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Honesty in Politics



Honesty matters
When pollies use the language
To deceive, they are guilty of
hypocrisy - moral dishonesty


by William Maley

Shortly before the 2004 election, a stellar cast of distinguished Australians came together to express concern about standards of honesty in public life. Their intervention had no apparent impact on the poll, and won them little favour: they were even denounced as 'Doddering Daquairi Diplomats' by one of the Coalition's most sophisticated intellects, Ms De-Anne Kelly. Nonetheless, in pointing to the importance of this issue, the signatories performed a singular public service, one on which the Lenten Public Lectures are usefully building. For if ever there was a time in which it was important to recover a sense of the importance of honesty in public life, it is now.

In my remarks, I want to do two things. First, I offer some general observations about the circumstances in which honesty is morally important and explore some of the different forms which dishonesty can take. Second, I examine a number of cases in recent memory which expose the need for higher standards of honesty in Australian public life. The lesson of these remarks is a sobering one. We have reached a sad pass where not only have standards of honesty fallen at elite level, but the willingness of the mass public to make honesty a criterion of where to allocate their votes has also diminished. This sets us on a dangerous slippery slope, and it is by no means clear where it will finally lead us.


There are some circumstances in which a simple demand for universal truth-telling might lead us to moral disaster. Some years ago, I had the benefit of a conversation with a Dutch scholar who as a young man during the war had been involved in sheltering Jews from the Gestapo. Of course, telling lies about who lived in the attic was part and parcel of the requirements of the times. How ludicrous it would be to demand that some obligation of truth applies to those circumstances. However, it is vital to recognise just how unusual these circumstances are. In the Gestapo case, men and women of goodwill were confronted with circumstances of life and death where public justice was impossible, and the foreseeable consequences of telling the truth to the Gestapo would be devastating in human terms (see Monroe, Barton and Klingemann, 1990). To put it another way, the Gestapo had no right to be told the truth.

In less troubled times, circumstances dictate different responses. Political order in liberal democracies is sustained as much by informal understandings as by constitutional structures, and if political leaders are not to be trusted, trouble can ensue. This is sometimes because a mass erosion of trust spawns a legitimacy crisis, but it can also be because untrustworthy leaders retain a significant following, setting the scene for what scholars have called 'delegative democracy' or even 'illiberal democracy' (Zakaria, 2003). The skepticism about government defended by scholars such as Russell Hardin makes a lot of sense (Hardin, 1999), particularly when the political class exploits mass fears in order to weaken the institutional checks and balances upon which a liberal political order depends. This was captured in a remark by the US statesman Benjamin Franklin: those who would sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Where lack of honesty is concerned, lying is often the form which most obviously comes to mind. And the deliberate, calculated, and selfish lie is indeed the form of dishonesty most calculated to affront: the victim of such a lie is unlikely ever to trust the liar again. However, there are three other forms of departure from high standards of honesty which also deserve attention: 'recklessness' with the truth, the telling of 'half-truths', and 'hypocrisy'. In addition, toleration of dishonesty is itself a matter of real concern.

Recklessness typically occurs when a claim is made without an adequate effort to establish its veracity. The key term here is 'adequate'. The world is far too complicated for everyone to be involved in direct checking of every empirical claim which they make. Ordinary people rely in the ordinary course of events upon claims which they have reason to treat as authoritative. But a particular responsibility falls on those who know that their claims are likely to be widely disseminated, or to cause harm to an innocent party if they are inaccurate. Here the excuse that a false claim was made without malignant intent may not be a good enough defence if it was made with reckless indifference as to whether it was true or false.

Half-truths come in a number of shapes and sizes. At one level, human discourse at its very best offers only a partial account of complex realities. Our conversation is shot through with simplifications and metaphors which are easily recognisable and only occasionally problematic. When we speak of `decisions' made by Washington, London, and Canberra, we are using a form of shorthand, rather than seeking consciously to mislead. However, half-truths can take a more sinister form, where convenient truths are widely aired, and less convenient truths are not. This is in some respects the staple of election campaign promises where the fine-print is often obscure-but on close scrutiny, what are often under discussion are not truths (in the strict sense of correspondence with facts), but rather expectations of the future ('interest rates will remain steady') or even counterfactuals ('interest rates will always be lower under the Government than they would be if the Opposition were in power'). Partial truths are dangerous when what is omitted is available only through the goodwill of the agent of dissemination. Thus, when governments quote 'intelligence' which supports what they want to do, but suppress other 'intelligence' which points to a more complex or equivocal situation, their honesty should come under question.

