Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech On Republican Virtues: Truth, Leadership & Responsibility

Malcolm Turnbull has delivered a speech on truth, leadership and responsibility in which he argues that there is a “deficit of trust” in the Australian political system.

Malcolm TurnbullThe speech is likely to cause a stir in the Liberal Party. By implication, Turnbull takes a swipe at his 1990s monarchists opponents, John Howard and Tony Abbott, over their campaign of “utterly dishonest misinformation” during the Republic referendum campaign.

Turnbull is dismissive of climate change denialists and the shock jocks who promote them. Again by implication, he attacks Alan Jones and others: “Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent’s policy does not respect ‘Struggle Street’, it treats its residents with contempt.”

Turnbull is critical of Question Time in parliament. He says of the Opposition’s approach: “For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focussed on people smuggling and the carbon tax. Are they really the only important issues facing Australia? A regular viewer of Question Time would be excused for thinking they were.”

Whilst Turnbull says the problem with Question Time is its focus on the Prime Minister, his comments will most likely be seen as a criticism of Abbott’s parliamentary tactics.

Text of Malcolm Turnbull’s George Winterton Lecture at the University of Western Australia.

Republican virtues: Truth, leadership and responsibility.

Tonight’s lecture honours the memory of a most virtuous republican, our friend George Winterton, who despite the inestimable love and prayers of his wife, Rosalind, died in 2008 at the far too young age of 61.

My topic for this lecture is “Republican virtues – truth, leadership and responsibility.”

I will weave together a little about the republican debate in which George and I were generally comrades in arms (although at times comrades at arms length) with some reflections on the decline of the news media, the not unrelated coarsening in the dialogue between politicians and those who elect them about choices and challenges we face as a community, and the resulting dismay with which far too many Australians currently view their parliaments.

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The visitor to Washington DC is quickly reminded that the founders of the American Republic were fascinated, intoxicated perhaps, with another republic, Rome.

Jefferson, entranced with a Roman temple in Nimes writes to his friend Madame de Tesse. “Here I am madam gazing whole hours at the maison quaree like a lover at his mistress.”

But it was not just the architecture of Rome that inspired the founders. Rejecting the British monarchy which oppressed them, and apprehensive of unbridled democracy, they appealed to the example of the noble Romans, the republican Romans, Cincinnatus, Fabius, Cato – men who had selflessly served the state and defended the rights of the people against tyranny just as the Pilgrims had opposed the established church.

Although separated by two thousand years, but very much alive in the libraries of New England, Puritans and Romans fused in the American imagination as a republic of virtue.

The American revolutionaries, common lawyers after all, reached back to a lost republic just as they were creating a brave new world of their own.

We will not linger tonight to debate again which virtues were republican or how they could be reflected in a constitution or whether, indeed, Jefferson was right in equating republican virtue with free farmers whose sturdy arcadian independence he contrasted with the wage slaves of the factories and emporiums of the city.

But there were some virtues all agreed on – selfless service of the republic, equality before the law and a responsibility on all statesmen to tell the truth and to enlighten, not dupe or deceive, the people.

Jefferson’s greatest monument, apart from the republic itself, is the University of Virginia and there inscribed is an article of his republican faith.

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”[1]

A realist, nonetheless, he went on in the same letter:

“I do not with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and, most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”

I wonder what he would have thought, nearly two hundred years later, that 46% of Americans believe in creationism – that is to say that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years. Or indeed that 17% believe Barack Obama to be a muslim.[2]

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George was one of our finest constitutional scholars. I had the great honour of working closely with him in 1993 as we drafted together the report of the Republic Advisory Committee which had been established in that year by Paul Keating to set out the various options open to Australia were it to decide to replace the Queen as our head of state with an Australian citizen chosen by Australians.

This of necessity required a very careful consideration of the reserve powers. George was not a believer in codifying the reserve powers of the Governor–General (or president in an Australian republic) and that of course was one reason why he did not support a popularly elected President.

