time to time, political parties are criticised for being unprincipled, or for being inconsistent with their ideals, or expedient in their policies, or for serving their own political interests. Despite the frequency of these criticisms, there is little elaboration of what is meant by being principled, or exactly how being expedient or self-serving departs from being principled. There is sometimes a tendency to think of a policy as principled if it is in agreement with the principles we happen to favour, and unprincipled if it is not. In the same vein, we are inclined to criticise the parties we support when they do not stick to their principles, and to criticise the parties we do not support, when they do. The judgements in all these cases are made from the point of view of what we might think the correct or most defensible political or social principles are. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Making substantive philosophical judgements about policy is an important part of political analysis, particularly how well a policy is justified from the point of view of principle.(1)

But this way of judging how well-justified a policy is in terms of principle is inappropriate for the current investigation, the purpose of which is to make comparisons between political parties. Whichever way the principled justification of policy is spelt out, its measurement for comparative purposes needs to be conducted along parameters that are commensurable between the quite different political parties being compared. Adopting a particular substantive philosophical position as a critical starting-point would not easily lend itself to an independent and value neutral comparative analysis. Moreover, substantive judgements about the quality of a party s values and ideals are highly disputable, and would themselves be as questionable in their justification as the party values they have been invoked to assess.

It is better to put aside substantive questions about the correctness of a party s principles and to explore party policy and principled justification in a narrower, more neutral way.

Interpretations of Principled Justification

Political parties, whatever else they might be, are organisations. Just like companies, corporations and associations, they exist to further the goals and interests they have. Policies are the vehicles through which political parties seek to realise their fundamental political goals and interests. Needless to say, particular policies and positions succeed in doing this to varying degrees. The policies a party actually adopts will be subject to all manner of influence and limitations, internal and external to it.(2) But still, the primary purpose of policy is to be the instrument of party interests.

It is sometimes argued that the underlying interest of a political party, as an organization, is to gain or maintain power. Certainly, this is an important and crucial interest. But it does not make sense for the fundamental goal of political parties to be power for its own sake. The true value of political power is as a means, a capacity to achieve something else that is valued more fundamentally. It is the realisation in society of this something else the party s values, principles and ideals that is most plausibly taken as the fundamental goal. What this amounts to in reality, of course, will depend on what those values turn out to be, and how they can be achieved. But it is the realisation of a party s values that is the party s raison d etre, and policy is the key instrument by which these are realised. At least that is the primary purpose of policy in a party that seeks its own interests. It makes sense, therefore, for a value-neutral comparative examination of principle and policy to focus on the character of this instrumental relationship.

This still allows of a number of senses and interpretations of being principled or principled justification. The question How justified is this policy in terms of the party s principles? might be understood as asking either of four things about the instrumental relationship between the policy and the party s principles.

  • Firstly, it could be taken as asking how well the outcomes or states of affair expressly sought by the policy are directly consistent with the party s principles and values. In other words, how true to party principle the expressed goals and content of the policy are the degree of principled integrity they reflect.
  • Secondly, that question could be seen as raising a strategic issue. If this particular policy were implemented or advocated in these particular circumstances, would the likely outcome of doing so realise or achieve the party s values more, overall, than any other viable policy option?
  • Thirdly, to justify something is often understood as meaning to actively and expressly defend it. So, asking how well justified a policy is in terms of party principle might be asking how openly and actively it is defended in those terms.
  • Fourthly, justifying a position is sometimes understood as developing or constructing it from scratch through an actual systematic process. Asking how well justified a policy is in terms of principle might, therefore, be asking whether it was actively and deliberately constructed through a systematic principle-guided process of some sort.

The rest of this chapter elaborates some important aspects of these four options and their interrelationships. It will emerge that what it means for a policy to be principled is not a straightforward thing. Policies can be principled in one sense but not in another, and overall judgements as to how principled a party position is, need to take account of this.

