They’re both simply engaging in the sort of expedient lying that is a working politician’s everyday lot. Politics isn’t a profession for saints.
No, perhaps politics is not the career for the scrupulously honest, but that doesn’t mean that we should be happy about our elected representatives constantly treating citizens as somehow intellectually inferior and unable to understand the necessity to be frugal with the truth and at the same time true to one’s conscience.
I was going to make a comment to Ken’s post about the unacceptability of mendacious expediency but thought back to an article that appeared in last weekend’s AFR titled “THE NEED FOR TRUTH: When politicians lie: reflections on truth, politics and patriotism” by Raimond Gaita and decided that there is much more to the topic than would fit comfortably into a comment box.
In a piece called “Debates about primacy of conscience show the need for truth and freedom.” Andrew Hamilton says,
When so many people find government policies and their execution morally repugnant, we need a moral framework that expects and honours conscientious dissent …… It is not helpful to see truth and conscience as rivals for precedence. When placed within the play of conscience truth does have primacy. When we ask what we should do, we affirm the value of truth. When forming our conscience, we enquire about the truth. After we recognise the truth, we choose to follow it but remain open to changing our way of acting if what we believed to be true turns out to be false. So truth does have primacy within conscience over self-interest and arbitrary choice.
As Gaita puts it,
TRUTH AND TRUTHFULNESS matter to us in politics for at least three reasons. Most obviously they matter because they bring practical benefits. We want contracts to be honoured; we are reliant on information that we cannot ourselves secure, so we need to trust the media. We also want our bridges to stand, our doctors to cure us, our lawyers to defend us competently, and so on. In a society such as ours, standards of truthfulness need to be high and the means of discovering truths – medical, scientific, and so on – very sophisticated. For such practical reasons we even encourage people to seek truth for non-practical reasons – for its own sake – because we hope that it will increase the yield of groundbreaking work.
A widow who was consoled by government propaganda about the cause for which her husband gave his life may become suspicious of that propaganda and, with mounting desperation, seek the truth about what is fast appearing to her to have been an unjust war. She is reliant on the truthfulness of the institutions that can give her the information she needs – most obviously, independent media.
Citizens who also love their country can hold their politicians to account when the mendacity of their politicians affects their material interest and when it undermines their capacity to be lucid about important events or aspects of their lives. They can also hold them to account when their mendacity defiles anything that counts as the serious love of country ……… The Platonic Socrates of the early dialogues seems to believe that a preparedness to do evil when necessary is internal to serious political commitment and that those who refuse to do it will be judged to be irresponsible by their fellow citizens ……… Politicians must, as politicians, sometimes do what morally they must not do. That dilemma, soberly acknowledged, constitutes the misery and the dignity of a political vocation. It would therefore be quite absurd to deny that politicians must sometimes lie if they are honourably to rise to the responsibilities of their calling. Acknowledgement of that, however, is a far cry from the cynical expectation that politicians will lie to protect their parties and even their careers …….. Perhaps that is why so many people accept that there is nothing in the very nature of politics, as there is in professions like law or medicine, for example, that should make politicians ashamed to lie as often as they seem to – ashamed, not just as human beings but as politicians. Few people believe that politicians who lie regularly disgrace their profession.
Nonetheless politicians are regularly put at the bottom of the list of respected and/or trusted professionals. Indeed do they warrant the courtesy of labelling them professionals – and if the answer is positive probably only because most of them are lawyers whose egos are so supersized that the court is too small a place to air them. In the words of that famous professor (no, not the denizen of the billabong) ‘Why is it so ?’
I believe one of the reasons is that they regularly treat the electorate with contempt, while all the time mouthing the platitude “we respect the voter”. It isn’t true ! For instance I refuse to be drawn into the persistent presidential style of electioneering that is adopted by both parties.
Whether the Bovver Boy swears in parliament or John Winston Pinnochio is frugal with the truth is of less importance than the big picture. Who will be responsible for the Treasury ? It will probably be Simple Simon (a politician widely regarded as untalented at best) if Labor gets in; but will Howard be able to put off the same sort of Costello-attack that unseated Hawke and led to the eventual demise of the last Labour government ? And if so who will be the new coalition Treasurer?
How is the government going to pay the public servants their $100 billion in superannuation ? These are the things I want to know about.
I guess it’s too much to ask that politicians of any ilk will have an attack of conscience and actually address some issues that are actually meaningful to the country rather than the squeakiest wheel or the most exposed hip pocket nerve.