1Q: How relevant are motives?

‘How relevant are motives in assessing the public policies stance of a politician or commentator?’

In another round of cross-blog postings on a single question, a range of blogs are posting on the question of ‘How relevant are motives in assessing the public policies stance of a politician or commentator?

Seeing I’m a politician, you can all answer the question for yourself by considering how much you are taking into account what you think my motives are when you assess what I say on this question (or any other question).

It’s no secret my short-term motive is to get re-elected to the Senate in Queensland at this year’s election. It is also no secret that this will not be particularly easy, although it is certainly achievable. So a person could dismiss every comment I make by assuming that I’m only saying it to try to get re-elected.

It is certainly true that I hope what I say and do does help me get re-elected, but that doesn’t mean that what I say is dishonest or disingenuous or without substance. My arguments should still stand or fall on their own merits.

One of the reasons I usually try to avoid using this blog as a vehicle for blatant partisan political party promotion is because I feel people who I am trying to convince of something would just discount much of what I say as being self-serving. Instead, I try to use the substance of the argument to try to convince people, rather than take an approach which relies on asserting something is right just because it’s me or the Democrats saying it. Hopefully this will make them more likely to be convinced by whatever position it is I am arguing.

There’s no cut and dried line between these things, more a matter of emphasis, and I think the same applies with the question. It is useful to take into account a person’s motive in assessing the substance of their position, particularly if you only have limited time or other information. But a person’s motive does not in itself establish whether what they are saying is accurate or not.

I try very hard to consider every argument on its merits, rather than on who is saying it. However, it is human nature (and just a more efficient use of time) to take into account what you know about a person’s motives and record. I need more convincing about an argument if it comes from someone I know has a record of sophistry or exaggeration. And of course, knowing a person’s broader political orientation, motives or beliefs can help in filling the wider context that may underlie the person’s arguments.

Of course in politics, there is a greater than usual expectation that the speaker might not be telling the truth, or at least not the whole truth. That means looking at motive can carry greater weight than usual. But as Harry Clarke notes, exposing the motive behind an opinion does not itself mean that it is false. Just because John Howard doesn’t have a genuine commitment to addressing climate change does not in itself mean that any policy proposal he puts up on the issue will be flawed. However, it does mean he is less likely to actually keep his word on implementing such a policy.

Which brings me back to my key motive, which is to take every opportunity to remind people that making the Senate independent of the government of the day once again, and having effective, reliable people in the balance of power is one of the best ways to make sure governments keep their word, act more openly and implement good policy, whatever their other motives are.

You can read other posts responding to this question at:

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12 Comments

  1. I’d argue motives are incredibly important. While your point is interesting, saying John Howards late reaction to climate change not necessitating every option he puts forward will be flawed, motive remains important, particularly in terms of a political analysis. One need only look at his obsession with nuclear power to see the issue remains a political football, and his motive remains to upstage the opposition.

    The thing politicians, with all of their advisers, their focus groups, their agendas and so on don’t realise, is that in an attempt to avoid offending anyone, they simply alienate everyone. As soon as you tune in long enough to hear the “talk”, the talk of outcomes, non-committal answers, not answering questions, blaming the other side, etc, no one is listening. I honestly wonder why they bother. Just show us who you really are.

    A few months ago, there was an interview with Jackie Kelly and Tanya Plibersek on Sky News. From a personal perspective, it was a turning point. I’m half way through my fourth year of a political science, and law degree. I began with the intention of becoming a politician, not strongly aligned to any party, but progressive, and interested in making a difference, as I guess most politicians begin. However I was ready to throw it all away. Watching Morris Iemma during the NSW election continually referring to NSW residents not being forced to drink recycled “sewerage”, the politicisation of the issue, watching John Howard’s utterly shallow attempt to jump on the bandwagon after 10 long years. There are so many knowledgeable, intelligent, interesting people throughout the community, with so many ideas about how we can, and how we need to improve this country. Yet all we see from politicians is an attempt to become re-elected, to get one up on the other side, the preserve their bloody position on the front bench. No thought’s as to the future of this country!!…. (continued)

  2. (Forgive me for using two posts)
    As long as their little seat is ok, never mind the 20 million of us desperate for something better.
    But the interview, Kelly and Plibersek were almost falling over themselves to agree, to come to some consensus on the important issues, and support the passage of change. It was SO unbelievably refreshing, and made me believe perhaps politics does have a future in this country.
    While on the whole its not necessarily a good thing for the parties to agree, and this is where minor parties come in, shining the light on issues which are ignored by major parties, this genuine attempt completely changed my perspective. It left me feeling, while I may not agree with everything a politician (And certainly Jackie Kelly says), her intention, her motive is to improve Australia. Knowing this, I am more likely to understand, and even support her position.
    No wonder there has been a drain of progressive people to the private sector, out of government, and public service ranks, who could be bothered with politics. Who knows where you’ll stand with supposed colleagues, why would you give your life up, in order to spin and lie and duck and weave.
    Politicians have a lot of opportunities, show us your genuine intentions, remind people why you became involved, and how you want to make a difference, you never know, might just get you elected.
    I guess my point is, I believe intention is important. And I also believe, unlike politicians seem to fear, I think if people understand your genuine intention, even if they don’t necessarily agree, it may just prove a winning formula.

