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Sympathy for the dodgy salesmen of Australian politics


'Duplicity' by Chris JohnstonThe Thomson and Slipper affairs may have brought parliament into disrepute, but this should not imply that parliament was well reputed before these scandalous stories emerged. Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne has called for an integrity commission or anti-corruption body, to restore public faith. But when it comes to the integrity of politicians, corruption alone cannot explain the extensive public disdain for our ruling class.

Such diverse elements as sexism, Tony Abbott, broken promises, climate change, Tony Abbott, faceless men, minority government, and even the allegedly intractable negativity of the Opposition under Tony Abbott, have been blamed for the decline of our political discourse.

However bad the current political malaise, it is only exacerbated by the endless partisan squabbles over who exactly is to blame. There's plenty of blame to go around; it would be quicker and easier to start by identifying those who are not to blame (nominations will be accepted in Comments, below).

In the meantime, let us examine one of the more endemic factors in the present political distemper: duplicity. Duplicity implies being 'double' in one's conduct. It is the opposite of integrity, which comes from the word 'integer', as in a whole number, and implies wholeness or soundness, a relationship of equivalence between one's words and thoughts, or one's thoughts and actions. In other words, what you see is what you get.

Yet for most of our politicians, what you see is definitely not what you get. How many times have you heard a politician verbally weasel his or her way through the tiniest gap in credulity, saying evidently inane and childish things, merely to score a point against his or her political opponent?

Instances abound amid the recent scandals wherein any given Opposition member will utter seemingly sincere and emotionally invested words that nonetheless convey the distinct impression that he or she will say almost anything in order to strip the minority government of a precious vote.

Of course, the Government is able to issue equally impressive appeals to the principles of justice, or whatever other principle of convenience will ornament their desperate wish to retain that precious vote. Public sympathy for either side is tempered if not nullified by our strong suspicion that both Government and Opposition would change their positions in a heartbeat if circumstances were reversed.

But this duplicity is hardly new. Nearly every public utterance from every politician is tainted by the subtext of scoring political points. When the opinions expressed by almost any politician are crafted to tip the scales in their favour, we soon realise there is nothing to be gained by listening. Why bother attending to political debate when we already know the conclusion: government good, opposition bad, and vice-versa.

If it is painful for us to listen, how much worse must it be for politicians, forcing themselves to behave in such a way? Duplicity is not healthy. It is unpleasant, uncomfortable and dispiriting to constantly undermine one's own integrity. The 'dodgy salesman' is no one's ideal of human flourishing.

Likewise, no one admires people who put others down or build themselves up with empty words. Yet a politician is often called upon to condemn their enemies as pig-headed while describing their allies as people of conviction; to decry their enemies' change of heart as weakness, while praising their own as virtuous pragmatism. The beam in thine own eye is, no doubt, a tribute to the hardworking Australians in our construction industry.

It should come as no surprise that the public has hardened in disdain. What is surprising is that the public did not react to these antics sooner.

But the fact is that such tricks are not so objectionable when they are performed for the sake of a good cause. When politicians become the avatars of our personal causes, their vices mysteriously turn to virtues. This is, after all, the same dynamic that causes politicians to behave so oddly in the first place: the difference between Abbott's wearisome negativity and his insuperable determination is relative to which side of politics you are on.

The real change in recent years is that Australian politics is running out of passionate causes. As symbolised by our precarious minority government, there is little by way of firm public conviction to distinguish Labor from Liberal. We have two major parties telling us we are hard done by, and promising to make things better. But relatively minor economic promises are overshadowed by the desperate struggle for control of the parliament.

It is the primacy of this purely political struggle that has brought the objectionable duplicity of everyday political behaviour to the forefront of public attention.

There is undoubtedly something degrading to the individual politicians caught up in a political culture that encourages them to constantly speak against their true minds. We can only hope this public disillusionment prepares the way for a future wave of political sincerity; and thank God we are not in politics. 

Zac AlstinZac Alstin is a freelance writer and part-time research officer for Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and an amateur interest in Chinese philosophy. 


