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Truth? You can’t handle the truth

The nature of truth and honesty and their roles in daily life is a topic of awesome breadth and depth. And the consideration of truth and honesty, specifically in the conduct of our national affairs, is a fascinating exercise in which naivety and reality contend.

In an attempt to eat the elephant one mouthful at a time—and given my own limited experiences—I’ve chosen to consider truth and honesty in the arena of public life, specifically, the conduct of our national affairs. I make my remarks from the perspective of one who, for good or ill, supervised all the communications that emanated from the political party that held the balance of power in the Australian parliament from 1998 until 2001.

The topic of truth and honesty is of tremendous importance but, I regret to observe, of seemingly little consequence to an increasing number of Australians, certainly if the results of the 2004 federal election are anything to go by.

I shall argue that truth and honesty in public life require a great deal of those who live public lives, those who report on them and those of us who sit back reading, watching and listening. Certainly, honesty in public life is as much the responsibility of the public as it is the responsibility of our elected leaders.

Further I shall argue that if we, as members of the electorate at large, are to expect truth and honesty in the conduct of our national affairs, we have a responsibility to face up to the truth, whatever it is, with courage and maturity.

In preparing my remarks I consulted the dictionary, and the various definitions of ‘truth’ were instructive. There was the predictable stuff about truth ‘conforming to reality or actuality’; as ‘a fact that has been verified’; as ‘being a true statement’. However, I suspect, to the eternal gratitude of politicians, spin doctors and journalists everywhere, truth is also exemplified in several reputable dictionaries as ‘having the quality of nearness to or close correspondence with reality or actuality’. Cutting to the chase, according to these reputable dictionaries, truth is not absolute and ‘near enough is good enough’.

Nor, upon reflection, does truth appear to be objective. What is true for one might well not be true for another in that one person’s truth, as derived from a set of facts and/or events, might well, and quite reasonably, differ from another’s. This scenario, I’m sure, is familiar to those of us who are married and is of immense consolation to our political leaders and their minders.

I’ve also heard historians argue that there are ‘many truths’. This is a fascinating notion and one which, I hope, is not subscribed to by medical researchers and the aviation industry. But in all of this, one thing is true: there’s nothing as unpalatable to the general public as the truth.

On the ABC’s Four Corners, a senior and well-qualified Australian, Mr Robert Barton, admitted to being involved in, and had raised concerns to his superiors about, the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. True, this was well before the Abu Ghraib atrocities came to light. However, despite ministerial statements to the contrary, we now have reason to believe the Australian government, at department level at least, was aware of Australian involvement in the interrogation of prisoners—in Iraq certainly, if not at Abu Ghraib specifically.

More importantly, we learned that the same person was among a number of United Nations weapons inspectors convinced that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction or a WMD program. Further, he repeatedly told this to Australian authorities. When his advice was ignored or overridden, he felt compelled to resign—as did inspectors from other countries.

If Mr Barton’s claims in this regard are true, there is even more compelling evidence to suggest that Australia joined the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq on what it knew to be a false premise.

However, if truth and honesty in public life were to prevail, I invite you to consider that a press conference on the matter given by John Howard at Parliament House might have gone something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the story. President Bush wants to invade Iraq for a whole host of reasons, none of which make a lot of sense to us. But he wants Australia to go along for the ride. He’d like everyone to believe that Iraq has WMD and a WMD program but the truth is there’s not a lot in it—if anything.

So our dilemma was this: do we go into Iraq with the US just because we’re mates and we might need a mate in the future? Or do we decline politely? One upside of going in is that we’ll be helping to knock over Saddam Hussein—and one thing, I think, all Australians agree on is that Saddam is a serious piece of work.

Anyway, we are the elected government for the time being and we are charged with making decisions, some of which are not easy. The reality is we had to make a call here and we did. Today, as Prime Minister of Australia, I am here to announce that Australia will join the Coalition of the Willing. Are there any questions?

How would the Australian public have reacted to the truth, as baldly stated as that? What would it have meant for Australia’s capacity to participate productively in international affairs? Is such a scenario hopelessly naïve or refreshingly idealistic?

I don’t have the answers. However, the main point is this: if we, for whom decisions are made by our elected representatives, expect to be told the truth, we have to be able to deal with it. We have to be prepared to shoulder the responsibility and accept the consequences of knowing the truth. And we have to resist the temptation to shoot the messenger. Too many honest politicians are hounded or voted out of office—though it does not follow that being hounded out of office presupposes honesty.