After all, if you read the Australian Constitution literally and in isolation, the Governor General seems a very potent chief executive subject only to the direction of the Queen. The limits on the Queen?s, and her representative?s, power are contained in the unwritten conventions of parliamentary government. Their content is, for the most part, well understood and agreed at least in political and legal circles, but there is, as we saw in 1975, disagreement around the limits of that power – disagreement still unresolved.

In 1993 I felt that if we were to conscientiously examine the option of a directly elected Australian President we should illustrate how the reserve powers might be codified, if only to underscore the formidable challenges involved.

George could be a little stubborn, but it was due more to his good nature than my charm, that he agreed to work with me on this exercise and we did so. If Australians do seriously contemplate directly electing their head of state I am confident that our joint work of nearly twenty years ago will be at least the first draft of the codification required.

Of course the crux of the problem of codifying the reserve powers is the power of the Senate. The easiest solution would be to remove the Senate’s power to reject supply – as was done with the House of Lords after the crisis of 1911. That would considerably reduce the circumstances in which a President might remove the commission of a Prime Minister. Another, originally suggested by Sir Charles Court in 1977, would be to provide that if the Senate did persist in rejecting Supply there would be an automatic double dissolution.

The former approach would hardly be supported by those who cherish a powerful Senate and the latter would be seen as making rejections of Supply and early elections regular, if not frequent.

As I have reflected on this lecture, and our old friend George, I have necessarily recalled the days of the republican debate – the battles leading up to the Convention, the three cornered struggle between republicans like myself and George who favoured a bi-partisan parliamentary mode of appointment, republicans like Ted Mack and Clem Jones who favoured direct election, and of course the monarchists who delightedly, if cynically, exploited the division by promising the direct electionists that if the parliamentary model was defeated at a referendum they could have another another referendum on a direct election model within a few years.

John Howard, I recall, did qualify that by saying the subsequent referendum would not be within twelve months.

A few days before the vote, 57% of voters believed that another referendum with a direct election model [was] either very or quite likely in the near future. Only 36% believed it was not likely and thirteen years later their judgement has been confirmed.

Direct election was, I suppose, the rock on which the campaign foundered. But it foundered in a sea of misunderstanding.

Support for direct election was largely based on a distrust of politicians. Our opponents exploited this. They called the referendum model “the politicians’ republic” and again and again exclaimed “you can’t trust politicians.” Their most effective slogan – was “if you want to elect the President vote No to the politicians’ republic.”

But, as Peter Costello, observed at the time – if you can’t trust politicians to choose a non-executive, ceremonial head of state, why pray tell, do you trust them to declare war, levy tax, make laws, build your roads, hospitals, schools and railways not to speak of setting your pensions and medical benefits.

And while it was always possible (but most unlikely) that a President chosen by a bi-partisan majority of the Parliament would be a politician, there was nothing more certain than that any President chosen by popular vote would be a politician; as Neville Wran used to say, if they weren’t a politician when they nominated, they would certainly be one by the time they were elected.

A few weeks before the referendum there was a deliberative poll, really a giant focus group, held at Old Parliament House. 350 Australians carefully selected to be a representative sample of the nation were assembled to discuss the republic issue. The protagonists in the debate were invited to speak and be questioned and the participants had plenty of time over several days to discuss the matter in groups by themselves.

The shifts in opinion that unfolded were remarkable: At the outset of the event, 53 per cent said they intended to vote Yes. By its conclusion this had increased to 73 per cent. At the outset 50 per cent supported direct election, versus only 20 per cent for appointment by parliament.

By the close, support for direct election had dwindled to 19 per cent – three out of every five delegates with an initial preference for it had changed their mind – and backing for parliamentary appointment had tripled to 61 per cent.

These results, by the way, were mirrored in every private focus group we conducted.

And therein lies the flaw in the proposition that a direct election model will see the republic triumphant. So long as Australians expect the President to be a non-political figure like the Governor General, the case against direct election will be a compelling one.

If, on the other hand, support were ever to develop for a President with real executive power, like an American or French president, then direct election makes perfect sense.

A directly elected President in an Australian constitutional setting need not in practice always become a rival source of political power and influence to the Prime Minister. And I am not depending on a codified set of powers such as those George and I outlined in saying that.