Principled Integrity

The first of the senses distinguished above counts a policy as justified in terms of a party s principles when the policy s content directly reflects or exemplifies those principles. In other words, if the social states it expressly describes and recommends in its content, would either follow from the party s underlying values and ideals, or else would not conflict with them. On this view it would not matter how the policy has in fact been developed whether or not the policy has been derived from principles in a real life process of reasoning or deliberation. What matters is the degree of match or integrity between the party s values and principles and what is recommended by the policy. How the policy came to be adopted, how likely its outcomes can be achieved, or what else might happen consequent on achieving them, do not matter when deciding if the policy is justified in terms of its principled integrity.(3)

Although there are sometimes black and white cases of principled integrity, it is seldom an all or nothing thing. Policy content can be consistent or inconsistent with a party s underlying values to varying degrees. A policy expressly endorsing forestry in new growth areas, for instance, can reflect a commitment to employment. But perhaps not as unreservedly as a policy of unrestricted old growth together with new growth forestry. A policy can also reflect a number of party values, and possibly values of differing importance and centrality. Sustainable new growth forestry reflects a commitment to the environment as well as employment. Moreover, a policy might reflect one important party value very well, but be inconsistent with another similarly important one. For example, a policy that recommends detaining and questioning terrorism suspects without legal representation may be strongly consistent with a party s commitment to community security, but be in tension with other important party values.

Because it is not an all or nothing thing, principled integrity is not likely to be measurable in a simple and mechanical way. Rather, it will be a matter of analysis and interpretation, geared to locating a policy conceptually, within a network of intersecting and sometimes competing party values. How well a policy position reflects the values of a party will be a matter of balancing up the positive and the negative in the party values that the policy reflects, taking account of what is best judged to be their respective weights and priorities.

Strategically Principled

With the sense of principled justification just described, it is the expressed content of the policy that is central. But in the second of the senses noted in the dot-points above, it is the practical outcomes of a policy that count how well, in practise, a policy is likely to contribute to the overall achievement of a party s values and ideals compared to other available policy options. Part of what it means to be principled is to want one s principles and values realised to the greatest extent possible, and consequently, to adopt positions or courses of action that appear to have the best prospect of achieving this. There is a sense, then, in which adopting a policy or position is principled if it has the best prospect of realising in society the party s underlying principles and values to a greater degree than the alternatives in the circumstances. Looked at in this way, the most principled policy is the one that would maximise the realisation of the party s values. Less principled policies, in this particular sense, would be ones that realise the party s values to a lesser extent.

What it takes to realise one s values to the greatest extent, however, is often a complex, indirect and strategic thing. Usually, the best way for a party to realise its values is for it to pursue policies that explicitly recommend outcomes which exemplify the party s values better than other policy options. That is, to pursue policies with a high degree of principled integrity. A party s principled commitment to unconstrained freedom of choice in economic matters, for instance, would probably best be realised through policies that recommend zero-tariffs in an unregulated market. Or consider a policy that recommends a universally accessible and state funded public system of health care, compared to an alternative policy that recommends a state subsidised private system that charges in a market-based way. For a party committed to the principle that people s capacity to meet their basic social needs should not depend on their capacity to pay, the former policy would have a greater degree of principled integrity. It is likely also that its successful implementation would realise those party values to a much higher degree than the alternative. As was said, though, there are complexities in seeking to realise a party s values to the greatest degree. The next few paragraphs elaborate the more important of these complexities.

Strategically Negotiating Circumstances

Maximising party values in practise is very much subject to chance and circumstance. Politics operates in the circumstances of everyday life, and sometimes those circumstances break the seemingly natural connection between adopting a policy with the highest degree of principled integrity, and realising the party s ideals to the greatest degree. It might turn out that, in the circumstances, the philosophically most pure party policy just cannot realistically be implemented (e.g. nationalising the means of production), and a policy of lesser principled integrity (but as close as possible) would need to be adopted instead. Or prevailing conditions might render a highly principled policy counter-productive in some way, and to such degree that a policy of lesser principled integrity would be better at realising the party s values to the greatest degree overall. Consider again the earlier example about health. Circumstances may be such that there is already widespread and entrenched use of a state subsidised private health sector (e.g. for mostly elective treatments), and removal of that state subsidy would lead to such greatly increased pressure on the public system for elective purposes that its capacity to minister to people s non-elective health needs would be severely undermined. In these circumstances, if a party values the servicing of health-needs, it would make strategic sense for it to opt for a less than ideal alternative, from the point of view of principled integrity, and allow the private system to stay in place, or at least to opt for a transitional change. In the less than perfect circumstances of day to day politics, sometimes the best way a party can achieve its ideals is to opt for a second-best policy from the point of view of principled integrity.