Topic tags: Zac Alstin, Labor, Coalition, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Peter Slipper, Craig Thomson



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Existing comments

“When it comes to the integrity of politicians, corruption alone cannot explain the extensive public disdain for our ruling class.” Correct. The present Government has had the lowest number of forced ministerial resignations in living memory – far fewer than the previous regime. So what can? This piece seems to avoid the obvious answer. Obvious, at least, to those endeavouring to follow Australian affairs from a safe distance. (I'm in Europe.) Two realities are apparent. The first is that Australia’s Government is the most effective in the world at economic management by far. And is highly ranked, if not the best in the world, on environmental protection, attention to social justice and ministerial integrity. The second is that Australia’s news media is the worst in the world – with the possible exception of North Korea’s. Why was this latter reality not touched upon, I wonder?

Alan Austin | 12 June 2012  

I agree with this writer's contention that dishonesty has become part of Australian democracy's essence. My Federal member is Wayne Swan. For a significant part of his political life he has proclaimed Kevin Rudd to be a great leader. A couple of months ago he just as vehemently told the electorate he didn't mean a word of what he had said and that Rudd was the antithesis of all he had previously avowed. If ever anyone's credibility should have been destroyed it was Swan's at that time. Not a bit of it. He is still in demand to be interviewed as if the above had not occurred. It seems that good people, and I am sure Mr Swan is a good person, must distance themselves from any trace of integrity when they attain public office. Honesty must give way to the party line. Is democracy really the best way? I guess so, but does it have to be like this. The Greens pretentiously claim to be above all this dirt. The signs are they are as duplicitous and self serving as the major parties.

Grebo | 12 June 2012  

Party Politics was ever thus. 'Our mob v. 'your mob. ***************** The great arguments in the early Roman Church - between (A), those who claimed that Jesus and God (the Father) were homoousian (same in essence) and (B) those who claimed that the two were homoiousian (same in substance) - were not really based on refined theological concepts. Ask yourself, What really do we, - or did they?, - know about the essence or the substance of God? Precious little, it is suggested. These claims came from Communities, and the real struggle was about whether the Homoousians or the Homoiousians were going to run the Church. ****************** 'Everyone in this room knows very well that George Pell was transferred from Melbourne so he could get the red hat so he would become an elector of the pope. And that was the sole reason... the pope appoints the cardinals who then elect the pope who then appoints more cardinals and on and on it goes. So it's a vicious circle. And it is deliberately designed to ensure we do not have another Pope John XXIII.' So said Bishop Robinson atAustralian National Councilof Catholic priests. July 2010

Robert Liddy | 12 June 2012  

On first reading this article, it seems to be an attempt to equate most of the negativity against one man, Tony Abbott. There is no other politician named in this diatribe against politicians. There is no mention Of Julia Gillard whatsoever. "Such diverse elements as sexism, Tony Abbott, broken promises, climate change, Tony Abbott, faceless men, minority government, and even the allegedly intractable negativity of the Opposition under Tony Abbott, have been blamed for the decline of our political discourse." I can only conclude that this is a 'Puff Piece" against Tony Abbott and the Liberal party not a thorough surmise about both Liberal and Labor politicians. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard's gross duplicity doesn't even get a mention but Tony Abbott's name as somehow the "HEAD" of all politician's faults

Trent | 12 June 2012  

Thanks Zac. It's not the dodginess of the sales persons that disappoints me so much as the suboptimality of the ideas they are trying to sell.

David Arthur | 12 June 2012  

Dear Zac, you could count on the fingers of one hand politicians who could spell integrity let alone recognise it. I think most Australians have a very low opinion of politics and politicians in general. For the most part they simply misrepresent the facts to suit their arguments and it is all about "playing the man or the woman." You appear to think that they are concerned about this .You are giving them credit for an empathy with their fellow australians and intellect which most do not have. Its all about the power Zac and getting it ...did someone say something about corruption?

paul tocchini | 12 June 2012  

Grebo - Solidarity behind one's leader is probably a basic principle in politics and Wayne Swan was observing this when he 'proclaimed Kevin Rudd to be a great leader". But what does a politician do when their leader exhibits chameleon-like qualities, has a great public image but runs a dysfunctional cabinet? Does this principle still apply? John Maynard Keynes said "When the facts change, I change my mind". Swan and his colleagues were in an invidious position. I wonder what many of us would do if we found ourselves in the same situation?