Because even a constitutionally neutered but directly elected president would have access to a bully pulpit of unique prestige and authority, reflecting their status as the only public official everyone in Australia had a chance to vote for, and refreshingly free of the complications and responsibility of actual power.

Think of a shock jock perhaps – but with credibility – and more butlers.

In practice, if the first few directly elected presidents performed the duties of their office soberly and impartially, and eschewed populist demagoguery, then I believe the presidency could evolve into a constitutionally functional institution in line with most views of what is needed. The office would be defined by its early occupants, especially the first.

But don’t be misled: direct election is no more a silver bullet now than it was in 1999. It is just that it may be the only bullet in the republican arsenal.

It is now nearly thirteen years since the republic referendum was defeated. Those republicans who voted No expecting another vote in a few years, this time on their preferred model, should reflect on how comprehensively they were deceived by the trickery of their opponents and their own self-delusions, in equal measure.

George and I both believed it was our duty to inform the Australian people about the Constitution of today and the consequences of any change. We saw our task as being above all educational and assumed that once people understood what was at issue, a majority would support the most sensible model for change. The deliberative poll seemed to provide backing for our faith in the good sense of Australians.

There were many factors contributing to the failure of the republican referendum not least of which was the near impossibility of amending the Constitution. Because of compulsory voting thousands, if not millions of people, with no interest in and hence no understanding of the question at hand are forced to the polls. If you don’t know, you are far more likely to vote No. This is why, as Daryl Williams observed at the Constitutional Convention in 1998, for a referendum to succeed it not only needs strong bi-partisan support but almost no opposition. And if you reflect on our constitutional history, the last even mildly controversial amendment which was carried was in 1946.

But we came close – a 45% yes vote – and may well have won if there had not been such widespread misunderstanding of the consequence of direct election, of its incompatibility with a non-executive, non-political head of state, and if there had not been such successful and utterly dishonest misinformation promoted by our opponents that if the 1999 referendum were defeated there would be another one, on a direct election model within a few years.

Misapprehension and misinformation stand in the way of democracy as resolutely as they did in Jefferson’s day.

In 1999 I said that the next republican referendum is unlikely to occur before the end of the Queen’s reign and I hold to that view. This issue is a largely symbolic one, it lacks the urgency of all the other political questions that beset us. And so timing is critical. The lead up to the Centenary of federation was a good time to reflect on, and if agreed, to amend our Constitution.

The next big watershed will be the end of the Elizabethan era.

Some say that the celebrity appeal of Will and Kate will sweep all before it. I am not so sure. Their beauty and charm may be formidable – but is that enough to justify retaining a foreign monarch as our head of state? Given the longevity of the Windsor women I imagine there are only a handful of people in this audience who could confidently say they will be around to find out.

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A DETERIORATING POLITICAL DISCOURSE

In the crowded and chaotic arena of public life, it was hard to have a rational and informed debate about the republic back then. It’s even harder now.

There is almost nothing more important to good government and our nation’s future than the quality, honesty and clarity of political discourse: how we explain policy challenges and trade-offs, and educate voters about the constraints we have to work within…how we express our position, our basis for reaching it and why it differs from that of our opponents if this is the case…how we communicate changes in policy and their implications.

Yet paradoxically, there is almost nowhere else in our national life where the incentives to be untruthful or to purposefully mislead are so great, and the adverse consequences of such behaviour so modest.

A lawyer who misrepresents the evidence will sooner or later be found out and may also be thrown out, perhaps for good. The consequences for business people who misrepresent their financial results, fail to disclose material events or make false claims about their wares can be extremely severe – plenty, some of them very well-known, have spent time in prison. .

Blatant misrepresentations, exaggerations or outright lies in politics should in theory be easily revealed. After all, we should face scrutiny from every quarter: from the well-informed and politically-engaged public; from alert and energetic MPs determined to hold the other side to account, or at least humiliate them; from the eagle eyed members of the press gallery and perhaps most searchingly, from the commercial interests and other stakeholders affected by a given policy.

This in a way is how our adversarial system of justice works – counsel for each side put the best gloss on their client’s case and expose weaknesses in their rival’s argument. An impartial judge weighs it all up and comes to a ruling.