Just before Mr Beazley was re-elected to the leadership of the ALP, I wrote an article for the Independent Weekly which comprised the sort of speech I wanted to hear from whomsoever was going to lead the ALP. With regard to the issue of truth and honesty in public life, I wrote this:

I undertake to tell the Australian people the truth, however unpalatable. If you don’t like it, vote me out at the next election if you want. As far as my fitness for office is concerned, this is a decision for you, the Australian people, not my opponents or the nation’s journalists. Like all political figures on both sides of the divide, I freely admit my past is not blemish-free. However, if you want a saint with a pristine past to be your leader, look elsewhere. This is not about the past. It’s about the future.

I am also reminded of the response of Col Jessep (Jack Nicholson) to Lt Kaffee (Tom Cruise) in the film A Few Good Men, when Lt Kaffee asks for the truth. ‘You can’t handle the truth,’ says Col Jessep.

Truth and honesty in public life can only be sustained if we can handle the truth; if we have the courage and maturity to accept, value and nurture truth-telling in our elected leaders.

The reality is, however, that our political leaders have little incentive to speak the truth and every incentive to dissemble and spin. Our national affairs are, more often than not, conducted according to the ‘near enough is good enough’ definition of truth. Trade in half-truths and obfuscation—and the ill will that inevitably follows—might sell papers and advertising but it will not improve the health of indigenous Australians, it will not solve our aged-care crisis and it will not restore the Murray-Darling Basin.

In 2001, I attended a private forum convened by a major Australian company to which the three major players (as they were then) on the political field sent a senior elected representative. The forum was conducted under the Chatham House Rule:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed; nor may it be mentioned that the information was received at a meeting of the Institute.

I was struck by the vigorous but courteous debate and I was also struck by the extent to which the three ‘antagonists’ agreed. I remember thinking how much better it would be for us all if our national affairs could be conducted like this. Back in Parliament House a few days later, two of the three were back in the ring, slugging it out with all the desperation of Jimmy Sharman’s boxers. My question was then—and is now—why could they not bring the honesty and maturity displayed under the Chatham House Rule back to Parliament House?

It’s also important to reflect on the media’s role in truth, honesty and the conduct of all our affairs, national, state and local. With a number of notable exceptions, the role is not an entirely glorious one.

Rather than an ongoing, intelligent and unbiased discourse, too often political journalism is about getting a ‘story’ or running an agenda. Ensuring a front-page story or securing the lead spot in the news bulletin will, fairly often, involve a little manipulation of the facts, some selective reporting, a judicious choice of words and the application of sanctimony on a grand scale. While this doesn’t happen all the time, it does happen with monotonous regularity. Interesting too, that when teachers (usually reviled as ‘lefties’, whatever that might mean these days) attempt to equip their students with the skills and knowledge necessary to recognise manipulation by the media, there are howls of conservative outrage.

During Lent, Christians reflect on the life of a bloke who trod the Earth as a humble carpenter and who surrounded himself with other average blokes, fishermen and the like. I’m pretty sure that among the Apostles there were no stockbrokers, government ministers, merchant bankers or real-estate developers.

Regardless of one’s position as to whether Christ is the Son of God, his life was an exercise in truth, honesty and the courage that goes with them. In the course of his life he told his mother to get off his back, as he had more important things to do. I invite young men everywhere to consider the sort of courage that takes. He told people he was the Son of God when he knew that, in saying so, people would either think him insane or accuse him of blasphemy. In the certain knowledge of an incredibly painful and drawn-out death, Christ told Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees the truth when it would have been easier to lie. His own community nailed him to a cross and left him to die of asphyxiation on a hillside, in the sun, surrounded by criminals. Hardly an incentive to tell the truth.

But 2000 years later, more than 33 per cent of the people in the world claim to be Christians and at least half that number again have heard of Christ and know in broad terms what he stood for. Entire civilisations, including their literatures and their arts, are constructed on the principles he espoused.

Whether one is a believer or not, the message here is clear for our political leaders: truth equals market penetration, a loyal customer base and brand longevity. 

John Schumann was the lead singer and  a songwriter for the Australian band Redgum. He has acted as chief of staff for then leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Meg Lees. In the 1998 federal election he took Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to postals in the hitherto safe Liberal seat of Mayo. He lives in Adelaide and runs his own strategic communications company.



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