IN The Spectator of 20 August, 2005 Paul Johnson wrote an article on “… the fatal propensity of politicians to lie.” It is an article — in a respected journal by a respected writer who also happens to be editor of the journal — that should resonate with all of us.
However, by way of background and with a view to revealing the flavour of Johnson’s thinking, I would like to offer some quotations from his article.
“Lying is a terrible thing in any circumstances. When politicians and governments lie, it is a sin against society as a whole, against justice and civilisation.”
“… it is a historical fact that lying among politicians has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.”
“During my lifetime there has been a collapse in political truth-telling unprecedented in our history. I date its commencement from the late 1950s and the dreadful 1960s …”
“For half a century Home Office ministers have lied about immigration, shamelessly, blatantly, in detail, and have permitted or even trained their officials to do likewise.”
“As immigration expanded, and was in due course supplemented by the new and essentially mendacious concept of ‘political refugee’ and the ‘asylum-seeker’, it was descanted by an endless succession of falsehoods by all parties.”
“Can we wonder that the entire political class is now not only despised but, increasingly, hated; and that if ever they were abruptly removed ‘at a stroke’ … not one finger would be raised in their defence.?”
Did I lie when I was in politics?
Johnson leaves us in no doubt as to his view of the situation in the United Kingdom. He asserts that politicians are liars and that lying has become endemic. It has become integral to the contemporary political ethic. From my reading of various British publications over the years I think he is right. I believe too that it is also an issue in the other democracies or at least in those with which I am reasonably familiar, including Australia.
Before I pursue this proposition further let me properly dispense with a personal dimension to the issue. As some readers will know, I was once a politician. For four years I served in the Tasmanian parliament. I was elected twice and served both as a minister of the Crown and as an opposition front-bencher. I resigned for a range of reasons, not least of which was that I went into politics when I was nearly 50 and there were other things that I wanted to do with my life.
Did I lie when I was in politics? Yes, I did and I am not proud of it. I don’t recall any massive porkies but I deflected and used fancy footwork and mealy-mouthed language and ducked and weaved, for example in defending a controversial policy initiative or in explaining an administrative or organisational deficiency. And there were doubtless other issues and other elusive responses and other deflections.
So, back to lying in politics and how it manifests itself. First, there is the straight unembellished lie — the pork pie or porky — and known to be so at the time and seen to occur either routinely or, especially, in election campaigns. We shall build the Boondocks Dam in our first term of government or no ewe will have footrot by 2007 or we shall bring elective surgery waiting times down to three months before The Ashes are regained! Paul Johnson cites the case of the abolition of capital punishment in Britain when parliamentary doubters were assured that “life will mean life”. “Virtually all the speakers advocating the reform used this precise phrase. Of course they were lying. Life did not mean life. It meant an average of 13 years, in some cases as little as seven.” However, perhaps the best remembered and most colourful example of the blatant lie was President Bill Clinton’s declaration that he had “ … never had sex with that woman.”
Another form of lying is the odious notion of ‘’spin’ which has become an art form in itself with the most talented practitioners being ministerial staffers, media advisors and others who are described as ‘spin doctors’. This kind of manipulative presentation of information is as old as life itself and used by most segments of society where individuals and groups seek to find and massage the words and statistics necessary to maximise the impact of their own case and diminish, if not demolish, the cases of others. For politicians, however, it has become an art form. Moreover, within politics, all parties engage in manipulation through the use of spin and related techniques — the so-called minor parties as well as the principal parties, Liberal and Labor.
Downright lying and manipulation
Then there are all the other things that politicians do to head your thinking off in directions that, at best, convince you of the rightness of their claims or, at worst, keep you neutral. In this context, there are such techniques as the selective use of statistics; using jargon, highly technical or complicated language; omitting reference to something important but incompatible with the proposition being pushed; bombarding the target audience with a surfeit of information, much of it irrelevant or knowingly misleading; stonewalling until the time is considered right; duck-shoving the issue to a senior public servant and thus hoping that it will emerge with a patina of independent professionalism; waiting until the eve of public holidays or major events — Easter, Christmas, Olympic Games, AFL finals etc. — to release bad, sensitive or provocative news. All these techniques and others are used every day by all sorts of individuals and institutions, but especially by politicians, to influence our thinking. And in many such instances what is being done is at best borderline in moral terms and at worst downright lying and manipulation. However, there is an important difference between politicians and other citizens, businesses and organisations in that, unlike the others, the politicians are answerable directly to the people who also happen to pay their salaries and fund their superannuation.
