If you ask a group of citizens what they would like most in their politicians they would tell you that they want them to be honest. If you then ran a candidate for office promoting them as honest, that candidate would most likely be ridiculed.
While we all want honest politicians, a claim by most politicians to be honest will actually undermine their credibility, such is the perceived gulf between the ideal and the real.
Our society is ambivalent about honesty. While it is a virtue to be honest, it is only a virtue to be strategically honest. The concept of the white lie lubricates social intercourse, placing absolute truth below pleasing or placating others. Ambrose Bierce’s definition of diplomacy as "The patriotic art of lying for one's country," hints at the ethically defensible lie. In the Judaeo-Christian world lying has never
been absolutely unethical. The 10 commandments contain a lot of Thou-shalt-nots, but apart from bearing false witness against a neighbour, lying is not one of them.
Today, the liberal agenda has brought forth a new paradigm in politics and issues management which favours higher levels of honesty, yet many politicians and commentators have failed to recognise this. The Enlightenment project to build a
society based on consent between freely associating equals implies the sharing of information. As the only information worth sharing is accurate information, it also implies honesty in government.
Sharing that information has also become easier. The invention of the printing press combined with the Industrial Revolution gave people the means and the time to access information that was once the preserve of a tiny privileged elite as well
as the discretionary wealth to fuel a boom in the generation of even more information. Radio, television and the internet have accelerated that trend.
In part this is one of the reasons why politics has become more volatile. At one time the decision of how to vote was driven much more by socially distributed information – what friends and family said. Now, other sources of information
provide alternatives and have weakened the hold of traditional social networks.
As a result, politicians who can demonstrate honesty are in demand. That is one of the qualities that drives the very volatile Pauline Hanson phenomenon. For a lot of One Nation voters it is not so much what Pauline Hanson says, but that she
has the courage to come out and say it, that wins their vote.
But being uncritically honest can be just as big a problem as being dishonest. The Australian Labor Party currently offers a study in the rules of what to do, and what not to do.
Cheryl Kernot wrote an opinion piece for The Australian on 9 April. In it she contrasted the "dream team" – the new Australian Democrat leadership of Stott Despoja and Ridgeway – with the "boring suits" who run
the major parties (including hers). She also passed unfavourable judgement on the "ritual stag fights and scalp hunting" which dominate our democratic processes, and provided some analysis as to likely Democrat strategies and the ways
in which the established parties were failing to promote younger members. Media coverage of the article treated it as a gaffe. However the article was actually a good exposition of how to play the new information-driven political paradigm.
The first rule in political honesty is that it will resonate most strongly about those things that are obvious to all. In this article Kernot is stating what the majority of us believe. Most people do find politicians boring, and we hate the
adversarial system. It will resonate even more strongly if the statement appears to be generous and even-handed. Again, Kernot’s article passes this test. Not only does she praise the new leadership (despite a public history of competiton
between her and Stott Despoja), but she offers some criticism of her own party.
Another rule is not to be honest in a way that will lose votes at the next election. In fact, if you must be absolutely honest, avoid critical policy areas altogether. Again, Kernot obeys this rule. She is commentating on personalities and
approaches, not policies.
Much of the media criticism that Kernot attracted was fuelled by internal ALP politics. Kim Beazley seemed uncomfortable when defending her while backgrounding rivals had no compunction in inserting the knife. This is not surprising. Political
parties have not adjusted their structures to the more open society. They are tribal and power tends to accrue to those who possess information. There is little premium to sharing it around. Group loyalty, the mother of the white lie, is more
important than individual preference and integrity.
To be fair to the ALP, they are much more open and tolerant of dissent than the Liberal Party. While the Liberal Party does have public intellectuals (Tony Abbott being the latest to tread this path) they are much less likely to flout the
party line in the ways that Mark Latham, Lindsay Tanner and even Duncan Kerr (see article this edition) do. Still, when it comes to front benchers being honest Labor is sensitive.
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