Hypocrisy, the application of different standards to situations which should be treated similarly, is a deeply insidious form of dishonesty. It is worth noting that hypocrisy is particularly reviled in some non-Western political contexts: Islamic discourse, for example, uses the term 'hypocrites' (munafiqun) as a most scathing form of denunciation. Thus, when Jeane J. Kirkpatrick in a famous Commentary article entitled 'Dictatorship and Double Standards' (Kirkpatrick, 1979) defended cooperative relations with authoritarian dictatorships (such as that of the Shah of Iran) on the grounds that 'totalitarian' dictatorships were worse, she found a sympathetic audience in the United States, but attracted scorn from Islamists who viewed the entire argument as a manifestation of rank hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can take the form of a demand for ethical pluralism in some circumstances, and ethical absolutism in others. I have heard a senior Cabinet minister oppose abortion on deontological grounds, and defend detention of asylum seekers on consequentialist grounds, denouncing its critics on the grounds of their 'moral vanity'! The late Judith Shklar once observed that the 'only voice that damns hypocrisy to some purpose is one that laments that the society in which we live does not live up to its declared principles, promises and possibilities' (Shklar, 1984: 86). Hypocrisy, at its core, is moral dishonesty.

Toleration of dishonesty is something which should also be recognised as a problem. Social order is produced not simply by norms which prohibit certain forms of behaviour - for example anti-Semitic remarks - but also by metanorms which require condemnation of those who violate such primary norms (Axelrod, 1986). This is more demanding than one might think, for it requires a willingness to override other norms of social behaviour, such as requirements of interpersonal courtesy. Sometimes it may seem easier to overlook dishonesty, on the basis that to err is human to forgive divine, and ordinary citizens may deserve the occasional indulgence. Political leaders do not.


In the run-up to the 2001 election, Australia witnessed a depressing slide in standards of public honesty. In what was manifestly an attempt to exploit longstanding bigotry among Hansonites (Gibson, McAllister and Swenson, 2002), the Howard Government, with its 'Children Overboard' claims, threw caution to the winds and contaminated public discourse with allegations which were suspect at the time, and later shown to have been false. This occurred in three ways.

The first was the circulation of the 'Children Overboard' claims by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs on 7 October 2001. Here what was at work was recklessness of a high order. On the basis of scanty information about a fast-moving situation provided by his Departmental Secretary, the Minister went straight to the press with claims which were deeply hurtful and damaging to those about whom they were made. Mr Ruddock not only disseminated the incorrect claims that had been conveyed to him by the Departmental Secretary, but added categorical statements about the motivations of the alleged perpetrators, whose (non)-actions, he stated, were undertaken 'with the intention of putting us under duress'. There is nothing to suggest that he paused for even a moment to reflect on how reports of this sort might be contaminated by the 'fog of war' or distorted in the process of transmission. Nor, more disturbingly, is there any evidence that the psychological implausibility of what he was claiming slowed him in any way. Most disturbingly of all, he made his claims when there was no morally compelling reason why he should not have had them fully checked before they were aired to the vast audience which their dissemination at a press conference virtually guaranteed. Mr Ruddock continued to assert his innocence of wrongdoing. In Parliament in February 2002, he claimed that 'you do not have to tell untruths to protect our borders. I have not told any untruths.' (House of Representatives Hansard, 14 February 2002, p. 192). This left his listeners to struggle with the paradox of the untrue statement that is not an 'untruth'.

The second way in which discourse was contaminated was through the failure of the Government to correct the record once the Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, informed Defence Minister Reith that there was no basis for the 'Children Overboard' claims. Far from correcting the record, Mr Reith provided a written statement to Major-General Roger Powell dated 20 November 2001 which stated that 'at no stage have I received advice that the children were not thrown overboard. There has been no evidence presented to me, which contradicts the earlier and first advice'. Yet we know from Air Marshal Houston's subsequent evidence to a parliamentary committee on 20 February 2002 that on 7 November 2001, in the presence of Brigadier Gary Bornholt, Air Marshal Houston had advised Mr Reith that 'fundamentally there was nothing to suggest that women and children had been thrown into the water'. Mr Reith might maintain that 'advice' means 'written advice', although such usage does not accord with ordinary language, and would also imply that Mr Ruddock first aired the 'children overboard' claims without having received 'advice'. Mr Reith might also maintain that the advice from Air Marshal Houston was not positive advice that children had not been thrown overboard, but merely advice that there was no evidence that they had been. However, such an argument is casuistical in the extreme, and in any case, it would be impossible to maintain seriously that Air Marshal Houston's advice did not contradict 'the earlier and first advice'. As I wrote in a submission to the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident: It 'is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that, having deceived the general public by concealing what he had been told by the Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Mr Reith also set out to deceive Major-General Powell through the way in which his submission was worded.' His submission to Major-General Powell was a classic example of a half-truth.