Strategically Negotiating Electoral Advantage

This last observation is especially true of another importantly strategic dimension of principled policy formation what it might take for a party to acquire or maintain political power. Even though it has been argued that political power is not the fundamental goal for political parties, it is an essential means to what is that goal realising in society what it values. The impact that a policy has on a party s chances of acquiring or maintaining power the electoral advantage or disadvantage it promises ought to always be an important strategic factor in a party deciding whether to pursue that policy. It would be irrational, and unprincipled in the strategic sense, for a party not to have this at the forefront of its policy deliberations. It would be self-defeating, for example, to pursue or advocate a policy or position that electorally disadvantaged the party so much that its opportunity to realise its ideals in society would be seriously undermined. This might even be the case when the potentially disadvantaging policy is highly consistent with the party s ideals. Robert Manne illustrates this point well in his observations concerning John Hewson s response to the ALP s anti-protectionist policies:

An opposition to Labor s anti-protectionist policies (in the 1980s), especially their acceleration during the recession, would have struck powerful populist chords. However, such arguments were verboten to the Liberal leadership on ideological grounds In its commitment to economic rationalism, in its hostility to the special pleading of vested interests , the Liberal leadership has appeared to be far more interested in theoretical purity than political power.(4)

Manne goes on to state that polls and surveys at the time indicated that Australians were in favour of protectionism.

A similar situation applied in the case of Arthur Calwell s opposition to the Vietnam War. Although this opposition was consistent with ALP principles, it was inconsistent with popular opinion at the time, and it has been argued that Calwell s position contributed to the defeat of the ALP in the 1966 election. The point of these examples is that what really matters from the strategically principled point of view is how much the pursuit of a particular policy in particular circumstances contributes to or detracts from a party s overall capacity to realise its ideals. To be strategically principled, each policy needs to be assessed in terms of its impacts on the successful realisation of a party s ideals overall.

Paradoxically, in the context of political power, the best way to realise one s principles might not be to inflexibly respect them at each and every turn. As suggested, pursuing a policy of great integrity might still not serve the party s values as much in the long run as some other less philosophically pure policy. In such cases, it makes sense to give a bit of ground here and there, to gain or keep a lot more of it elsewhere. It is rational, for instance, for the ALP to go against the grain and accede to the Private Health Insurance Rebate, or for the Coalition to support the idea of Medicare, so there is a better chance of gaining or maintaining power, to more comprehensively implement the party s other principled commitments. Maximising the realisation of a party s values might also mean it having to do a deal on the GST, to maintain ongoing influence on parliamentary outcomes. Or it might mean being a small target, and not putting up a robust policy agenda to get knocked down at the next election. It might also mean a party or a leader relinquishing internal party discipline over a policy, and giving party members a free vote on an issue, to minimise the impacts of internal dissent on the party s electoral success. Or it might mean the Greens suggesting that Green voters should instead vote for the ALP, if for instance the ALP undertakes to preserve the Tasmanian wilderness.

Electoral advantage can also be gained by adopting policy positions that electorally disadvantage one s opponents. This is the aim of wedge politics adopting policy positions on matters one s political opponents have strongly differing views about. Inducing a divisive debate among one s opponents has the potential to weaken their unity and effectiveness, and in turn, their electoral appeal. For example, the Coalition s introduction in 2000 of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act to allow the states to discriminate against single women in accessing assisted reproduction, arguably had the potential to induce a split on the issue between factional elements in the ALP. Similarly, the move by the Coalition in May 2004 to insert into the Marriage Act a specifically heterosexual definition of marriage (to exclude gay marriages ) could be seen in terms of wedge politics. Whether or not this view about marriage is held widely in the Coalition, or follows strongly from either of the Coalition parties core principles, pursuing the amendment can still be considered principled in the strategic sense.(5)

Polling and principle

One significant thing to emerge from this discussion of strategically principled justification is that polling has a legitimate place in principled politics.(6) Shaping policy on the basis of polling and survey results is sometimes taken to be the paradigm of unprincipled politics. But to the extent that polling is an especially useful strategic tool, it can clearly serve the pursuit of principles and ideals. This is not just true of poll-guided policy public opinion merely being factored-in along with other considerations, to develop or choose policy but also, arguably, poll-driven policy public opinion being the dominant factor in policy formation and selection. There may well be times and circumstances where realising a party s values is best achieved by it pursuing policies that simply cause the electorate to see the party favourably, even when the content of those policies does not especially reflect party principles.

Once this strategic sense of principle is recognised, the distinction between principled and pragmatic or expedient policy is shown to be a false one. What is genuine and relevant is the distinction between policies that are more instrumental in realising the party s principles and values in society, and those that are less instrumental.

Principled Defence

Actively defending something is perhaps the most recognisable sense of justification . To defend a position in terms of principle is to seek to persuade or explain to people, through reasoning from principles, that it makes sense to agree with or adopt that position. A principled defence is an act of persuading or explaining on the basis of principle. The capacity to plausibly defend a policy on the basis of the party s principles can depend very much on how consistent the content of the policy is with those principles (i.e. its degree of principled integrity).

