I KNOW of only two professions where, in order to succeed, the occupants of those professions are required to be deceitful, as in inherent part of their daily job.

Defence lawyers and politicians.

Defence lawyers are contracted to defend their clients, whether or not they are guilty or innocent. As often as not, the defence lawyer must argue hard that the client is innocent, knowing all the while that he or she is as guilty as sin. It goes with the job.

Similarly, politicians are generally caucused by their party to defend, and even argue persuasively for, a particular policy position, whether or not he/she agrees with that position. During the MP’s career their personal worldview and that imposed by their party hierarchy will conflict and cause him or her serious moral dilemmas. To dissent is rare, for to dissent against caucus is to bring down the wrath of the party and to jeopardize the MP’s advancing career and even pre-selection at the next election.

Defence lawyers and politicians thus are trained to become practiced, inveterate liars.

What we know of children who tend to lie and those who are more honest, is that a particular event will cause the child to lie, perhaps for the first time ever. The first lie may initially cause some guilt. Subsequently, if the child becomes gradually habituated to lying, the guilt quietly dissipates and the lying child from hereon will have trouble differentiating between truth and fantasy. The practiced liar can lie without blushing.

In the case of defence lawyers, their ‘lying’ is a pantomimed role play. Its strategic purpose is understood and the required deceit is confined to a third person’s case history and need not conflict with the lawyer’s own moral convictions or broad worldview. Defence lawyers therefore generally suffer no public or private loss of integrity in carrying out their work —  and, anyway, can refuse work that may cause them too much distaste.

On the other hand, a freshly elected young MP is apt to feel great anguish when caucus first requires them to vote against their personal belief. (One avoidance strategy is to try to abstain from voting. But, on an issue of high principle, if a politician is silent he/she is effectively lying and still carries the same internal burden.) Over time the veteran politician becomes so practiced in deceit that they no longer suffer obvious anguish and can lie without blushing.

Erosive dilemma

At a personal level this erosive dilemma can be seen as a reflection on the integrity of the particular MP, but it is much more so a reflection on the institution and profession of politics. The tradition of party caucusing breeds dishonesty and habituates most politicians to live a lie. Every day of their lives. It goes with the job. Some will use weasel words to try to distance themselves from the deceit and thus salve some of their guilt, only to look rather foolish.

Getting back to Bryan Green, as far as we know nobody required him to hold back the truth regarding his role with the Compliance Corporation. And I do not pretend to know the facts of the case.  But, in mitigation, like all politicians, Green was well practiced in the art and instinct of politics — say what you are supposed to say.

I am not arguing for or against Bryan Green’s innocence, but definitely there is a case for the tradition of caucusing to be relaxed in Australian politics, to help break down the cycle of habituated deceit. Even in the United States it is commonplace for Republicans and Democrats to ‘cross-the-floor’ without undermining their respective party — much more so than Australian politics will allow.

Is the party caucus necessary?  Small parties in Australia generally practice only light caucusing control over their MPs, if any. And the major parties will, on rare occasions, allow a vote of conscience — usually over moral ‘churchy’ issues, such as the controversial RU486 drug.

During the passage of that Bill many observers remarked on the unusually high quality of debate, as one after another the politicians spoke from personal conviction, from the bottom of their hearts, rather than just toeing the party line. And, even more saliently, the sky did not fall in! If a free vote can be successfully allowed on one issue, then where are the boundaries? Why not other issues? Why caucus at all?

Though some level of caucusing is argued to be necessary in order to enforce solidarity and party political stability, it is very feasible for the major parties to partly relax the tradition of tight caucusing of their MPs.

In the first instance this can entail broadening the ‘conscience vote’ beyond churchy moral issues, to a much wider range of non-core legislative initiatives. That is, initiatives that would not make or break the government of the day, but where a much more mature, informed debate would ensue. And where backbenchers and opposition members have a genuine parliamentary role to play, other than to just make up the numbers.

It is in the public interest to help politics mature in small ways. We will probably never know if Bryan Green is innocent or guilty of any crime. But his case highlights the lack of integrity that is virtually built into the profession, to the extent that lying can even be seen to enhance an MP’s reputation.

Politics may be what it is — a pantomime of deceit — and politicians are unlikely to become habituated to honesty. But there many small ways the quality, maturity and honesty of politics can be enhanced. An obvious first step is to widen the free vote. As with daylight saving, maybe Tasmania can take a lead and kick start the rest of the nation to follow suit?

Chris Harries, Whether or not he broke the law, Green was just being a dutiful politician, wasn’t he?

On the other hand, a freshly elected young MP is apt to feel great anguish when caucus first requires them to vote against their personal belief. (One avoidance strategy is to try to abstain from voting. But, on an issue of high principle, if a politician is silent he/she is effectively lying and still carries the same internal burden.) Over time the veteran politician becomes so practiced in deceit that they no longer suffer obvious anguish and can lie without blushing.

At a personal level this erosive dilemma can be seen as a reflection on the integrity of the particular MP, but it is much more so a reflection on the institution and profession of politics. The tradition of party caucusing breeds dishonesty and habituates most politicians to live a lie. Every day of their lives. It goes with the job. Some will use weasel words to try to distance themselves from the deceit and thus salve some of their guilt, only to look rather foolish.