Another consequence of these developments has been the progressive and serious erosion of the principle of ministerial responsibility. For example, the immigration issue at Federal level should in my view have led to the voluntary resignation — or, failing that, the sacking — of the relevant minister. It is arguable that the same treatment might well have applied to a number of bungles in Tasmania over recent years. In some of these cases, at both Federal and state levels, there was also, in my view, the additional and quite improper tactic of ministers seeking to hide behind senior bureaucrats.
So, where does the individual politician stand in all this whether he or she be Prime Minister, Premier, minister or backbencher? Are they all liars, as Johnson is inclined to say, or are there excuses, explanations, elaborations and special considerations that need to be teased out? Yes, all of that.
For example, does it follow from what I have said that all our politicians are liars? Specifically, for example, do I believe that Paul Lennon, David Llewellyn, Rene Hidding, Will Hodgman and Peg Putt are all persistent pathological liars? Or the politicians holding comparable positions at Federal level? No, I do not believe so. I know all the above-mentioned Tasmanians — although none of them well or as close friends — and I do not consider them liars. I might question their style or their competence or their judgement but I don’t consider them to be liars or, at least, I don’t think any of them would be disposed to dishonesty of any kind outside politics. I think I know sufficient about them to believe that they are decent citizens who lead decent lives. Having said that, I reiterate that as politicians they do lie — in the literal sense of that term — and they do so directly or indirectly, blatantly or with subtlety, often or infrequently.
Politics has become an increasingly more venal, competitive business
How then do I equate the laudatory part of this judgement with my earlier assertion, flowing from Johnson’s argument, that all politicians are liars and that lying in politics has become endemic? My response to that is that the problem lies not in the individual so much as in the nature and practice of contemporary politics. Politics has become an increasingly more venal, competitive business and this situation has been compounded by the absence of any significant philosophical/ideological difference between the principal parties. The sequel to the fights of the 1950s and 60s — including the brief establishment of the DLP and Gough Whitlam’s victory over Joe Chamberlain and his mates, together with the sinking of the old Clause 4 impediment — was that ideology largely disappeared from Australian politics. As a result we have the two major parties arguing over 5-10% in the middle where, without any substantive philosophical content, the scope for greatly divergent policy positions is minimal. Thus, almost like kids in the playground, they resort to name-calling, abuse, rumour, exaggerated claims, counter-claims and a lot of theatrical posturing. As far as substantive policy issues are concerned the differences amount to little more than thinly disguised me-too-ism.
Perhaps the other principal reason why lying, in one form or another, has become so prevalent in politics is because of our apathy as voters. I am inclined to think that, for the great majority of voters, politics has come to be seen as some kind of necessary evil. A yawn. They aren’t going to change so we’ll just ignore them! Well, if that’s the case then we get the politics and politicians we deserve. Alternatively, we can choose if we wish — as individuals or in small or large groups — to remind them of their deficiencies and of what we expect of them. If perhaps just a few more people wrote letters to the papers; if just a few more people raised this issue on talk-back radio; if just a few more people wrote to our politicians and expressed their concern; if just a few more people and groups of people were proactive in election campaigns on the matter of honesty in politics; then there may be some tangible response. However, before they do any of that they should better familiarise themselves with politics and politicians by not glossing over references to politics in the paper, by attending a parliamentary sitting now and then, by familiarising themselves with who the candidates in elections are and how well equipped they are to represent their electorate. In other words, do some homework.
Resolution of the problem of lying in politics rests as much with the people who put them there as it does with the politicians themselves. Inaction and disinterest will only mean that we get the politicians we deserve.
Nick Evers has been a diplomat, senior public servant, businessman, consultant and occasional writer of short stories and articles. He was a Liberal member/minister in the Tasmanian parliament from 1986 to 1990.