Principled Process

Justification in the sense described just above is after the fact where principle is appealed to in support of a policy position that has already been formed (although not necessarily adopted or implemented). This differs from a fourth sense of principled justification, according to which a policy is actively and consciously formed through a step by step process guided by considerations of principle. Typically, there are both formal and informal processes operating to shape policy in parliamentary parties, the former including policy committees, party-room meetings, the role of ministers offices; the latter reflecting the likes of lobby group pressures, and the preferences and pronouncements of the party leaders.

Trade-offs, Commitment to Principle and Party Identity

These four senses of principled justification will inevitably interact with each other, often in ways that are in tension. Perhaps the most interesting tension is the one alluded to just above, between the imperative to keep policies as faithful to party values as possible, and the strategic imperative to ensure that the policies a party pursues actually maximise the realisation of its ideals overall or in the long run, even if the content of those policies diverge from party values on occasion. The fact that in Australia there is a considerable pool of swinging voters, and the fact that not all committed party supporters will agree with everything their party endorses, both guarantee that there will be no shortage of occasions for tension between these two imperatives.

The important question, though, is how those tensions are best resolved by a party. Should principled integrity always give way to the strategic maximisation of party values? Is a party s principled integrity always tradeable when there is something to gain from a trade-off in the way of more party value realised in the long run? For a rational party, the answer to these questions must always be yes. Where the gain in party values realised is greater overall than the value lost in compromising the party s principles on some occasion, then compromising them is the rational thing for a party to do.

With this said, however, there are some crucial qualifications to be made. Some principled commitments may be so deep and central to a party s conception of its identity that it would take a very great deal for the party to act contrary to them. To say that a party s principled integrity can be justifiably overridden, is by no means to say that it will or should be easily overridden. The greater weight that parties give to what might be their deeper or core ideals gives them a degree of inertia . While a party s core ideals are not completely immovable or unbreachable, a party would have to be posed with a very considerable potential loss in the realisation of its ideals (or a substantial gain foregone), for it to undergo a compromise of its core commitments. A political party that is rational will arguably be conservative about compromising its core values, and will do so only when it has to, and to the least degree necessary to achieve the greater benefit that it anticipates from the compromise. The inertia a rational party will have about its core values might be thought of as providing a counter-balance that helps preserve the party s identity, or what it stands for, in the face of the strategic demands and compromises forced by everyday politics and circumstance.

Negotiating the Right Balance

It was said above, that a rational political party will always adopt or advocate policies that maximise the overall realisation of its values for the long run, but that on some occasions this means advocating policies with content that is not very consistent with party principles. The most important skill a party can have from the point of view of principle is to be able to determine what the right thing to do is in each policy situation to know when to advocate a policy whose content is highly principled, and when to advocate a policy of lesser principled integrity in the hope it might realise more value for the party in the end. There are dangers in erring on either side. The danger in sticking to party guns on every occasion, and being rigidly principled, is that the party may lessen its prospects of electoral success and the opportunity to realise its ideals more for the long term. The danger in not being principled enough in the policies the party advocates is perhaps more serious. A party that allows its deeper ideals to be compromised too easily, compromises its identity, and becomes open to the charge that it stands for nothing. In speaking of the ALP and poll-driven politics Don Watson put the same point like this:

Of course, you can t ignore the polls, but if you make yourself their dummy you will look at best characterless and silly, at worst downright craven This is the radical consequence of poll-driven politics. You lack definition You don t say what you hold to, but instead, offer your take on what your audience holds to. (7)

The threat to identity is arguably not just about electoral perception that the electorate will lose sight of what is at the heart of a party that constantly shifts in its values. The potential threat is to the actual philosophical identity of a party. In failing to be sufficiently steadfast in its values, and in constantly compromising them, a party is at risk of becoming alienated from itself. Its policies no longer ring true, and its sense of commitment to something important slowly withers away.

Steering the right course between these extremes is a matter of skill and judgement. Two types of wisdom are called for. Firstly, practical wisdom accurately discerning the character of the circumstances in which a policy is to be implemented, what practical possibilities it allows, and what the electoral and social consequences of pursuing those possibilities are. Here, making judicious use of polling and electoral information is crucial. Secondly, philosophical wisdom knowing what it is that the party values most and how much, having a determinate sense of what values are more tradeable, which less, and under what conditions. The first wisdom is a technical one, and although the level of information and prediction required is complex, it is relatively clear what is needed. What the second wisdom requires, though what processes and dispositions a party needs in order to know itself in the right ways is more difficult to tie down, and is likely to depend very much on the party in question and what it traditionally looks to as the source or reference points for its values and ideals. A party where the leader traditionally plays the central role in setting the value agenda will require different things in order to know itself, compared to a party whose ideals are negotiated from a plurality of internal or external perspectives, for example.