  3. Cleo is amusing,one TV appearance and maybe there is hope for politics and the the country.And progressive people have moved where and why!? Support that contention with evidence that has durable qualities to it,rather than claim a virtue where there is no apparent evidence. IF, Cleo is an example of a would be,but cannot because…..not much really even from the political studies Terts.I found your remarks Senator,really worthy and, I have no argument with your general point.There is however, the crossing over point caused by the election cycle and motives become keener to the senses,of such types,I am sure,and can you really be that exercised when walking the block and knocking on doors!?

  4. Just because John Howard doesn’t have a genuine commitment to addressing climate change does not in itself mean that any policy proposal he puts up on the issue will be flawed. However, it does mean he is less likely to actually keep his word on implementing such a policy.

    This point reminds me of a debate I had with my wife the other day (and will continue to have until I convince her).

    She has an intense and growing dislike (possibly hatred) of John Howard and his Government because of what she sees as a continued attack on social rights and freedoms. Due to this dislike of the current Government and the changes it has made which she feels will directly and negatively affect her hand her colleagues, she has become a staunch unionist and Labor Party supporter. Although she does maintain a healthy scepticism of Labor (mostly she’s just worried they’ll stuff something up and lose the election), there is no question about where her vote will go. For her this is clearly a seller’s election.

    While I agree with her on most of her criticisms of the Howard Government, and wouldn’t for a moment dream of voting to re-elect the Coalition, I believe that politicians and electors who develop such strong tunnel vision do themselves and the country a disservice.

    It seems to me that even when a politician or Government has a long and clear history of implementing (what I consider) harmful and unjust social policy there is no reason to automatically condemn all policy changes they make. Regardless of what their motives are, or you believe them to be, each new policy change should be taken on its own merits. Sure, view it with scepticism while you’re still sitting on the fence working it all out, but there is no justification for never even being on the fence. If you’re so partisan that you’re not willing to accept and applaud good policy even when it comes from someone you’d consider your opposition, you simply end up looking unintelligent.

  5. have no fear, i factor motive into even a weather report, whenever possible. that’s since i learned that local reports are slanted to improve tourism, and get good turnout at games and concerts.

    the whole point of democracy is to bring as many opinions as possible into every major question, so that selfish good will be filtered out, and public good remain.

  6. Ah! A chance at self promotion in Mister Loomis,{could someone inform me of how to get an apostrophe on a keyboard that doesnt indicate one,if you have the inclination}.s post.Having suggested to a local newspaper that we could use radar to show what the weather is doing,would have to be another reason,why it is, total condemnation of Howard in a public sense,is not always worthy as a sign of a reasonable person.It really is strange to me now that the weather type radars are just able to be purchased..that governments have came and went,and who really cares..what I claim!? I read with dismay, tonight,that welding is considered highly skilled,and I remain deeply unemployed and pensioned off.

  7. Andrew Bartlett:
    Your own policy stand and your motives seem fairly straightforward and, whilst not going out of your way to cause offence, you do not try to be all things to all people ….. that’s one of the reasons I bother coming back to your blog amd why I will vote for your return at the next election [sorry, only one vote :-( ].

    Sometimes your policy stance infuriates me ….. but at least you are not a synthetic 2-dimensional politician, dragged this way and that by staffers, the news media, shadowy financial backers of the party, “public opinion”[??] and everyone else except the constituents – and promoting chipboard policies in which they do not believe but about which they are compelled to enthuse. I pity them …. and take everything they say with a grain of salt.

  8. i think that motives are very important in politics
    the problem is that some polys motives are not clear untill after an election.
    to get a politition that will stick to there promeses without changing under pressure is a very good thing and worthy of my vote.
    only those polititions that make clear there motives and agenders then stick to them and not change them as soon as they are elected weather they are liked or not will be rememberd .
    there are some in this govt that i think will be forgoten very quikly.

  9. Re Philip Travers

    Oh dear, I should have added, no offence to anyone who works for the public service!

    I don’t trust the motives of too many of the men, Howard, Downer, Heffernan, Swan and the like, and as long as they remain, the place of parliament, and respect for politicians will continue to decline. When it comes to motives, I’m saying, they are clearly so important, that women are going to be the future. Like it or not. 80% of my class is female, the complete opposite from only 10 years ago. Won’t take long for that to filter through.

    Nope, no evidence, just unadulterated opinion!

    PS, while it’s not the same, the button left of 1 has a similar effect to an apostrophe, if you need something.

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