The third way in which the Government contaminated public discourse was through its refusal to apologise to the victims of the Children Overboard slur. The closest that Minister Ruddock came to conceding his role in the dissemination of untrue claims came in a press release on 25 October 2002 in which he referred to 'an apparently incorrect report that asylum-seekers had thrown a child or children into the ocean, originally emanating from within the military and quickly gaining public currency'. His role in ensuring that it quickly gained public currency was not something on which he seemed at all interested to reflect. The Prime Minister equally refused to utter a word of apology. Some might question whether a refusal to apologise for false slurs is strictly dishonest. What is incontestable, however, is its sheer meanness.

In more recent times, we have witnessed the example of untrue claims about Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction being used to justify a war. This case is in some ways more debatable than the 'Children Overboard' claims. Professor Hugh White, a respected independent commentator on defence issues (and a trained philosopher to boot), has challenged the view that the Prime Minister lied over the matter, pointing to advice that he received, erroneous though it was, about Iraq's activities. There is, nonetheless, one respect in which in my view Mr Howard is vulnerable to the charge against which Professor White defends him. For in presenting his case to the public, Mr Howard did not simply voice suspicions; he claimed knowledge. To the public, the Prime Minister stated that 'The Australian Government knows that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons' (Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS, and DSD, 2003: 90). His responsibility for precision and candour was very high, since he was relying on classified material to which his listeners had no access. Yet the intelligence advice available to the Government was much more qualified, and his presentation of intelligence advice highly selective: a report to the Australian Parliament noted that 'significant intelligence not covered in the government presentations included an assessment in October 2002 that Iraq was only likely to use its WMD if the regime's survival was at stake and the view of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the UK, available at the beginning of February 2003, that war would increase the risk of terrorism and the passing of Iraq's WMD to terrorists' (Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS, and DSD, 2003: 97).


I had planned to finish on this point, but I cannot forebear referring to one even more recent episode, where a casual approach to truth seems to have been no barrier for ascent to great heights. On 24 February, the news broke that a columnist for The Australian, Dr Janet Albrechtsen, was to be appointed to the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) upon the recommendation of the relevant Minister, Senator Helen Coonan. What made this interesting was that the appointee had been the target of a forensic expose by the ABC program Media Watch, and its substance is worth revisiting.

In a column in The Australian on 17 July 2002 entitled 'Talking race not racism', Albrechtsen took up the very sensitive issue of the causes of pack rape, in terms that seemed to be grounded in scholarship: 'Pack rape of white girls is an initiation rite of passage for a small section of young male Muslim youths, said Jean-Jacques Rassial, a psychotherapist at Villetaneuse University. "Fraternal bonding now dominates. It is the law of the gang, shorn of any sexual morals," he said.' She subsequently conceded in a fax dated 6 September 2002 that she 'did not contact Jean-Jacques Rassial' but claimed that what she had written was a 'fair' representation of views attributed to him in an article in The Times (Adam Sage, 'France wrings its hands as young run wild', The Times, 5 December 2000).

That article, however, presented Rassial's views in a different way: 'Jean-Jacques Rassial, a psychotherapist at Villetaneuse University, said gang rape had become an initiation rite for male adolescents in city suburbs. He said: "Fraternal bonding now dominates. It is the law of the gang, shorn of any sexual morals".' In Albrechtsen's version, 'gang rape' became 'Pack rape of white girls' (emphasis added), and 'male adolescents' became 'young male Muslim youths' (emphasis added). It is one thing to misrepresent an author by not quoting his views fully; it is another thing to misrepresent an author by attributing to him words which he has not used, especially when an effect of such misrepresentation could be to inflame community tensions. Such shoddiness in scholarship would disqualify the perpetrator from receiving an academic appointment in any reputable university, and when government then rewards the perpetrator through appointment to a position of responsibility, one can only conclude that the ministers involved should be sent off for remedial classes in the 'values education' which we are assured is so important in our schools!

Dr William Maley AM is Professor and Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. He taught for a number of years in the School of Politics, University College, University of NSW, Australian Defence Force Academy. Bill was also a Visiting Professor at the Russian Diplomatic University of Strathclyde, and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Refugee Studies Program at Oxford University. He is a member of the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP).




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