Principled Constraints on Parties Pursuing their Values

It was said at the beginning that the fundamental mission of any political party is to maximise the realisation of its values and ideals in society. But does this mean that any policy or position a party puts forward, no matter what its content, is justified in principle as long as it achieves this goal? Well, in terms of the instrumentalist sense of principled justification being focused on here, the answer would be yes. But this is not the only, nor primary, sense in which a policy or position can be principled or not. There is a non-instrumentalist sense, and this is connected with the likes of honesty, truth-telling and due regard for evidence values that are commonly accepted as having impartial ethical weight independently of party or political perspectives. They have status as fundamental ethical constraints on party behaviour. So, even when deceiving the electorate would significantly enhance a party s chances of realising its party political values, the imperative to tell the truth has greater weight from an independent point of view, and arguably, that imperative should normally prevail.

The same can be said about the relationship between policy and evidence. If the best available evidence and information shows that a particular policy measure will not achieve its intended goals nearly as well as another, the evidence ought normally be respected and it should not be favoured over the other. Of course, there is often controversy and disagreement about what the evidence is, or what it shows, or what force or weight it has, especially in the context of complex social issues. And it is no secret that political parties, wishing to pursue their ideals, will sometimes exploit the controversy and disagreement to that effect.

Is truth in politics ever subject to bargaining and compromise? Is it ever justified, from an impartial ethical point of view, for a party deliberately to deceive or mislead the public? While it is arguably not justified if the deception is perpetrated for the sake of the party s interests, there may be limited circumstances where it is in the general public s interests for the government to withhold the truth from the public (e.g. where security is directly threatened). To that extent it may be justified.

Principle versus Pragmatism: What is the Genuine Issue?

The foregoing analysis has sought to clarify some of the basic distinctions and conceptual terrain surrounding the idea of principled policy. That analysis was undertaken as groundwork for the proposed case-study investigation of recent policy formation in Australia s two major parties in the context of partisan de-alignment. A case-study aimed at discerning the relative prevalence of principle and pragmatism in the parties policies would not get far without a credible conceptual view on where principled policy ends and pragmatic policy begins.

But the preceding analysis presents a problem for this. A key observation emerging from the analysis is that the distinction between principled and pragmatic policy turns out not to be a valid one. Pragmatically developed policy (i.e. in the sense of a party s pursuit of its self-interest) can be principled strategically principled. However, this does not mean that there is no longer an issue of pragmatism and principle that can be investigated in a case study, only that the right emphasis needs to be adopted.

It was initially thought that where there is an increasing pool of swinging voters, there is a risk that the policies of competing parties will be less a reflection of the parties ideals and principles than a pragmatic reflection of what is thought necessary to win those voters over at election time. There would be pressure on parties to compromise or ignore their ideals, in other words. But as has been argued at length, not all cases where a party advocates policy in order to win voters over will be unprincipled. But still, with the increased pressure to attract swinging voters, there may come increased likelihood of strategic compromises of principle which are misjudged where, for example, core party values are compromised in a way that puts at risk a party s philosophical identity (as well as what it is electorally perceived as standing for ).

In view of this, the case-study in the next chapter will seek to throw light on whether the dominant election policies of the two major Australian parties at the 2004 election maintained integrity with party principles, or whether they strategically diverged from them and, if so, whether any such divergences were potentially problematic from the point of view of the parties real or perceived philosophical identities.


  1. Plato, 390BC.
  2. Although this will not be entered into in any depth here, it is recognised throughout that the policies and positions a parliamentary party ultimately adopts will be a function of many influences and will have a number of possible origins. Nonetheless, it is equally important to recognise that whatever their origin, the policies a party adopts are adopted according to its perceived interests and ideals at the time in the circumstances. For a discussion of the varied sources of policy influence, see Marsh, 2000.
  3. Each of these are relevant to other dimensions of principled justification, however.
  4. Manne, 1994, p. 35.
  5. Some argued that this did not give the Coalition greater electoral advantage. See Grattan, 2004.
  6. Independent of the imperative for politics to be representative, that is.
  7. Watson, 2003, p. 35 36.