Despite Mark Latham's best efforts, the 2004 Federal election was not a stricture on honesty in politics. Latham commenced the campaign swinging, calling John Howard and the Liberal government dishonest and deceitful. But during the ensuing weeks of the campaign, Howard's level of probity or lack thereof was all but forgotten in the media and collective consciousness, the election being fought, and decided, on substantive policy issues such as economics and health, experience, and the ever-present buzz-phrase 'homeland security'.
John Howard is a politician who has lied and been caught at it, red-handed and bald-faced. In addition to his germane but murkier failures to deliver on election promises, Howard was caught out most egregiously in lies on the children overboard issue, his talks with Manildra over ethanol fuel, and on his level of knowledge concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Yet the public did not seem to care. Almost farcically, the overwhelming campaign message from the Government was on trust in economic management – that word trust, used so duplicitously, in connoting scruples as well as ability.
Why is it that we seem to care more about Shane Warne (and for that matter, Rodney Adler) lying than the man who holds the highest political office in the country?
In light of John Menadue's call for identification of values to inform our policy (New Matilda magazine, 15 June 2005) it is time to ask, what has happened to the value of truth in Australian politics? And what can we do to reclaim it?
The value of truth
Why do we care about the truth? The truth is both a pragmatic benefit and an ethical imperative. Pragmatically, truth is a result of the correct use of language; the truth-teller uses words appropriately to describe reality accurately (see, eg, Nietzsche, 'On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense'). Effective truth telling only occurs if language is used unambiguously; minimising the hazards of half-truths, excessive qualification, and misinterpretation.
On an ethical level, truth telling is a guide to virtuous conduct. In the absence of vitiating factors, it is generally better to tell the truth rather than lie.
Both of these elements come into play when considering truth in politics. Politicians are afforded a privileged position in society. They are able to make decisions as to how to spend public money and shape the fabric of society. Accordingly, they are in a position of great fiduciary obligation.
Further, in a democracy, politicians are our representatives. Yet, through what they say, politicians are able to impact the very process of effective representation. By lying, politicians alter the flow of information to the public, adversely affecting the quality of representation, and abusing our trust.
Why then, do we suffer political dishonesty? I can think of at least three possible reasons.
They all do it
Perhaps Australia's remarkable indifference to the lies told by our political leaders is the product of a sense of resignation. The impression is that all politicians, as well as other public or authority figures, lie or are dishonest in some way. Australians, especially young Australians, are so cynical of politicians, that when one comes forth proclaiming his or her honesty, our first thought is that they are lying.
The Labor party might well take the message from the last election campaign that campaigning on honest representation does not work. This would be a sad result.
We all do it
It is also possible that we see lies in politics as simply an extension of the society in which we live (what effective representation!). Lying is, to some degree, a part of every day life for all of us. With no hint of bashfulness, we speak of lying in euphemistic terms – 'being economical with' or 'stretching' the truth.
However the lies politicians tell are not part of the everyday web of modern society. And not to condone casual lying, but we have little hesitation, in holding many public figures, such as Messrs Warne and Adler, up to higher standards than ourselves.
Lying ain't that important to us
Perhaps the most realistic appraisal is that lying just does not matter that much to Australians when judging their politicians (informed, of course, by the fact that they all do it and we all do it). Honesty takes a back seat to how much mortgage repayments will cost and issues of leadership.
How, then, to make honesty and truth matter more to Australians?
Truth telling as practice
Political pragmatism generally is well embedded in the collective consciousness. Such a mentality filters down through our institutions, creating a culture in which less than honesty is acceptable. To rectify this situation, direct contact with the populus is necessary. We have to get people used to expecting truth and honesty.
One such way is free, open, debate in forums such as New Matilda and the CPD.
Another device, widespread on a social level, is the weblog, or blog. The value of the blog in creating a direct and reciprocal debate is already being realised by the corporate world. Particularly valuable are blogs which allow virtually uncensored reader comments. Because the reader has such a direct, even intimate, relationship with the words on the page, their meaning assumes greater importance. We are no longer consumers of information but participants in the information exchange.
Consequently, those who read and comment on blog pages develop a commitment to honesty. Blogs by their very nature cannot but be honest. Successful blogs, whether it be in disaster relief, current affairs, or corporate PR, are those that exchange information most freely. Blog readers do not care about polish. Form of words may not have been agonised over. Honesty is valued over sophistication.
To be sure, there is potential for abuse of the close relationship of trust between blogger and reader. However, in the corporate context it has been observed that faked authenticity is the death of a blog; due to the speed of the online universe, dishonesty is swiftly detected and exposed (Richard Brass, 'The Blogging Revolution', ACCA, 3 May 2005).
Politicians with their own blogs are starting to emerge, though in Australia, Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett is the only one I know of. Blogging by politicians, as well as by journalists and others in the political sphere, should be encouraged. A more participatory model of information exchange is crucial. When Australians practice truth telling on policy issues, perhaps they will care about their representatives doing likewise.