P Russell | 12 June 2012  

"... politicians, forcing themselves to act in this way." As the young people say, lol. Think Christopher Pyne! Bravo, Alan Austin. The plain truth is that the shouters - Murdoch press, Bolt, Alan Jones, etc etc - have won and there is precious little we can do about it.

Frank | 12 June 2012  

Hi Trent. If, after one reading you "can only conclude that this is a 'Puff Piece" against Tony Abbott", I strongly recommend a second reading - if not of the whole piece than at least of the paragraph in question. Hopefully, you will see that the three references to Abbott are made in the context of 'things that are blamed' rather than in the sense of 'things the author wishes to blame'. Repetition of Abbott's name amidst supposedly diverse causes could be read as an ironic reference to the degree of blame Abbott receives from others.

Zac | 12 June 2012  

Zac, I agree with your points, but I think Alan Austin's comment is spot on. If you look at the polls about how the community regards various professions, politicians have always been near the bottom. A key change is how the media has turned politics into drama, into spectacle. Watch any interview and the interviewee is goaded and led down the path we're all heartily sick of. The account of what/how the government is doing (and I'm referring to the federal ALP government and the W.A. Liberal one) in the press bears no relationship to the impression you will form if you watch the broadcast of parliament.

Russell | 12 June 2012  

It seems that our politicians seems to be out of touch with the ordinary person and is lead by “experts” and lobbyists. Sometimes the “political correctness” is so far from the true aspirations and wishes of the people. I have never heard anybody saying anything positive yet about the “carbon tax” and I know everyone knows about the big lies of Julia Gillard. If we look at our leading parliamentarians on all sides then we see the selection and grooming process undertaken by political parties. Political parties try very hard to get rid of any independent thinking amongst candidates.

Beat Odermatt | 12 June 2012  

Oh, yes, when all else fails, let's just blame the media! (Do you realise that by contributing to this blog, we are all part of 'da media'?
Bring back the good ol' days when politicians stood for what they believe in - The Frasers, Hawkes, Keatings and of course now sadly, Bob Brown.

AURELIUS | 12 June 2012  

P.Russell, I take your point and you made it very effectively. Thanks for that.

grebo | 12 June 2012  

Hi Alan, With regard to Australia's news media being the worst in the world, I'm not sure what you mean by that. The phenomenon I've described issues from the mouths of politicians themselves. It is a consistent, perhaps default feature of political engagement with the public via the media. To blame the media for it doesn't do justice to the individual responsibility of the politician, though I can accept that the media is an active partner. As to the effectiveness of our present government: we have been receiving mixed messages for some time. Australians are doing it tough, yet we're the economic envy of the world. We're riding on the back of Chinese growth, yet it's all down to the present government's economic savvy.

Zac | 12 June 2012  

Hi Russell, I'm not convinced that an apparent shift in media style is to blame, partly because we could just as easily say that the loss of great political causes is responsible for the shift in media style (at least in the political domain). One could argue that the dramatisation of political debate is a response to the loss of significant political content. Chicken or egg?

Zac | 12 June 2012  

Albert Camus observed: "Politics and the fate of mankind are formed by men without greatness. Those who have greatness within them do not go in for politics." A little harsh perhaps but exceptions are rare. I recall Frank Brennan expressing the hope that Catholic/Jesuit education would result in an intelligent and acute reading of one's faith - (this includes social justice) - and he went on to observe that in the case of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Richard Alston, Peter McGauran and Christopher Pyne (all Jesuit alumni) it didn't seem to work. One can sympathise with those who were responsible for the education of the above - it is no easy task to teach compassion, ideas of justice, the true meaning of the word caritas, a passion for truth and virtually impossible to teach creative thinking that will benefit all men, women and children - especially if they are in need - such as asylum seekers.

John Nicholson | 12 June 2012  

The dodgy salesmen and saleswomen of Australian politics are most of the media commentators whose spoken and written comment is illinformed and meaningless opinion and speculation.

If people think rationally and objectively, they would understand that the Gillard government has done a reasonably good job and have been well lead by Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Penny Wong.

I have been encouraged by people such as Bob Katter and Christine Milne, whose recent interviews by Phillip Adams on 'Late Night Live' indicate that they are sensible and influential people and will do their best to ensure good governance.