However, whatever the merits of the adversarial system in legal disputes, many, if not most Australians, believe it is not working effectively in our political system. Important issues are being overlooked, barely discussed and where they are, routinely misrepresented.

I am not suggesting politicians are innately less accurate or truthful than anyone else. But rather that the system is not constraining, in fact it is all too often rewarding, spin, exaggeration, misstatements.

Should we be concerned about this? Hasn’t it always been thus? Doesn’t every age complain about its politics (as it does about the young) and compare it a mythical golden age in years past? Have we become so despairing of our public discourse that we no longer expect that it should be civil and honest; respecting, not insulting, the intelligence of the Australian people.

There is some truth in all of that.

COMPLEX PROBLEMS, DAUNTING CHOICES

We all want to maintain Australia as a sophisticated high wage economy with a generous social safety net and excellent healthcare. We all want an education sector that provides choice, the skills needed by employers, and the greatest possible opportunities for the least advantaged (including the disabled). We all want a clean environment and sustainable, liveable, lively communities.

So this is a particularly perilous time for a deficit in either policy ambition and vision or public trust in the motives and abilities of their leaders.

Because the combination of challenges we currently confront and need to find answers for if we are to preserve the Australia we all want are more complex and long-term, harder to untangle and isolate, less tractable to proven policies or existing technologies, more costly, more easily misrepresented by sectional interests or populists, and potentially more problematic for our current way of life and perhaps our existence, than any previous set of challenges facing modern societies.

Let us consider some of the most important: Commodity prices are heading south and we’ve probably seen the best of the resources boom – but haven’t bothered to save a single cent. In fact Labor has committed cyclical windfalls previously forecast to accrue over the next decade (but now unlikely to meet forecasts or perhaps even arise at all) to permanent increases in outlays. A rebalancing of the Chinese economy from investment to consumption is underway and will benefit the rest of the global economy by curbing huge and destabilising current account surpluses. But that is not helpful for Australia unless we can develop competitive advantages beyond iron ore, metallurgical coal and energy.

The cost of doing business in Australia is much less competitive, as Marius Kloppers reminded us as he shelved BHP’s $30 billion Olympic Dam project tendays ago and it is not just higher wages. New taxes, overlapping or conflicting regulations, less flexible labour markets and increased union power to interfere all add further to costs. Over the past decade growth in Australia’s total factor productivity declined sharply – income gains were almost all driven by more favourable terms of trade, which are now partially unwinding. Overlaying these cyclical developments is a vast secular demographic shift as our society ages. Yet our health and social safety nets were conceived at a time when men retired at 65 and were dead soon after (with their widows not long behind). Another vast secular trend is a more competitive and integrated global economy than ever before. Convergence (or catch-up growth) in developing economies, more open markets and better communications mean more (and more sophisticated) products and services can be delivered from what remain lower wage, but are no longer lesser skilled, economies. These structural changes are accelerated and amplified by technology; we are not only in a race with the so-called developing world, but against the machine. Every new factory, every new system requires fewer workers.

And that is before we even start talking about the environment!

Politicians and shock jocks, scientists and coal barons, all of them can argue for as long as they like, but they cannot change physical reality.

The reason our planet is not a frozen chunk of ice is heat trapped by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Increasing the amount of those gases will necessarily over time cause the earth to warm.

I won’t linger on climate change – the hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan nature of the debate is too well known to rehearse. But there was irony aplenty in Tampa last week when the first day of the Republican Convention was cancelled because of a cyclone, even as the extent of Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest area since satellite measurements began and the worst American drought in more than 50 years sent corn and wheat prices soaring.

Regardless of whether we look at the daunting long-term task of mitigating and adapting to climate change, medium-term challenges such as the fiscal costs of an ageing society and the need to reverse a decline since 2000 in the relative performance of Australian schools, or near-term imperatives to lift productivity growth, restore competitiveness and adjust to structural change, it should be abundantly clear we can’t take our prosperity for granted.

