31 December 2011


The end of the year is a suitable time to recognise the contribution to the principles of good government made by Vaclac Havel (who died earlier this month).

It was New Year’s Day 22 years ago that in his first speech as the Czechoslovak president he indicated the need to …. “teach ourselves that politics can be not just the art of the possible, especially if that means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic manoeuvring, but that it can even be the art of the impossible, namely the art of improving ourselves and the world.”

His philosophy was that “the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice.”

These views were rubbished by Vaclac Klaus, his political rival and onetime colleague, who saw him as wanting… ” to take advantage of the end of communism to create something more than a free society” … of wanting….”to have not only free men and women here, but better men and women as well.”

Havel’s idealism however is not unlike the spirit of service expected by the State Sector Act, and the State Services Commissioner’s code of conduct, including the obligation to strive to make a difference. Some of his pertinent observations include the following: –


“Genuine politics – the only politics I am willing to devote myself to – is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.”

“The prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice.”

“The truth is not simply what you think it is; it is also the circumstances in which it is said, and to whom, why, and how it is said.”

“Keep the company of those who seek the truth – run from those who have found it”

“There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”

Parts of his 1975 open letter to Czechoslovakian President Husak have a continuing and universal relevance:

“… it is not surprising that so many public and influential positions are occupied, more than ever before, by notorious careerists, opportunists, charlatans, and men of dubious record; in short, by typical collaborators, men, that is, with a special gift for persuading themselves at every turn that their dirty work is a way of rescuing something, or, at least, of preventing still worse men from stepping into their shoes. Nor is it surprising, in these circumstances, that corruption among public employees of all kinds, their willingness openly to accept bribes for anything and allow themselves shamelessly to be swayed by whatever considerations their private interests and greed dictate, is more widespread than can be recalled during the last decade.”

And for those with an interest in ethics and public sector integrity a good grounding is to remember Havel’s advice that ….”Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not. ”