Moral Disengagement, Honesty, Transparency, Accountability and the Sports Rort

Feb 17, 2020

Generally speaking, most people desire to behave ethically and within moral bounds.

How we determine what is ethical or morally right is not always easy or not always useful, chiefly for politicians where re-elections and approval ratings are paramount. Politicians, in fact frequently obfuscate the truth about issues such as the now infamous sports grants scheme so that they can succeed in elections.

According to the social psychologist Albert Bandura individuals can convince themselves that ethical standards do not apply to them under certain circumstances. There are situations where we can convince ourselves that ethical or moral standards do not apply in a particular situation or for specific individuals. This he calls moral disengagement where a person cognitively justifies and reconstructs unethical or immoral behaviour as moral and serving the greater good, imbuing them with moral purpose in order to make it socially or politically acceptable.

The Auditor-General’s report has concluded that the Coalition used the $100 million of taxpayers’ money to target marginal seats in last year’s election while it was intended to improve sports facilities in need. The unfavourable audit report provoked an angry response from sports clubs who never stood a chance in spite of the hours of work they had put in on their respective applications. They had no chance as the process was not fair, open or accountable. We also know that the reaction from ordinary people and the media has not been favourable either.

Yet we have all heard Scott Morrison and his political colleagues justify again and again the rorting of the sports grants by suggesting that it was all above board, implying that the Auditor General had got it wrong. Phil Gaetjens, Morrison’s former chief of staff and current departmental head concurred with this conclusion. He argued that the only mistake was an oversight by Bridget McKenzie not to report that she was a member of the shooting club to which she granted 36,000 dollars.

At times it sounded like our prime minister and his parliamentary colleagues in fact believed themselves if it was not for the fact that they now repeat the mantra of honesty, transparency and accountability as means by which to administer future grants. Most six year olds can tell you what it means to be honest and fair. Research, including mine, shows that the lack of honesty and fairness is very disturbing even to children as young as four years old. The distribution of the sports grants was neither honest nor fair. Accountability and transparency are not difficult ideas either for most people if we think about it as responsibility and openness. Government’s accountability is about taking responsibility for decisions and laws affecting its citizens and how taxpayer’s money is spent. According to the John Locke Foundation, “Government needs to be open and accountable to taxpayers”. Extending this idea, being in government requires parliamentarians and other officials to act openly in regards to decision making generally and taxpayers’ money in particular (with some exception such as the security of the state). Should politicians be honest, accountable and transparent? It is an enduring question relevant to ethics and moral behaviour.

You can hear again and again Mr Morrison and his parliamentary colleagues using justifications, where they reconstruct dishonest conduct as serving the greater good, restructuring unacceptable conduct into socially acceptable behaviour which serves a higher moral purpose. Recently at the Press Club, Mr Morrison defended Bridget McKenzie’s distribution of sports grants just before the last election to marginal seats with this argument.

“What the government was doing was supporting local community infrastructure projects, all of which were eligible under the program, all of which will make a difference in the community, and there are always more” and “We’re a government that manages public money carefully.”

This is a typical example of moral disengagement. It functions by distorting the association between a person’s actions and the outcome it causes. On the 7:30 Report (4/2) newly-elected Nationals Deputy Leader, David Littleproud argued that although it was perhaps a little too partisan, “Bridget did not break any laws”. How strange can it be, both biased and party political but also legitimate, honest, and open. These are classical examples of moral disengagement using sanitizing euphemism or displacement of responsibility permitting Mr Morrison and his colleagues a way out of the disaster of the sports rort. We have done nothing wrong!

The problem with these and other similar ethically disengaged justifications is that they are dishonest, lacking in openness in its process and with no one willing to take any form of responsibility for the outcome. By their own admission, honesty, transparency and accountability were not guiding principles for the distribution of the sports grant scheme. If they were, the outcome would be quite different.

Dr Rivka T Witenberg is an academic and writer focusing on moral development and tolerance. Latest publication: The psychology of tolerance: Conception and development 

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