THE idea that what matters, in politics or elsewhere, is that ‘things get done’ is a very common attitude.

We have all heard it expressed by politicians, from almost all levels of government, as well as by CEOs, company executives, managers, public administrators and others. Often it is an attitude that comes from good motives – from a desire to see things happens rather than merely be talked about, from a desire to see real improvements in people’s circumstances, from a desire to make the world a better place.

But it is also a very dangerous attitude.

At its extreme it is exactly the attitude that was exemplified in the 1930s by fascist politicians in Germany, Italy and Spain – politicians who talked about the importance of action, and were therefore contemptuous of democratic or even judicial process (in the case of the Italian fascists under Mussolini, it was nicely captured in the idea that at least they would’ get the trains running on time’).

It is also the attitude that underpins the actions of ‘strongman’ politicians in third world countries around the world. The emphasis on ‘action’ and ‘results’, and the politics of machismo that surrounds it (perhaps best exemplified by Mussolini, as well as by some politicians closer to home), is almost always accompanied by the idea that in the ‘real world’, we cannot afford to waste time on ethical niceties, on consultation and process – these are supposedly luxuries that belong to an ideal world in which we do not actually live.

This latter idea is one that I have myself heard expressed in recent weeks by prominent supporters of the Government’s intervention in the Pulp Mill ‘assessment’ (or as now seems quite clear) ‘approval’ process. The irony is that this emphasis on ‘action’, and ‘results’, and the disregard of ethical propriety and democratic process, is almost always accompanied by short-term and narrow-minded thinking, by poor and often inept decision-making, and usually leads to disastrous outcomes in the long-term.

That is certainly the lesson of Germany and Italy in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as of third-world politics the world over, but it is also demonstrated by many more less extreme examples. In the business world, it is quite clear that this sort of approach, while sometimes productive of short-term success, is always a recipe for long term failure – the only exceptions are those cases in which inept and unethical management is allowed to continue through the support of similarly unscrupulous governmental officers and agencies (again this is characteristic of many third world regimes).

The many recent examples of corporate failure and corporate scandal, from HIH to Enron to AWB, have many of the hallmarks of an attitude towards management and business operation in which ethical concerns have been disregarded in pursuit of particular ‘results’, and in which the supposed demands of the ‘real situation’ have been allowed to over-ride basic principles of good decision making and proper conduct. The fact is that the rhetoric of ‘results’, ‘action’, and the demands of the ‘real world’ almost always comes down to a desire to solve problems by just imposing one’s own will on the situation.

Thus the complex issues concerning whether a particular industrial facility should be built, or a land development should proceed, or how scarce resources should be allocated are made simple through one person (or a small group of people) deciding that he or she will cut through the red tape and ‘make it happen’. This sort of unilateral decision-making cuts short the deliberative process, but it is also arbitrary and very, very risky.

It is also a style of operation that is not only to be found among politicians or corporate executives – most of us have experience of the manager or supervisor who operates in much the same way. In fact, often the ‘tough’ manager, the one who ‘gets results’, is precisely the person who gets promoted. Yet we know from a vast body of research into the way organizations operate that these are the very same people who tend to be destructive of organizational effectiveness – they typically undermine staff morale, damage relations between staff, are dismissive of regulative constraints, and promote a ‘cowboy’ style of operation that is highly dangerous.

I have heard such people refereed to within the public sector as ‘recalcitrant managers’, and I have myself sometimes been asked to provide advice to organizations on how best to deal with these sorts of problematic people. The trouble is, in many cases, these are the very people who rise to the top, and so their problematic style of leadership becomes a model for others and can even infiltrate the entire organization. Of course, what happens within organizations can also happen within a Government or across a community, and one of the concerns that I have, as a professional philosopher and ethicist, is that the ethical breakdown that seems evident at various levels of Government in Tasmania is itself becoming a more widespread phenomenon.

Perhaps it has always been so – perhaps Tasmanians have simply been willing to acquiesce in a level of arbitrariness in decision-making, of political bullying and cronyism, of secretiveness and under-the-table deals at all levels of the society. I would hope that this is not the case, and yet I suspect that one of the major reasons for Tasmania’s recurrent economic difficulties is the prevalence of just this sort of unethical conduct and the narrowly based and short-term thinking that goes with it.

The fact is that good, reliable decision-making itself requires a high level of ethical expertise. The reason is simple: good decision-making requires taking a wide view, looking at a range of options and taking account of a variety of factors and interests – it requires recognition of the fact that our initial commitments and conceptions could turn out to be wrong or ill-judged. Ethics is essentially about the nature and quality of the decisions we make, and it demands that we make those decisions in ways that do indeed adopt a wide view, considering a range of options, taking account of many different factors and interests.

Ethics, whether in business, politics or elsewhere, is not a luxury. It is basic to effective operations in every domain of life. To disregard the demands of ethics is to disregard the complexity of the world we live in, and to disregard the way we are always tied in to a network of relationships. We know from history that that those leaders who talk most about ‘results’ and ‘action’ are the leaders whom we should be most suspicious. As Tasmanians, and as Australians, we ought to be requiring of our leaders and decision-makers, but especially our politicians, more than this sort of simplistic approach to the issues of the day; we should be demanding a much higher standard of ethical conduct, and so a much higher standard of leadership as well as administrative expertise.

I suspect that today, in Tasmania of 2007, the only way we can begin to move in this direction is to establish not merely a an Anti-Corruption Commission, but more than just this, a Commission for Ethics in Government that would be able not only to pursue cases of both illegal and ethical corrupt practice, but would also be able to set standards for ethical conduct and promote those standards across the entire public sector.

In this way, we may actually do more to improve the quality of life in Tasmania, for all Tasmanians, than by any other single measure. This would be a ‘result’ of which we could be truly proud.

Jeff Malpas, UTAS, is a philosopher and ethicist.

Jeff Malpas

Perhaps it has always been so – perhaps Tasmanians have simply been willing to acquiesce in a level of arbitrariness in decision-making, of political bullying and cronyism, of secretiveness and under-the-table deals at all levels of the society. I would hope that this is not the case, and yet I suspect that one of the major reasons for Tasmania’s recurrent economic difficulties is the prevalence of just this sort of unethical conduct and the narrowly based and short-term thinking that goes with it.