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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Leunig: lies + truth « Previous | |Next »
May 22, 2010

Tony Abbott confessed on The 7.30 Report that he sometimes said things in the heat of battle that he had reason later to regret and to amend. Or that what he said contradicted his previous positions. Abbott was stating the obvious about politicians like himself: they often lie to get themselves out of sticky situations.


Hence the honesty defence argued for by Terry Barnes in The Age:--Abbott was actually an honest voice in a political sea of spin, deception and broken promises.

However, the issue goes deeper to the relationship of trust between politicians and the electorate in a liberal democracy. The base position is that all politicians lie just like advertisers. Hence they are distrusted, just like used car salesmen.

Barnes recognizes that this is a bad situation for liberal democracy to be in and adds:

If we tolerate a political culture in which it's normal to say and do whatever it takes to win and hold power, we need to not just criticise and condemn those politicians falling short of perfection, but take a very hard look at ourselves and ask if we're encouraging them by our own indifference.

Our indifference? With used car salesmen we employ a mechanic to check the car before we buy it. Who do we have to check up on the deliberate deceptions of the motley crew of politicians?

The media has traditionally said that it was the watchdog for democracy that would ensure citizens would have the information they needed to make their judgments. Trust us. These days if journalists have not succumbed to infotainment, then they are recycling media releases as their own copy to further the corporate media's political agenda. So we are left to our own devices to cope as best we can:--all politicians lie. It goes with the territory, as do grumpy, cynical electorates. The system is broke.

Barnes' solution is dysfunctionality is to suggest self-regulation by the politicians, then to reject it as impractical. He says:

In 1996 Peter Costello introduced the Charter of Budget Honesty to ensure that the financial state of our nation is always presented consistently, honestly and prudently. It's tempting to suggest that political statements should be subject to similar rules, but this would be impossible to implement. Instead, in a democracy like ours voters have a responsibility to deploy their own political lie detectors, and mark down those caught out....In future, when all who aspire to govern ask us, "Can I be trusted?", our answer should not be a cynical shrug and a "yeah, whatever". Otherwise, we will get the politics we deserve.

Barnes' doesn't go far enough with self-regulation. One option is to strengthen the checks and balances that have built into the political system of liberal democracy.

Checks and balances on executive dominance would be a good start by giving greater power to the committee system in both houses of Parliament. Proportional representation for the House of Representatives, along the lines of the Hare-Clarke system, would be another place to start. This would ensure that we citizens have a choice about who to vote for and against within all political parties.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:28 PM | | Comments (7)


"...ensure citizens would have the information they needed to make their judgments"

But surely that's at least PART of the problem. It seems to me that a large slab of the electorate either don't want to know about that information of are unable to process it.

Prime examples... the climate change and asylum seekers. It's much easier to fall back on bigotry and willful ignorance ignorance when it comes to these issues.

In the case of asylum seekers, simply ignore the causes and facts and let the govt take the heavy-handed approach. Just lock 'em all up. After all, better safe than sorry, eh?

In the case of climate change, simply ignore the science and let the govt take the limp-wristed approach. Just wait for everyone else to do something first. Don't inconvenience the polluters. After all, we don't want to harm our magical economy, eh?

Bottom line... I think a large part of the electorate isn't mature enough to make the logical judgments, even if they had the information.

Ignorance is bliss. And if we can blame the pollies and the media for out poor judgment, then our conscience is clear!

(Of course the information isn't really that hard to come by if you make a tiny effort. A lot of us do it every day. But as long as we keep believing in the Easter Bunny, maybe the chocolate will keep rolling in. If we were to face the facts... well that could be rather inconvenient!)

The defence is that "All politicians lie. Abbott is a politician and his statement is [refreshingly] honest." Sounds like the Liar Paradox to me.

The Greens proposed a law to impose truth as a requirement in political advertising. However, both major parties voted it down. The inference? They want the freedom to be able to tell lies.

Of course they want the freedom to tell lies. AND naturally, it's for the good of the country.

Sometimes it takes the Strauss version of the "noble lie" to move the voters in the proper direction. The elite know it's for the common good. And more effective than trying to explain complicated (or unpleasant) facts.

Martin Jay on lying in politics He's just written a book on the subject--- The Virtues of Mendacity --lying is part of the job in politics. Political mendacity is here to stay and we might as well accept that fact.

He gives an interesting example of the role hypocrisy plays in finding common ground to unite factions that have different values and interests, yet have to unite to win a majority of supporters in an election.

Our major parties are composed of loose coalitions and fragile alliances that need to rally around a candidate or a platform, even though there is a great deal of residual competition and even hostility. The public knows that enemies in primary fights, who accuse each other of the most unforgivable sins, will unite to face a common foe, quickly forgetting the accusations they made in the heat of the previous battle. At some point, either before or after the alliance is forged, someone is varnishing, if not utterly betraying the truth of what they believe and feel. But we give them a pass because we know that a genuine consensus based on rational deliberation is highly unlikely, and yet democratic politics requires building a winning coalition. Built into the process, in other words, is a meta-level understanding that truth-telling is not always the best policy in even the most democratic of political contexts.

Telling lies to power, to reverse the reigning cliché, may have its place. Lying, he says, is woven into the very fabric of our democracies. And far from being an aberration, it can actually be quite virtuous.

Most of the recent outrage about lying in politics has been directed against the lying of governments from above to the people they supposedly represent.

Witness the recent hostility directed towards Leo Strauss and his American neo-conservative progeny, which was aimed at their invocation of Plato’s argument for a “noble lie” to justify the rule of a benign elite that imagines itself to have the best interests of the polity at heart in their War on Terror.

Although they defended their actions by saying they lie not out of protective self-interest, but rather out of concern for the welfare of those they lie to, the suspicion remained that the latter may really only be a cover for the former.

So when do we get the government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Or is that sort of thinking considered unfashionable these days?