Canberra's life of lies

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Man in suit playing shell gameHas lying become just as acceptable as telling the truth? Is a half-truth, an evasion or a deliberately misleading statement our approved cultural and moral standard of communication?

Lying is often considered part and parcel of political life. The phrase 'political life' — implying a separate and distinct human sphere — has itself come to stand for the moral inversion that justifies means by ends.

Interviewed by the ABC's Kerry O'Brien a few years ago, Liberal leader Tony Abbott got himself tied up in knots trying to explain why a political mistruth was a different kind of beast from the lie that society should not condone. To exaggerate or misrepresent was, he suggested, the common and necessary currency of politics. One might say he was being honest, but is the burglar who comes through the front door of your house any less culpable?

Labor's newly reinstalled leader Kevin Rudd says he wants to purify politics, and make it kinder and more honest. And yet his own standards when it comes to telling the truth are at least as rubbery as Abbott's. Ahead of the ballot that led to Julia Gillard's demise he lent credence to the existence of a petition demanding a special Caucus meeting to decide the leadership. Nobody, however, has admitted to having sighted or signed any such petition.

One of Rudd's supporters, asked about the phantom petition the day after, dismissed the question: 'that's history' ('history' in the sense not of a recorded event but of something that doesn't need to be bothered with any more). If you get what you want, the outcome is all the 'truth' you need.

Similarly, having chosen not to run for leader in March, when he was unsure of the numbers, Rudd falsely claimed he had been motivated by his 'solemn' pledge not to challenge Gillard. The pledge was no more intact then than it was last week when he knew he would win.

Much was made, during her time in office, of Gillard's pre-election promise that 'there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead'. Some believe her about-face in order to win the Greens' support for her minority government so weakened her credibility she became unelectable. On such a basis, it might be argued that the system values honesty and punishes dishonesty. I doubt this explanation.

More telling, I believe, was the electorate's brooding resentment against her for snatching the prime ministership from the man they had elected with such high expectations to do the job. Hers was more a problem of legitimacy than honesty (Gillard never sought to avoid the word 'tax' later when justifying the carbon pricing mechanism).

The fact that Rudd was not the leader people had taken him for but, in the judgement of his colleagues, ran a dysfunctional and chaotic administration, had been hidden behind the conventions of party and Cabinet solidarity and bureaucratic loyalty that some consider major contributors to a lack of truth and transparency in government. For that failure of openness and accountability the Canberra Press Gallery must also accept some blame.

Treachery, calculated lying and the spreading of misinformation are base ingredients for the business of government in any society. The anti-establishment activities of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have tapped into a deep vein of public incredulity that is damaging our democracy.

Those politicians or business people or academics or generals who tell us they are acting for the higher good when they use low and contemptible means or that their particular brand of dishonesty is less egregious than that of their opponents are deluded and dangerous. It is no way to rebuild public trust in politics by using the excuse 'I said whatever was necessary back then so I can start telling you the God's honest truth today'.

The 43rd Parliament has ended. The business of lawmaking is in abeyance and the principal institutional forum for accountability in government, the Parliament, is vacant. Electioneering (now, as ever, a synonym for abuse of the truth) has begun. Let every word be weighed and counted in the reckoning of election day; let it be an occasion when Australians declare to themselves and those that govern that lying is not as acceptable as telling the truth.


 

Walter Hamilton headshotWalter Hamilton is a journalist and former executive at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His latest book is Children of the Occupation: Japan's Untold Story.


Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange

 

 

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Existing comments

As Frank Brennan and the head of the forced adoptions committee have confirmed the commitment Rudd made in March was to them not to interfere with their day.
Marilyn | 01 July 2013


Perhaps it's not 'the deep vein of public incredulity', that is damaging our democracy so much as the evasiveness and duplicity which fosters it. If our leaders govern by our consent - and are challenged by our dissent - then our scepticism is at least protective: of democracy as of various other institutions (church, business, organised sport?) which are currently said to be losing our respect. Can the media help us in this? Possibly yes: by not provoking with the slick, win/lose, trick question in the first place; and by shutting down and walking away if they don't get a proper answer. The present symbiosis keeps politicians 'on message' and journalists in copy. But for the rest of us it's about as enlightening as watching dogs chase cars. I think I know why they call it 'Question Time': it's certainly not answer time. Quentin
Quentin Dignam | 01 July 2013


Well said Walter! I agree with you in all you said. After what the Labor party men have done to Julia (and the way they did it!) I'm not voting for this lot! And I doubt Kev will be believed. Already comments around the place are raising questions about his so-called "humble," , no revenge, merit Ministry speeches. I doubt he will win the election.
Nathalie | 02 July 2013


Thank you for this article. It appears to me that male pollies can lie but any woman politician who changes her mind is dammed. Wednesday 26 June was a day of shame for our country when the scandalous political and personal tactics of three years were rewarded and valued above good governance and the legislative responsibility entrusted to a democratic government. Prime Minister Gillard lead a government of great reform & success and beginning with his first press conference Kevin is spinning that from our minds and history. I weep in shame for my country over the treatment of former Prime Minister Gillard.
Lynda | 02 July 2013


Reminds me of a long ago cartoon by Patrick Cook captioned "Do politicians lie?" The cartoon showed a bear in the woods holding a roll of toilet paper.
Lynn Davidson | 02 July 2013


I think we almost expect politicians to lie, to be self-serving and, in their quest for control, to stoop to any means to acquire that power. When we lie, we are hurting ourselves most of all, our integrity is challenged and it's not a good feeling. Restoring public trust is always going to be a difficult thing for politicians of all stripes - it's really a wonder that we somehow walk into polling booths and cast our votes at all. Perhaps we can see ourselves in the weakness of politicians and want to give them every opportunity to redeem themselves?
Pam | 02 July 2013


On the other hand you have a politician of integrity and intelligence in Tony Windsor. If only there were more like him. The Parliament will be poorer with his departure.
Brett | 03 July 2013


The government are distorting the truth. It is not fair.
Paul | 15 July 2013


Actually I am sick of the lies by both sides. election promises should be accountable. Difficult to do I know. but maybe before being allowed to make an election promise it should first be shown to be feasible, and if feasible it then should be compulsory to keep, and kept in the spirit of the promise itself, not twisted later to be something else. In Question time, they should have to answer the question, not rave on about the oppositions past mistakes etc. The name calling is ok when it's intelligent, unfortunately it rarely is.
Ronny Bryson | 29 November 2013


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