When politicians have a change of mind, they have good reason to fear the consequences. Inevitably, words such as "flip-flop" and "u-turn" will be levelled at them amid a barrage of criticism as their opponents seek to paint them as weak, indecisive, lacking conviction or driven by political expediency. In many instances, however, that portrayal is neither accurate nor warranted. This was underlined in a pertinent letter to the editor of this newspaper by Associate Professor Tim Dare, the head of philosophy at the University of Auckland.
He suggested that the common condemnation of politicians who shifted positions was a curious phenomenon. "If we are interested in the character of public officials, we might be interested in whether changes reflect cynical self-interest or a genuine reconsideration of the issues," he wrote. "In either case, though, it seems unwise to make it harder for politicians to do the right thing merely because they once failed to see what it was."
The immediate motivation for Dr Dare's letter was criticism directed at the Government for its u-turn over Auckland's City Rail Link. But he could have been addressing any number of changes of mind down through history which, rather than being greeted as the right thing to do, have been judged harshly. Individual circumstances and the larger context may negate or limit the damage. But Dr Dare is right to suggest that this virtually automatic condemnation risks making politicians wary of any policy change, no matter how well merited. For those with a strong ideological bent, the temptation to stick to a particular course even when it is patently misguided may be particularly powerful.
The errant nature of much of the criticism of u-turns is underlined by reference to the world of science. There, a failure to flip-flop in the face of contradictory evidence provided, say, by the results of new research or new tools is regarded as ethically flawed, irrational and dangerous. But, as the American writer Lewis Eigen has noted, we take a different view when politicians are induced to change their minds. "Somehow our body politic does not give its politicians the same rights that they give scientists - namely the right to learn, consider, reflect and possibly be persuaded that his original position was in error or sub-optimum," he says.
Most scientists, indeed, spend their lives searching for new knowledge that may cause them to change their minds. When this is found, they have no hesitation in flip-flopping. As the British economist John Maynard Keynes exclaimed: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" There has been no more effective riposte to the critics of u-turns.
When it comes to politics, however, there is, of course, the added complication that flip-flops are not driven by scientific purity.
It is up to the voter to determine whether a change is the result of self-interest or a genuine reconsideration of the issues. In the latter case, politicians can help themselves by honestly addressing the reasons for their change of mind. The failure to do this will, inevitably, imply other factors are at play.
No one wants politicians to be changing their minds all the time. The outcome of this would be simply a government going in circles. It would also suggest the lack of a sturdy philosophical underpinning, which should be part of every politicians' makeup. But it is folly to make it harder for them to change their minds when they see something in a more correct light. It is time to lay off the instant condemnation of the flip-flop.