THE URGENT NEED FOR HONESTY

How often do we hear Australian politicians discuss these challenges in a genuinely open, honest, spin-free and non-adversarial way? Where the intention is to clearly explain the problem, accept responsibility for past misteps if appropriate (rather than apportion as much blame as possible to the other side), allow a non-ideological discussion of possible remedies, and see if there is any common ground for bipartisan work?

Seldom, and even more rarely if a camera is rolling.

Most Australians believe we need an honest, informed policy debate. Yet I don’t see many people who believe we have that. Instead, we all hear again and again that Australians are ashamed of the parliament, that they see it as nothing more than a forum for abuse, catcalling and spin.

There are reasons for this view. Question Time, Parliament’s most visible ritual, is one. If you love your country, have an interest in politics or policy, and care deeply about our nation’s future, there is nothing more certain to arouse your fury and invite your contempt than listening to an entire House of Representatives Question Time.

Normally this is doubly the case if the party you favour is in opposition; Governments tend to wield the advantages they have in Question Time with the subtlety that Trotsky’s assasin wielded his ice pick. There is a reason it is called Question Time and not Answer Time.

In truth there is much more to Parliament than gladiatorial conflict. Most politicians in fact do work effectively with their opponents at various points: on committees, on specific issues where individuals from different parties share a view or an objective, or in Parliament’s many groups focused on particular segments of the community, worthy causes or other shared interests.

And there are many areas of public policy where the two major party groupings are closer than their rhetoric might indicate, although this is much less true now than prior to Labor’s post-1996 repudiation of the economic liberalism and market reforms of the Hawke-Keating era (many of which were supported by the then Coalition opposition).

The journalists of Australia, the media, play as important a role in our democracy as any elected representative. But their numbers are dwindling fast and the media’s capacity to report on, let alone hold to account, governments and oppositions is diminishing.

The truth is that the foundations of journalism, of reporting, have been for many years the newspapers, especially the big metropolitan papers. They have had the revenues and the space to cover the field and they created the agenda from which television and radio selected the handful of stories and issues they would follow up.

But the arrival of the Internet has changed all that. Around the developed world, newspapers are in dramatic decline. Hundreds of journalists at Fairfax and News Ltd are being laid off as revenues bleed away to the more cost effective digital platforms of search. John Fairfax Group, for example, for more than 150 years enjoying the classifieds’ rivers of gold has seen its share price decline from $6.00 to less than 50 cents.

The newsroom at the Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney is, I am advised, now less than one half of what it was a decade ago. Every aspect of it, and every other newspaper’s, reporting is being cut back. There simply aren’t the revenues to sustain it. Ironically the journalists who remain are read by more people than ever before – courtesy of the Internet, but while there are some revenues from the online editions, they are losing print dollars in exchange for digital dimes if not nickels.

What this means is that there are fewer journalists with less space to write about public policy, to investigate wrongdoing, to hold politicians to account for their misrepresentation. There are just as many political foxes, but a lot less journalistic hounds to keep an eye on them.

As they endeavour to make do with fewer resources, newspapers and other media as well resort to more and more commentary and opinion. An opinionated columnist costs less than a team of news reporters. It is so much easier to put one slanted opinion up against another than to investigate and objectively report on the facts of the matter.

Increasingly too the journalists who cover politics are drawn into the game – often praising politicians for their skilful use of spin, their cunning ability to avoid a difficult question or their brutal ability to misrepresent and destroy their opponent’s arguments. Commenting on the play takes a lot less time than painstakingly pointing out where the spin has misrepresented an issue.

At the same time, the dramatic expansion of channels or platforms for news means that increasingly news services are narrowcasting to like minded viewers instead of trying to reach the whole community. Fox News in the United States is an example of how commercially successful that strategy can be as are some of the shock jocks in Australia.

In my view, all of this requires politicians to be especially careful to remember our responsibility to explain the big issues of our time. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent’s policy does not respect “Struggle Street”, it treats its residents with contempt. It is the opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal.

Call me idealistic if you like, but we have a greater need than ever for informed and honest debate and, yet, with the decline of journalism less means to deliver it and hold to account those who seek to frustrate it.

So what can be done? Well for a start all of us can consciously do a better job at explaining issues. Shouldn’t one key benchmark for politicians be: have we made an issue clearer and the complex comprehensible? We all want “cut through” messages- how about cutting through with clarity, rather than with spin?