Mark Doyle | 12 June 2012  

Hi Zac, Thanks for the response. An example of Australia’s media being the worst in the world is Justice Bromberg's finding last year that Andrew Bolt fabricated 20 lies about the Aboriginal people – in just two articles. In no other civilised country would a journalist continue to be paid after a finding like that. Yet Bolt remains Australia’s most widely read columnist and blogger and I believe has his own TV show. This was not aberrant behaviour. For years he has waged campaigns against Aborigines and other minorities based on outright lies. He was successfully prosecuted for “very, very serious libel” in 2002. The year before, Justice Kaye in the Guthrie matter found two senior Murdoch executives had lied under oath. It does seem the case that lying is endemic throughout the organisation. Zac, no-one blames the media for the clear faults of politicians. But the media in Australia can certainly be blamed for “the extensive public disdain for our ruling class” where this disdain is unwarranted. Further comparison of the media in Australia and North Korea here: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=27274

Alan Austin | 12 June 2012  

Zac, I'm not sure I agree that "The real change in recent years is that Australian politics is running out of passionate causes". We all remember KRudd's description of climate change as this generation's greatest moral challenge. I certainly remember the passion with which some ALP MPs spoke against their leader's position on same sex marriage at the last ALP convention. We've been involved in unpopular wars, the situation of our Indigenous population is still shameful .... I could go on; there are big issues out there. Where the passion is lacking is in a population who has been turned off these subjects by a diet of relentless depressingly bad news, misinformation, and distraction by an industry that spends billions on 'amusing ourselves to death'. And Aurelius! You don't really think that the power of the main stream media is in any way comparable to blogs like Eureka Street?

Russell | 12 June 2012  

Most of our information re-politics in Australia is gained through the mass media. A few people are discerning enough to read Crikey and Eureka Street. However with regard to the activities of the Fourth Estate in general I am reminded of the sentiments attributed to Mark Twain. I can refrain from reading the papers and be uninformed, or I can read them and be misinformed. I don't think he would object if I suggested his aphorism applied to the variety of mass media we have in the 21st century.

Uncle Pat | 12 June 2012  

"Public sympathy for either side is tempered if not nullified by our strong suspicion that both Government and Opposition would change their positions in a heartbeat if circumstances were reversed." In my 70th year, I can recall no time in Australian political history that the Labor side of politics attempted to deny the legitimacy of an elected Government. On the conservative side, the governments of Jack Lang, Gough Whitlam (twice), Kevin Rudd and now Julia Gillard have been subjected to this claim, and in the cases of Lang and Whitlam, been dismissed from Government. Am I wrong in my recollections?

David Mithen | 13 June 2012  

Thank you Zac. There's always a risk in writing on this subject that the baby exits with the bathwater; that those we once called 'conviction politicians' are tainted by association. Unfortunately, as I see it, these good folk no-longer seem to have a voice at all in the modern political world of the five second sound byte and tight control of 'who-says-what-when'. They still exist, of course, and even those that you have named and others that we might think of who engage in the grubbiness of politics are no doubt people of conviction also. Its just that in this electronic age management of the sound byte is everything. But that's an excuse, really. I see no real reason why we still cannot find a person or persons who can lead this nation through the articulation of a grand narrative about where we should go, who we should be and, most of all, why?

Paul Russell | 13 June 2012  

Hi David, Your recollections may well be correct. But in the context of the Thomson and Slipper affairs to which I referred, it is hard to believe that either side is motivated by anything more than political expedience.

Zac | 13 June 2012  

Thanks for explaining, Alan. I have to admit I've turned increasingly to the ABC for news and commentary in recent years. To determine the true source of the malaise would require objective data from this point on. So we'll have to agree to disagree on the prominence of our competing causes. It's possible I'm underestimating the effect of the broader media on public sentiment toward politicians. But I still believe the tv and radio presence of the politicians themselves carries greater weight in public esteem.

Zac | 13 June 2012  

Russell: I think the public are either weary of most of the causes you mention, or have lost faith in the power of government to improve the situation. I think the climate change issue was bungled by Labor's off-again, on-again, approach; though the Greens seem consistently emboldened by their identification with that cause. Likewise, much of Abbott's support stems precisely from his opposition to the government's policy on climate change. Perhaps the Greens are the exception that proves the rule? Their whole existence is (in theory at least) dedicated to the environment. But when it comes to Labor and the Coalition, their original reasons for existing have dwindled.

