Some things transcend politics and policy and the lust for power. Truth, honesty, integrity, decency and fairness are immutable values. They are the ethical substance of life. They ought to be cherished. To sell them out is to sell one's soul. It is even worse when a leader expediently betrays these values, because it undermines the entire community.
We have a duty to lead and inspire our young people, in particular. What are they, and indeed all of us, to make of a prime minister who judges it acceptable to blatantly, blithely break a written pledge in the name of base politics? This is what Julia Gillard has done by abandoning her poker-machines promise to Andrew Wilkie. It was a solemn, public undertaking instrumental to her gaining the trust and the numbers to form government, having come to the prime ministership through means that had already undermined her moral authority.
She ought to have introduced the legislation; it is unimpeachably better to honourably lose a vote on the floor of the house than to prove beyond doubt that your word is not able to be trusted.
One of the greatest thinkers and leaders of all time, Socrates, that magnificent practitioner of the dialectic method of investigation and learning, might have had such circumstances in mind when he asked: ''Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?''
It is hard to think of a worse message Gillard could have delivered. It is shameful. She has pretty much forfeited her claim on respect. Her trashing of her word means she no longer merits our trust. If the Prime Minister places so little value on her honour, why should anyone else have any faith in it? It is little wonder that so many people feel so disenchanted by politics. This Prime Minister has even managed to trump the moral slipperiness of John Howard's Orwellian construct of ''core'' and ''non-core'' promises.
Media organisations need to think carefully and clearly about their role in all of this. There is a tendency for politics and policy to be covered more as blood sport than the noble contest of ideas. That is understandable, to a point, and can be entertaining for aficionados. But there is insufficient differentiation drawn between policy issues and those issues concerning the very structure and ethics within which parliamentary democracy operates. Gillard's pledge to Andrew Wilkie and, by extension, to all of us, falls into the latter category.
There is nothing wrong with a politician and, for that matter, any of us, changing position in light of new evidence. There is everything right with it. Economist and policymaker John Maynard Keynes famously said last century: ''When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?''
Here, too, media organisations might want to be more open to the validity and need for intellectual flexibility. Public policy is about getting best results. Public policy driven by ideology, rather than the intellectualism so neatly encapsulated by the late Lord Keynes, is the antithesis of what we should be seeking.
There is another category - the expedient reversal or abandonment of policy. In such cases, where, for example, a politician changes course by opting for what is currently popular, as measured by polls and focus groups, over what is right and just, media organisations and the general public should express dismay. Gillard's betrayal on poker machines policy is not of this category. It is a change for which there is no valid excuse. Any attempt to justify it as something dictated by ''the real world'' or ''real politics'' is disingenuous and insulting, both morally and intellectually. We owe our young people, and ourselves, far better than that.
When was the last time you heard an insightful, inspiring piece of oratory from an Australian political leader, an appeal to what is pure and true within humanity, a statement of belief backed by ideas for change and betterment, a call to those immutable values wherein lie the potential greatness of people individually and collectively?
Such exhortation, such leadership, is lamentably scarce. There are probably only two in recent times I reckon are candidates for a list that ought to be replete. One is Kevin Rudd's apology to indigenous Australians. The other is Malcolm Turnbull's speech when he crossed the floor on climate change.
There is something going on in the community that some of our politicians, including the Prime Minister, seem to be missing, bunkered as they are in the battle for dominance of the current Parliament. So many people are seeking authenticity, a return to simplicity, meaning and community. It's there in the burgeoning not-for-profit sector, where as many as one in 12 people are employed. It's there in the vegie patches that are being planted in so many more back gardens. It's there in the outrage people feel about the treatment of asylum seekers. It's there in the explosion of writing and communication and creativity in what's known as social media, but is perhaps better described as open media. It's everywhere.
There has been an inversion; the real leadership is coming from the community, a community that has left Gillard behind, rather than from the body politic. And it's a community now all-but out of reach for a PM who has let down not only herself, but all of us.
Michael Short is a senior Age editor and a board member of the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre.