Recent revelations that the Victorian Minister for Planning's media advisor, Peta Duke, set out to make a sham consultation process in order to block proposed development of the Heritage-listed Windsor Hotel in Melbourne has produced strong reaction about the nature of modern democracy.
Duke's email was miss-directed — if it had gone to its intended recipient within the government rather than the ABC it would never have come to public attention, and would have been just another missive in the daily functioning of government. As it was, the email, titled 'Minister for Planning Justin Madden's Media Plan', was inadvertently sent to the least desired recipient — the media — and a field day was had by all. Premier Brumby was forced to denounce it, and Madden had to perform the modern day politico's ordeal of brazening things out to righteously angry talkback radio hosts.
Connoisseurs of public deception will remember the notorious Blair spin doctor who, on the day of the 9/11 attacks in the US, sent out a group email to various departments in Blair's Labor government advising that if ever there was a good moment to get rid of bad news without people noticing, now was the time.
As with Duke, it was a smart tactic, which if it had remained confidential would doubtless have earned kudos. But alas the thing leaked. Whereupon the music stopped, and the poor spin doctor found herself without a chair to sit on. Simply for being caught out doing the job that she'd been hired to do: manipulate public perception.
These are democracy's naked lunch moments — those situations when, generally through sheer inadvertence, everyone, both inside and outside the power game, can see exactly how things work, and precisely what it is that lies at the end of our forks.
Our reaction to these sorts of things tends, quite naturally, to be outrage, to greater or lesser degrees. We feel the democratic process is made out to be, if not a complete mockery, at the very least a plaything.
There is an assumption that this is a particularly modern disease. In Melbourne's local tabloid Andrew Bolt complains that the Peta Duke debacle is typical of the modern world — 'stacking committees ... fudging surveys ... and launching sham inquiries' — and that our modern age, defined by the glut of informational noise, makes those who can control and shape its flow ever more important. This is a modern disease, Bolt complains, symptomatic of a decadent, no, a moronic era, 'these spin-spin days' before, perhaps, the fall.
But the dark art of spin, of misleading the public and voters in order to achieve a result, is an old practice. It is no accident that the first philosophy and teaching to devote itself exclusively to the art of spin, Sophistry, was born simultaneously with democratic practices in ancient Athens. The birth of active participatory democracy is the birth of public opinion, to be massaged, persuaded, manipulated in order to get what you want. Pericles knew it. Socrates despised it. Protagoras taught it. Peta Duke has venerable forbears.
In more recent history, and closer to home, Duke also shares good company. Two of the most radical and far reaching changes in Australian history — the post-war migration scheme and the abandonment of tariff walls and a 'Fortress Australia' economic mentality in the 1980s — wouldn't have taken place if the political parties of the day (as it happens in both cases Labor) had levelled with the great voting public.
Without the first official decision, after World War II, to let in
massive amounts of non-British migrants, we would still be almost
entirely Anglo-British, to the detriment of our cuisine, culture and economic development. Work done by Jerzy Zubrzycki, the late professor of sociology at the
Australian National University, has revealed that the demographic and
cultural leap forward that began in 1945 was dependent on spin.
Research into the minutes of meetings and reports to inter-departmental committees on the migration scheme makes clear that gaining public acceptance of the plan was dependent on lying to the Australian people, who were reassured, completely falsely as it turned out, that the great migration wave would be overwhelmingly British.
Public announcements promised that there would be 10 Britons for every non British arrival. The architect of the migration scheme, Arthur Calwell, maintained this claim, despite the fact that papers classified 'Confidential' and 'Secret' were, and had been, circulating in the Department of the Interior and the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, clearly acknowledging the flat impossibility of such an aim.
It was, says Zubrzycki, a 'smokescreen'. Or, less politely, a lie. There was no realistic chance of such proportions being achieved, not even remotely, and Calwell and his advisors knew that. But if this lie hadn't been told, the Australian electorate would have — almost without a doubt — rejected the migration program out of hand. Spin.
Should we approve of lying to the public thus? Almost certainly not. But who could seriously say that the great post-war migration boom from Europe was anything other than one of the great transformative moments of Australian history? Demographically, culturally, socially, economically, an Australia without such a dramatic transformation would be unrecognisable today, and almost certainly for the worse.
Similarly, in the 1980s, came Hawke and Keating's brutal reshaping of the Australian economy. Many of these changes involved a good deal of social trauma and hurt in the short term, and also involved junking much of the accumulated rhetoric, political platform and basic assumptions of the Australian Labor Party as it had developed for much of the previous 90 years.
In a true functioning democracy, one would clearly take the bold new agenda to both the party and the Australian people before embarking on such radically uncharted waters.
So what was said, prior to Hawke taking government in 1983, about deregulating trade restrictions, privatising government monopolies, slashing tariff protection of previously babied manufacturing industries, about freeing up the banks, and perhaps even floating the Australian dollar on the public stock exchange? Effectively nothing.
Would Labor have taken power if they had levelled with the media, and the voting public, about these intentions? Not a chance. Yet was it not, like the post-WW2 migration scheme, one of the best and most significant revolutions in Australian political history? Nearly 30 years later, having emerged from not only the traumas of social dislocation and economic change of the '80s and early '90s, and having survived first the Asian then the Global Financial Crises of 1997 and 2008 respectively, you would have to give a resounding yes.
Here, then, are two examples of great moments in Australian political history when spin was the only thing to do in order to get the best result for a strong, open and egalitarian society. Yet purists would clearly shy from citing these as great moments in the application of pure democratic theory.
What conclusions do we draw? That the governing class should feel free to lie at will, and treat us as the dupes we deserve to be taken for? No. That if you are to lie to the people, make sure it's for a good reason, not simply a naked attempt to placate key constituencies or to shuffle out the back door to deposit a pile of bad news? That if you are to lie then don't simply lie well, but do it for a good cause? Here again, albeit with hesitation, no.
Perhaps the best conclusion is that there is no singular conclusion. Getting things done in an open society is often muddy work. Often, as Gough Whitlam was wont to remind us, 'only the impotent can remain pure'.
Perhaps also we should scale back our holier-than-thou attitude whenever one of the governing circle's paid sophists is caught out doing what they get paid to do, and show less tolerance for the great media game of 'gotcha' which seems automatically to ensue.
Marcus Clarke put it best in one of his 1860s newspaper articles where he railed with ferocious eloquence against the hypocrisy and cant in his Victorian age. Let's stop pretending to be so shocked, he advised — 'I am no angel. Neither are you, reader.'
Let's not pretend that we don't know the score. We're tougher than that, more phlegmatic, more realistic — certainly far more so than our public conscience keepers would have us be.
Australians have a long tradition of holding politicians, journalists and indeed commentators in cynical contempt. This is an honorable tradition. We cherish and continue it every time we switch on our bullshit detectors at the approach of a politician, whenever they open their mouth or put out a press release; or whenever the television, newspapers and radio tell us our sweet democratic purity has been debased and compromised.
Let's enjoy the game of gotcha, but not pretend to be angels.
Alex McDermott is a freelance writer, researcher and historian. From 2007 to 2009 he was chief historical consultant and researcher for Screen Australia's 'Making History Initiative'. He is currently writing the Australian History for Dummies, while completing a PhD at La Trobe University on John Batman and John Fawkner, the claimed founders of Melbourne.