Zac | 13 June 2012  

Thanks Paul. I think it's an unhealthy situation to be in, and I am sure no one willingly sets out to adopt such a behaviour. Hence: thank God I am not in politics. It's interesting to note how positively people respond to the 'refreshing' yet rare instances of a politician (or more typically an ex-politician) speaking his or her mind.

Zac | 13 June 2012  

"the Greens ... whole existence is (in theory at least) dedicated to the environment." Zac that's incorrect. If you look at their website you'll find the Greens are based on 4 key principles: social justice, participatory democracy, peace and non-violence and ecological sustainability. I started votong for the Greens before they were the Greens: I voted for Jo Vallentine (you wouldn't remember) who was a nuclear-disarmament campaigner (a Quaker) who later became a Green senator for W.A.

Russell | 13 June 2012  

Please forgive the inaccuracy Russell. Would you agree that the environment is the Greens' 'raison d'etre'? As their website states: "The Greens are much more than an environmental party" but that is still the reason why they exist, is it not? Labor is likewise more than just a labour movement party, but the labour movement is their reason for existing in the first place. I mean, that is why they're called 'greens' right?

Zac | 13 June 2012  

It seems a few still believe that the Green Party would have some answers to issues relating to social justice, participatory democracy, peace and non-violence and ecological sustainability. The fact is that the Greens Party is merely a hobby or toy of Bob Brown. It has been used to propagate his personal ideology amongst many well meaning , but simple minded people. He managed to destroy true environmentalism in Australia and his nihilistic world outlook is in direct opposition of basic believes of Christians and Muslims. I believe that the Green Party will continue to grow as a growing number of people are frustrated with the major party and use the Green Party as the waste dump for their protest votes.

Beat Odermatt | 13 June 2012  

The real issue is that most Australian people are disenchanted with politics. However, they are not necessarily disengaged. The reasons for the disenchantment are twofold: the ALP and the LNP coalition have become centralised and bureaucratic organisations which do not include members and the community in the policy development process; the second reason is the mediocre and superficial coverage of politics by the popular mainstream media. Most of the media commentators make either spoken or written comment which are illinformed and meaningless opinion and speculation. The ABC radio and TV coverage of news and current affairs has deteriorated in recent times and is mostly trivial and celebrity nonsense, with the exception of the program 'Late Night Live' presented by Phillip Adams. The best radio coverage of politics is provided by the Melbourne community radio station 3CR. The best written coverage of politics is provided by the journal 'Arena'.

Mark Doyle | 14 June 2012  

Thanks for your article, Zac. Do I gather that nobody has yet nominated anyone 'who is not to blame' for the current situation? I would like to adapt some rhetoric from Time Magazine to nominate Nobody: Nobody is not to blame.

Tom Clark | 15 June 2012  

Hi Tom, I think you're right. Thank God for Nobody!

Zac | 15 June 2012  

When Pauline Hanson first achieved national prominence with whatever bit of outspoken-ness that got her dis-endorsed by the Libs, David Oldfield was a staffer for Tony Abbott. Oldfield left Abbott's office to go straight to Qld to advise Hanson and Ettridge on how to set up their new political movement - advice which the Electoral Commission considered to be flawed, so that One Nation received no reimbursement for its electoral expenses. The Beattie government subsequently imprisoned Hanson and Ettridge for defrauding the Electoral Commission, by which time Oldfield was safely back in NSW. When Peter Slipper resigned from the Libs and became parliamentary Speaker, James Ashby was still a member of the Libs; Ashby resigned from the Libs in order to work in Slipper's office. Abbott is a specialist in stunts, and has no capacity for dignity. His role is to pull the Government into the mire with him, leaving the Libs free to choose some "cleanskin" as leader in the run-up to the next election.

David Arthur | 15 June 2012  

Poor salesmen dodgey or not, scapegoats even, it comes with the territory so it seems. I recall a friendly bishop suggesting a lonely salesman to get the church out of an awkward situation. "It's a wise child who knows their father", said she.

L Newington | 15 June 2012  

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