Is there such a thing as a ‘private life’ if you’re in public office?

Friday, Mar 2, 2018, 01:53 AM | Source: Pursuit

By Claire Loughnan

Is there such a thing as a 'private life' if you're in public office?


Unethical behaviour by people in office, and the public outcries that follow, are a familiar part of our daily news diet.

Recently, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Brett Guerin's racist comments and former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia Barnaby Joyce's affair with a former staffer, have prompted discussions about what we expect in the workplace and our institutions.

Holding public office, like being a police officer, comes with certain expectations about appropriate conduct. Picture: Getty Images

The public responses in both cases go to the heart of our expectations of those serving us and our institutional values. When someone takes up an 'office' - whether as a political leader, detention guard, migration officer or member of a police force - we have certain expectations about how they conduct themselves in that role.

And while both men have argued their actions were undertaken in private, they run counter to the standards and virtues expected of them as public officers.

Early conceptions of 'holding office'

The expectations of office were clearly marked out a few hundred years ago in early modern history when office holders were expected to display attributes appropriate to their particular office. Holding office entailed a rejection of the pursuit of self-interest and partiality, and ordered our relationships with others. But office also 'humanised' us. Holding office was a source of "dignity... civility and conscience".

This entailed more than simple compliance to a rule. Particular human virtues were central to the performance of office obligations: for the Ancient Greeks, the persona of office also had a moral dimension. Among some accounts from Seventeenth Century England, charity, self-restraint, duty, love, learning, humility and disinterest, were qualities identified as the virtues of office. Office was about conducting oneself well, in accordance with limits and duties.

Moreover, in the continual practice of their duties, those in office were expected to develop competence and expertise. For example, "learning and disinterest" were specifically required of the office of the judge.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Effects of Good Government in the City (1338 - 1339) is part of a series of frescoes by the Italian artist in the Sala della Pace in Siena. The opposite wall depicts bad government. Picture: Wikimedia

Bribery and self-interest would demean or diminish the office. It was therefore important to make sure office holders were fit and proper persons to fulfil the 'persona' of their office.

Failure to meet the obligations of office, whether through 'neglect' or inappropriate conduct, was a regarded as serious matter. Holding individuals accountable could lead to the loss of their office, or worse.

putting ethics First

But that transformation from private individual to public persona in the role of office no longer seems to occur in the same way. As philosopher Raymond Gaita has remarked, contemporary approaches to professional life seem to be marked by a "steadily diminishing understanding that standards may be partly constitutive rather than merely regulative of an activity".

So while office holders should be defined by how they serve, the idea of service to others seems diminished.

Introducing new codes of practice, like the Prime Minister's change to the ministerial code of conduct, which now bans sex with staff members, new policies and allocating more money to public facilities only go part of the way towards redressing this ethical deficit.

The treatment of refugees in offshore detention has prompted mass protests in Australia. Picture: Getty Images

The torture and humiliation of children at Don Dale detention centre, the demeaning 'care' in nursing homes like Oakden in Adelaide and the degrading treatment of refugees in offshore detention, are examples where the convergence of virtue and expertise in office has diminished. This isn't to suggest a 'golden age' of public conduct. However something is deeply amiss in the conduct of 'office' today.

Of course, when spaces communicate a message of punishment or brutality, as in the case of the Don Dale detention centre and our immigration detention centres, this can affect how staff in these settings see their roles. It can also shape how staff regard those they are 'caring for', often leading to acts of brutality and inhumanity that degrade both the office and those who occupy it.

While putting funds into designing more humane spaces, such as in the Northern Territory Youth Justice system, has been shown to be important, the ethical deficit cannot be solved simply with new buildings or better procedural manuals. It requires an appreciation of the historical and ethical origins of office as service to the public and to others.

Those who behave badly in office typically do so while knowing it's inappropriate, whether detention centre guards or our police or political leaders. Addressing this requires a reaffirmation of the ethical foundations of office. Office holding must rest on foundations which can productively contribute to human dignity, and not to its demise.

This is about how we live with others in the world, and not simply something which can be captured in a code or manual for behaviour. It's a question of character, of what we do and how we conduct ourselves towards others.

The public response to the behaviours of Barnaby Joyce and Brett Guerin suggest there is little distinction between public and private when it comes to our expectations of ethical conduct among people holding public office.

Banner image: Getty Images