*Pic: David Obendorf’s pic of a display in the Fullers Bookshop window …
First published November 16
How could a Government-funded program persist in chasing a myth for over 15 years? And why would people misrepresent events and even produce false evidence?
In Richard Flanagan’s recent book – First Person – he describes a storyteller’s journey into the workings of an experienced con-man.
‘Less experienced liars would have sought consistency in their untruths. But life is never consistent … he had realised that the vast ineptitude of his illusions was by some alchemy their most convincing proof. My problem was how to impose order on these unorderable recollections’
[Richard Flanagan (2017) – First Person (page 185)]
‘He contradicted his own lies with fresh lies, and then he contradicted his contradictions. It was as if he could not exist except in the tumult of self-denial. As an instinctive ruse it was more than effective. For the challenge to reconcile such outrageous lies lay not with him, but with you, the listener.’
[Richard Flanagan (2017) – First Person (page 122)]
‘Some people tell stories lightly, a trotter with a light sulky racing along behind. Others are like an elephant slowly dragging a train, but slowly the train moves, And then there are the truly great storytellers … they ride you, and you gallop faster and faster, thinking only ever that is what you want and you are never aware – until it is too late, far too late – that on your back is a rider, that you are being ridden to your death, and that there is now no way of stopping the story becoming you.’
[Richard Flanagan (2017) – First Person (page 186)]
But what motivates experienced tricksters to misrepresent or indeed lie?
First Person is based on Richard Flanagan’s 1991 commission as the ghostwriter for a conman’s autobiography. Back then Richard tried to get into the head of a man who admitted that he’d used misrepresentation to create a business based on deceiving banks into giving his organisation access to hundreds of millions of dollars. His name was John Friedrich; his organisation was the National Safety Council, Victorian Division and the 1991 book is titled Codename Iago.
No-one, least of all the ghost-writer, can attest that these were Friedrich’s actual words (they may appear in court transcripts or sworn testimony) but here is how John Friedrich’s autobiography justified his actions.
‘The lawyers, the judges, the media, the publishers – they all want reasons why I did what I did. I can give you motives if you want them, but in reality I have always done what seems like a good idea at the time. I have never operated with a strategy in mind. If something looked like it would be worthwhile I did it or arranged to have it done. That’s all.’
[Codename Iago (1991) (page 234)]
‘I didn’t act because, like most illegal things – say, speeding – this sort of thing is not a problem until the moment you get caught. And up until that moment everybody was happy with National Safety Council Victorian Division – the Board, the various government Departments, the banks, the clients and the people who got rescued and had their lives saved. … … When the Council collapsed it could have continued for some time yet. We had $40 million of undrawn borrowings but I accept that the situation couldn’t have continued indefinitely. … We could have continued for a while longer, if I had not turned my back on the whole thing and walked out. What I am saying is a big admission. This whole book is a big admission.’
[Codename Iago (1991) (Chapter 16)]
Perhaps Richard Flanagan’s novel analysis could equally be applied to the ‘unsubstantiated’ 2001 claim of live foxes in Tasmania; a narrative that seemed just too devastating to ignore.
But what has Flanagan’s conman autobiography got to do with a story about foxes in Tasmania?
In this first place the sources of finance for the fox hunt were Government Treasuries, not banks. And the key to the Treasury was a need to convince Governments that Tasmania in mid-2001 faced an existential threat to its biodiversity – the threat that foxes would establish in Tasmania.
That conviction was re-enforced in just a few media soundbites:
‘The information that authorities have received leaves no doubt that foxes were deliberately brought into Tasmania.’
[Nature Volume 416 28 March 2002 – Nick Mooney]
‘You have to say the releasing of foxes in Tasmania is worse than sabotage, it’s ecoterrorism. … The very best result with this whole situation would be if someone could show us that this is a giant hoax. It’s the best result because it would mean that there’s no foxes.’
[ABC George Negus Tonight 12 June 2003 – Nick Mooney]
‘Do you believe that that actually happened? That cubs were brought in …?’
Nick Mooney: ‘I don’t know. To me, it’s … it’s a story. It might be a very credible story when told by some people, but I don’t have a strong view of it … because I’ve seen no evidence.’
[ABC Background Briefing – The Great Tasmanian fox hunt 2 May 2013]
Indeed the Tasmanian and Australian Governments – through the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry – financed a prolonged war on foxes. It employed a small army to locate and eradicate foxes; taxpayers at the State and federal level paid for it.
Despite the expense neither the Department nor their collaborators – the Invasive Animals CRC – were able to confirm the existence of any live foxes in Tasmania.
Beginning in 2014 independent peer-reviewed research demonstrated that the physical evidence gathered in Tasmania was unsound and to date neither organisation has chosen to vouch for their data or justify the expenditure of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to eradicate an animal they could not locate.
Science and reason tries to protect us from sensational misperceptions. In the end it may be the only way to disinfect and indeed protect citizens from unsupported misrepresentations. Perhaps this explains why some ‘public science’ is now viewed in the same light as politics: self-interested and lacking in transparency.
It is particularly troubling when public servants with science training appear afraid to re-examine and learn from the presented evidence of misrepresentation and fabrication of physical evidence.
Are we living in a time when securing a well-paid public service job comes with an implied caveat: “must be a weak individual with no willingness to stand up for higher values or defend reason” and “a proven capacity to bend your knee and look the other away”?
Institutions go rotten when rank-and-file staff silently follow persons in authority over a cliff. In the John Friedrich case his army of employees were lost souls. They needed moral leadership and it was replaced by lies and fraudulent behaviour.
