Wednesday, 24 January 1996

Politics, lies and promises by Simon Longstaff

I suspect that very few people enjoy telling a deliberate lie. Yet, if history is anything to go by, a reasonable part of what is promised during the federal election campaign will turn out to be impractical (or unpolitic) to deliver.
Whoever wins, we might reasonably expect to count the usual list of broken election promises in a few years' time. This is one reason why politicians may strenuously seek to avoid making too many specific commitments. Another is that, like most of us, they would prefer not to be locked into positions that limit their freedom once safely ensconced on the treasury benches.
I also suspect that very few people enjoy being called a liar. So we might look for evasion and equivocation. Indeed, anything to avoid giving an uncompromisingly straight answer that could be used to identify a contradiction at a later date. So, we can expect plenty of ambiguity and a volume of ‘weasel words’. In these conditions, it will be just as important to take note of what is not said as it will be to attend to the exact language being used to express proposed policy.
I suppose that comments such as these capture certain popular views about the political process. However, is this nothing more than pandering to ill-informed prejudice? Perhaps we could consider the views of one of the master craftsmen of contemporary ‘political-speak’.
Richard Farmer has helped to fashion some of the most effective political speeches delivered during the last couple of decades. This is what he had to say about truth in politics when asked to consider the question a few years ago:
Politics is rarely about telling the truth. Normally it is about telling people things that they want to hear. The skilful politician monitors public opinion, determines what people believe, packages their best lines and sells them back to them. It will always be thus as the primary concern of a politician is winning.
An initial response to Farmer's account of what happens in practice could be an increase in cynicism about the political process in Australia. This is not a result that I would welcome. While much in favour of healthy scepticism, I believe that the acid of public cynicism, corroding the foundations of our society, is already too potent. Besides, if we take Farmer seriously, who should be the object of our cynicism; the politicians or ourselves?
The core of Farmer's observation is that politicians tell people “the things they want to hear”. This raises the intriguing possibility that the electorate does not really want to hear the truth. Instead, we may long to be told that there are easy answers to life's difficult questions; to be reassured that the world is less complex than we fear and that our overweening expectations can be met. If this is so, then it is a recipe for perpetual disillusionment.
Having said this, it could be argued that a 'mature' society will still need its fairy-tales and that election fantasies contain deeper truths about the kind of people and society that we would like to be. Viewed in these terms, it could be said that we all participate in an elaborate charade in which politicians bear the brunt of having to tell the odd fanciful story that we not only wish, but need, to hear.
Yet, is this to conclude that the community is primarily responsible for creating circumstances in which being “economical with the truth” is essential to winning the democratic contest? That is, are politicians more or less alleviated of any special responsibilities as principal actors in the drama?
I am uncomfortable with this conclusion because it tends to undermine the basis for representative democracy such as we claim to have here in Australia. These foundations assume that an elected representative will be willing and able to exercise independent judgement on behalf of all citizens and not just those who voted for her.
Unlike in some other systems of democracy, our politicians are not required to act as our delegates. The difference is that delegates are little more than the mouthpiece of majority opinion in each electorate. As such, the judgement of a delegate is subsumed by that of the community she represents.
On the other hand, a representative must decide each matter on its merits. That is why, for example, we have a situation in which a majority of the community seems to favour capital punishment, yet the majority in parliament does not. In a representative democracy we elect people of independent mind and good judgement. At least that's the way it is supposed to work in principle. Political parties complicate the picture but do not distort it entirely.
Now, if this is so, how can it be that candidates for election feel compelled to buckle under the weight of public expectations? Is it too unreasonable; is it impossibly naive to hope that they might look to our interests (and not just our wants) and offer a realistic programme for good government? I believe that politicians should offer an honest and realistic account of where they would lead us, and the conditions under which they can be expected to do so - even if the electorate would prefer not to hear this!
Some may argue that a certain laxity with the truth (and even an unavoidable lie) is to be tolerated when done in order to secure the best interests of others. However, it is not at all clear that this indulgence should extend to those who play loose with the truth out of self interest.
Which, of course, leads me to consider what is, perhaps, the most unnerving possibility in any democratic election. We must be especially wary of individual politicians and political parties who trick themselves into believing that what is good for them is good for the country. Of all fantasies, it is the one most easily accommodated.

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.
A version of this article was written for publication in the Australian Financial Review in January 1996
© St James Ethics Centre