Image for Lies, promises and mandates

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott routinely denounces Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a liar. He does so with the tacit support, through failure to challenge this claim, of much of the media. Given the complexity of the emissions debate this is an effective tactic, since many people will be asking themselves if they can trust Labor to do the right thing; but who can trust a party leader who makes dishonest claims ?

The mantra has been taken up by most opposition members, and with special enthusiasm by Christopher Pyne, shadow minister for education and manager of Opposition business who, in the 7:30 Report on August 25, complained that Gillard had told two lies; first that she would not challenge Kevin Rudd, and secondly that she would not introduce a carbon price. Chris Uhlmann, an outstanding ABC journalist, saw no reason to question the choice of terminology.

The truth of the matter is that every time Abbott and Pyne make this claim they are perpetrating a deception on the public, an irony the media strangely ignores, although it is hard to believe this falsehood (it is not hyperbole) is one which Abbott - a former Rhodes Scholar with post graduate qualifications in politics and philosophy from Oxford - and Pyne, formerly a practising lawyer, do not understand.

There can be no doubt the Prime Minister made an important electoral promise, meant to be taken seriously. But the fact that she later reneged, whatever criticism it merits, is no ground for a charge of dishonesty. There is a big difference between a broken promise and a deliberate lie, and if we ignore it we lose both clarity and integrity in journalistic opinion and public debate.

While no one denies that politicians have a duty to fulfil their electoral promises, there is no dishonesty unless there was no intention to do so - if it was just a ruse to get elected. We might justify such a conclusion if we knew, from past behaviour, that Gillard was habitually dishonest, or had evidence that she did not intend to keep this particular promise.

However that may be, few people will deny that governments must, if circumstances warrant, defer or ignore promises for good reasons, such as reasons of national security or because floods or other disasters have priority, or because funding its promises will jeopardise the nation’s financial stability in ways not envisaged when they were made. But the threshold is not set by epic events; if material facts change so as to render an election promise pointless, or a waste of money, or self-defeating, ministers have a general default duty to protect the interests of the community.

In such cases we might criticise the government, not for telling lies, but for making careless or foolish promises, knowing the public will rely on them, and that some might suffer loss. We need to clarify whether new circumstances justify the decision, and if the government responded with competence, a sense of the moral cost of breaking its promise, and a readiness to mitigate harm if appropriate. These issues call for thoughtful examination by journalists and opinion writers.

Dishonesty in the conduct of official duties is a different matter. It has long been a convention of the Westminster system that a minister who lies to the representatives of the public in the House must resign. John Profumo, a British Secretary of State for War who had been implicated in a sex scandal in 1963, resigned in disgrace for lying to the House, and spent the rest of his life working in the East End for charitable causes.

Lesser cases of lying are also likely to have grave political consequences, because the public understandably place a very high value on trust. But lying also goes to personal character such that an allegation is prima facie defamatory - it would, arguably, be actionable if it were not so common as to raise a defence of fair comment on a matter of public interest. But the fact that it is common and may not be actionable does not mean it is acceptable.

A ‘mandate’, in common usage, is what government is entitled to do by virtue of having won office on the basis of its legislative program, not because it was the lesser of two evils or because the public was tired of an incumbent or because - faced with a threat to national security or financial stability - it wanted more decisive leadership. The mandate is seen as conferring a right, as well as imposing a duty, to pursue its program.

But keeping electoral promises is only one of the obligations a government must take seriously. It must also respect important values it shares with the community, including those underlyingcitizens’ rights, such as rights to vote, free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial and a right not to be punished except for a proven offence against valid laws. If keeping a promise will undermine rights, the government has a duty to defend them, however much this disappoints or offends voters; it has no right to make promises which violate our rights.

Finally, because circumstances may change dramatically a government’s mandate must be read, not as a categorical imperative, but as a promise that it will do its best to implement its program and that it will not pursue alternative policies, inconsistent with its promises, dealing with the same matters. But what if the policy has been rendered pointless or will not work, or the benefits are too costly and will derail more important goals? Once again it must give up the promise and try to show it did so responsibly, for reasons we can respect.

The problem (apart from slander and misrepresentation) in confusing lies with broken promises, now pervasive in the media, is that it distracts attention from this issue viz. whether the reasons relied on were, in the end, sufficient to justify the breach of faith. This is, however, a more demanding intellectual task, as well as one in which the best answer will rarely be demonstrable.

Notwithstanding, one way to raise the present standard of political debate is for journalists and opinion writers to frame their questions and assessments on this premise, and ask politicians like Abbott and Pyne to justify their far-too casual claims of dishonesty.