So, do such Iago-type personalities thrive on weak people who blindly accept irrational and untested stories? And how often do the weak and the powerful become co-dependent players in these dances of deception?
But please remember the creation of fake media is nothing new to Tasmania.
Before the March 1993 general election the Tasmanian Greens preselected paediatrician Dr Judy Henderson to be their Tasmanian Senate candidate.
Two days before the vote, a railway employee found an apparent bomb on a railway bridge adjacent to a log-loading yard at Black River in NW Tasmania. Drivers of two passing cars reported a nearby sign “Earth First” to Tasmania Police and to TasRail.
That evening in State Parliament then Premier Ray Groom without any evidence said: “It is most regrettable that some more extreme elements of the conservation movement may be willing to use the threat of violence to pursue their cause.”
On the Friday, the day before the election The Advocate newspaper ran a front-page story headed – Railway Bomb: Environment Group Linked. The paper identified ‘an international eco-terrorist group Earth First’. That evening all the TV news bulletins in Tasmania showed police scouring the area for further evidence which might demonstrate that was a deliberate act of ecoterrorism.
Judy Henderson narrowly missed out on a Senate seat. The ‘bomb’ was found to contain ammonium nitrate and a second device located nearby had wires and batteries but was deemed incapable of being used for detonation.
Police documents dated July 1993 obtained after a Freedom of Information request revealed; ‘the device is considered [by Tasmania Police] to be an elaborate hoax and they are not ruling out the possibility that it may have been placed there by loggers in an attempt to discredit the Green movement.’
No-one has been held to account for placing a hoax bomb on the Black River railway bridge. [Reference: An Activist Life – Christine Milne 2017] ( HERE )
Democracy is in crisis. Public institutions that project spin over substance undermine their own credibility. Projecting a perception of foxes – foxes that weren’t there – is a fitting metaphor for how far our Tasmanian politics has gone off the rails. Increasingly people aren’t going to tolerate such baseless and self-serving dishonesty.
When Jim Bacon became Tasmania’s Premier in 1998 he understood how important the government propaganda was to staying in power. His Government Media Liaison Unit produced prodigious amounts of set-piece media to dress up and leverage government programs. Premier Bacon literally head-hunted journalists he wanted from the local newspapers, commercial TV and the ABC and paid them far more than they could ever earn in the private sector. In this way local media was tamed to play along with Government policy. Twenty years on and arguably there are more journalists now employed inside government to fend off the public interest than exist outside to defend it.
Moulding public perception is now a bog-standard skill of government with little regard for truth. In the process admissions of uncertainty, doubt and a capacity to correct the record has been outlawed. Pretending has become all important. And it is a slippery slide from pretence to fabrication and from fabrication to fraudulent behaviour.
In the post-truth world we are seeing what happens when self-interest is enabled by deliberate deception.
Well, enough is enough. The processes of government that have pretended to serve us for so long have gone well beyond their use-by date. Integrity must return to public processes.
*David Obendorf is a retired veterinary pathologist who has had a particular interest in Tasmania’s biosecurity & biodiversity. He is a co-author of several science papers which researched the physical evidence relied on by the Tasmania’s fox program ( available at www.tasmanianfox.com ) and has authored many articles on this topic here on the Tasmanian Times website ( HERE ). David prepared case reports for each incident where physical evidence was collected; his reports were included in a formal complaint of the fox program MLC Ivan Dean presented to Tasmania Police in February last year. After the Tasmania Police investigation report was completed, Mr Dean’s complaint was then referred on to DPIPWE and the Tasmanian Integrity Commission.
• Jack Jolly in Comments: … Deception is the way this is done. That’s how High Rise Harry gets to turn Sydney and Melbourne into Hong Kong. He’s given a licence by the state government to do so, and to hell with what the people who live there want. Did anyone ask the people of Sydney and Melbourne? Nope. Oddly, governing the state would be a hell of a lot easier if it was done on the basis of finding out what the public wanted done and what public values require … If you can chase something that does not exist for 15 years and spend $50 million on it, then claim that it has been an outstanding success, then there are no limits to the bullshit you will project. Anything is possible. Isn’t that the lesson of the fox fiasco – that government has no shame and no fear of the public whatsoever? They can look us in the eye and lie time and time again. There are no consequences …
• David Obendorf in Comments: … Perhaps it is a bitter pill. That this expensive eradication program was based on some unconscionable lying and the use of imported hoaxed evidence calculated to deceive. The presentation of false, unsubstantiated allegations to Tasmania Police was bad enough, but lying to a fox ecologist compounds the offence. To falsify physical evidence using dead fox exhibits adds to the gravity …
• Jack in Comments: Of course, the government in the lower house can always cancel parliament when things get too hot as Do-Nothing Malcolm (Member for Goldman Sachs) has just done: HERE
• Lyndall Rowley in Comments: … David – the above questions are rhetorical only. You need to rest and save yourself for the Royal Commission. In the end – after the clean-up – Mr Ian Rist and you David, as well as other courageous and persistent fighters for integrity in government as well as in science, deserve a public apology from government for how you’ve been treated and should instead be given our sincere thanks.
• David Obendorf in Comments: … Are any of these resignations, investigations of nepotism, white-collar fraud and cronyism linked to a systemic and unaddressed malaise in the Tasmanian Public Sector? You can literally exhaust yourself trying to shine a light on those in the leadership positions who leave these expensive and sickening trails of chaos. And I haven’t even mentioned the extensive investigations into staff misconduct, nepotism and misuse of funds in RSPCA (Tasmania) only a few years ago.