Cardinal George Pell arrives at the child sex abuse Royal Commission in Governor  Macquarie Tower today.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the child sex abuse Royal Commission in Governor Macquarie Tower. Photo: Nick Moir

Cardinal George Pell is not normally mentioned in the same breath as Julia Gillard – it's the other side of politics that has been much closer to him – but the departed Prime Minister and departing Archbishop of Sydney have something in common that should stand as a stark governance warning to every board and CEO in the nation: they've been incalculably damaged by abandoning principles.

Both were seduced by the siren call of the ends supposedly justifying the means, and therefore were prepared to do wrong that inevitably has come back to haunt them and damage the very institutions they were trying to protect.

For Pell, preserving the church's assets justified the persecution of a damaged man, as detailed by royal commission hearings last week and masterfully summarised by David Marr. The final result is that the church sustained greater damage, its machinations exposed for ridicule, never mind blowing $1.5 million on the case. Pell leaves for Rome a permanently diminished figure.

For Gillard, hanging on to the Treasury benches and her position justified standing by Craig Thomson and running soft on union corruption long after the stench of Thomson's actions put him beyond the pale. The Peter Slipper deal was done as a means of betraying a commitment to poker machine reform. And there was the little matter of a carbon tax.

And how did all that play out for her? Dumped by her party as leader, regarded as compromised by the majority of the electorate, Labor lost government without being able to cement its headline reforms, their future already uncertain, and left an opening for a royal commission that will prolong the labour movement's woes.

Oh, and we remain the world's biggest losers thanks to our poker machine addiction.

Destroying the ends

Time and again, "the ends justifying the means" ends up destroying the ends. From the Vietnam war tactic of "destroying the village to save the village" to  Lance Armstrong's legacy as the epitome of "winning at any cost" – all is lost.

It doesn't have to be and shouldn't be that way. George Pell in particular already had an example of a church leader refusing to "go legal", throwing off lawyers' advice to stand on principle.

In 2003, when the Sydney Archdiocese v John Ellis seven-year rabid dog of a legal process was just a pup, the ABC's 7.30 report exposed another arm of the church using legal sophistry against an abuse victim.

The case involved a former student of St Aloysius College who had been abused by a lay teacher 35 years before. The church, in this case the Jesuit order, was taking the usual legal route. After the 7.30 story, a new provincial head of the Society of Jesus, Fr Mark Raper, took a different course, albeit after a legal twist and turn

Raper appeared on the 7.30 Report and ditched the legal advice. As summarised by Richard Ackland on these pages:

He (Raper) said he had been accepting advice against his better judgement and to ignore that advice had been a "moment of liberation".

It had been "sheer folly" to let the "legal area" dominate the "pastoral area" and this wholly unhappy episode would mean an end to the way in which the society followed legal advice.

The strategy of the legal defence has been to fight the complainant at every point and exhaust the energy and resources of the other side.

The provincial of the Jesuits was asked what would happen if the church's assets came under threat, as a result of this altered approach. Raper replied: "Um, well, the assets are not as important as the people that we seek to serve." As Maxine McKew said when she signed off, "You don't always see a genuinely transforming moment on television, but I think that was it."

The Sydney Archdiocese and its CEO clearly didn't follow the Jesuit's lead and are now paying a greater price.

Whatever it takes

For Gillard, we're left to speculate about what might have been if there had been more principle and less "whatever it takes".

Abandoning carbon pricing in the first place came to be seen as a mistake, a symptom of a lack of conviction and ability to explain policy, confirmation that there really wasn't much principle on offer. Subsequently resurrecting it with the "tax" word underlined the folly. (And while hypothetically wondering, would the Greens really have been so into self-harm to the extent of preferring Abbott to Gillard without the tax?)

As it's turned out, it seems stepping away from Craig Thomson sooner would have made little difference to the Gillard government's lasting record. Gonski's as good as gone. The NDIS will be recast for budgetary reasons. The excuse for a royal commission on the Coalition's terms remained.

Not that the other mob seems any better as the lies and deceptions of the past four years mount.

It appears universal that the "ends" of politics – obtaining the keys to the Lodge – justify any and all means.

Self interest test

It's why I've argued before that the absolute minimum requirement for becoming a member of parliament should be a willingness to put the interests of the nation ahead of self and certainly ahead of the party. Neither side does and, in putting the party and self-interest first, both are guilty of both are guilty of something could be compared to treason.

At the corporate level, there's no clearer example of the folly of forsaking principles than the cover up.

In an increasingly connected and recorded world, truth won't just out, it will come screaming back to bite. (Ask the current NSW Inc players as they're exposed for rorts and corruption that have been the Rum State's standard fare for two-and-a-quarter centuries.)

The difficult thing for some corporates to grasp about sticking with principles is that it requires a full commitment. It's not possible to pick and choose – "we'll be a nice green, carbon-neutral company, but rip off vulnerable consumers with our sales tactics" won't eventually wash.

Still playing out now is the contradiction of our big four banks claiming to be customer-centric, claiming to be highly-principled and sustainable, but quietly gloating about their ability to turn Arthur Sinodinos' head when he became Assistant Treasurer and resuscitate their ability to run financial product sales forces on commission.

Commission-driven "general advice" has a strong tendency to be in the best interests of the salesperson and the product manufacturer, not the customer.

For the banks' boards and CEOs, the ends of pushing product down customers' throats outweighs the means of flogging it and re-opening the back door to the shonks and spivs who really do people harm.

And in the end, the banks will be worse off, a possible short-term game of shifting more product outweighed by the further erosion of trust in the institutions. The financial advice industry is steadily evolving into a profession, but the banks are being left behind.

The obvious national test of our willingness to let the ends justify the means continues to unfold behind a government curtain on Manus Island and Nauru. There's the bi-partisan belief that the means of abusing several thousand people, detaining them indefinitely without charge or hope after they committed no crime, will be justified by the ends of asylum-seekers no longer arriving in Australia by boat.

The government's attempt to crow about no asylum seeker boat reaching Australia for 100 days looks too much like a too-desperate attempt to justify the means. It would be sad to think they're actually proud of it.

Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.