On consequences

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. When corruption takes place, much focus is given to seeking an explanation, much less to ensuring the appropriate consequences follow. Why is this? The answer lies in ones understanding of accountability. In order for the idea to work properly, it must be defined by both things – explanation and consequence. Indeed, each ensures the other has the proper effect, in order to ensure transparency and clean governance. In the short article below I explore why consequences are so important and what happens when they are overlooked in favour of explanation.

On consequences

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 May 2012

Accountability demands two things: explanation and consequence, each in fair proportion to the nature of a transgression. Of these two, ensuring the appropriate consequence for an offense is by far the harder to achieve.

Because it lends itself to subjectivity, any explanation tends towards to vagueness and, when someone is dishonest or resistant to being forthright, it can take much skill to extract from them the full facts, as language allows them to obscure meaning and mask intent. Regardless of how truthful their explanation, however, the fact that they have spoken at all means they can claim a saintly devotion to transparency, even if in practice they detest the idea. And so, very often, explanation is paid lip service too.

There is, however, little room to manoeuvre when it comes to the consequences that a wrongdoing necessitates; a far more finite business. Whereas an explanation is something given up by a person, a consequence is something imposed upon them. And so, while the veracity of any explanation will tell you something about the nature of the person providing it, an arbiter’s commitment to ensuring the appropriate consequences for a transgression tells you something about the nature of the institution they represent.

In political life there is a great temptation to suggest to the public the interests of accountability have been well served simply because an explanation was sort. And thus, the argument goes, there is no need for any consequence to follow (unstated, the argument continues: the fallout from which would be politically problematic). But this is to negate accountability of its true worth.

True, there are occasions when a transgression is so petty, an explanation alone will suffice but, outside of that, without the possibility of any consequence, the very incentive to be forthright in the first place is removed. Likewise, justice is undermined. And that slippery slope leads inexorably to an environment in which even an explanation is soon discarded as an unnecessary tool in the pursuit of justice.

When this happens, explanations abound, few honest and fewer still forthright, a situation in which corruption thrives – protected by secrecy, augmented by distrust and without consequence to keep it in check.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.

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