And while newspapers are shrinking think tanks seem to be expanding – wouldn’t it be great if some of those public intellects actually held politicians like me to account, pointing out where we had exaggerated or misled. Public fact checking would raise the quality of debate.

In this environment our public broadcasters have an even heavier responsibility to be objective, balanced and comprehensive in their news coverage – it may not be long before the largest employer of journalists in Australia is our ABC.

The ABC enjoys a very high level of trust in the Australian community – much higher than in politicians or bishops I saw recently -and as the rest of the news media decline, they will have to work harder and harder to retain it.

But let us return to Question Time.

In our Parliament every sitting day has a question time in which most of the questions are asked of the Prime Minister. For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focussed on people smuggling and the carbon tax.

Are they really the only important issues facing Australia? A regular viewer of Question Time would be excused for thinking they were.

This is not a criticism of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard– there was a concentration of themes when I was Leader and Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister– it is a consequence of having the Prime Minister the focus of question time every single day. And while other issues and departments are debated in other parts of the parliamentary day, Question Time is prime time and for most Australians the only part of parliament they are likely to watch.

In Britain’s House of Commons the Prime Minister takes questions for half an hour every Wednesday but on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday question time deals, by turn, with one of the other departments.

So this week, Monday was Education, Tuesday Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Wednesday (in the half hour before the Prime Minister’s questions) it was the Cabinet Office and on Thursday it will be Business Innovation and Skills. Each department gets a turn in the days that follow and they get back to Education on 29 October.

Now I don’t think the Prime Minister of Great Britain is any less accountable than our own, but what I do know is that under their system instead of having the same questions and answers every day a range of different issues and different departments are held to account.

If we were to do that, or some variant thereof Question Time might actually serve to hold the whole of the Government to account and enlighten the public as to what is going on in all those other departments that are not concerned with carbon tax and people smuggling.

It would also give backbenchers a chance to ask questions about the issues that concern their electorates.

Let me turn now to the question of trust and truth in politics. And first let us define a few concepts.

Calling someone a liar is unparliamentary language and those who do so are generally called upon to withdraw it, the idea being that if you want to accuse someone of telling a lie you should move a substantive censure motion and debate it properly.

Despite that standing order, the charge of “liar” is made more often in Parliament than in the most unruly school playground.

But when we say politicians are liars, what do we mean?

A lie is a false statement known to be false by the person who utters it. This may be a deliberate misstatement of face – “I did not have sex with that woman.” Or it may be a false statement that the speaker has no basis for believing to be true: “Tony Abbott has a secret plan to reinstate Work Choices.”

A change of policy is not a lie. If a politician says “The best policy to promote innovation is ABC” and then comes to the view that it is in fact “XYZ” and says so, he is not telling a lie, he is changing his mind – unless of course he never believed ABC was the best policy in the first place.

Trust can also be shattered by a breach of an election promise,

Julia Gillard famously said “There will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead.” And then announced one a few months later.

A few days before the election as her numbers are falling away, in an effort to swing votes back, she says to the Australian people “Vote for me and there won’t be a carbon tax.” There was offer and acceptance. The Australian people were asked to believe, and did believe, that they had struck a deal with the Prime Minister and, whatever you may think about the merits of the policy, she has welched on that deal.

It was entirely within Julia Gillard’s power to honour that pledge. Nothing made her impose a carbon tax. It was an entirely voluntary breach of contract and her poll ratings are a direct consequence of it.

A politician who mistakenly misstates the facts, often than because he or she has been misinformed, is not lying, they may be careless of course, and more of us who do get a fact or a number wrong should acknowledge that.

I remember Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister was very reluctant to admit that he had made a misstatement – no matter how trivial. By contrast John Howard would often jump up at the end or after Question Time to correct a statistic or a date he had previously mentioned in an answer.

No one is right all the time, admitting a mistake is a sign of strength not weakness.

Now I don’t have any silver bullet to make us politicians more accurate or more likely to keep our promises.

But we can make it easier to earn and keep the people’s trust. We should be much more careful about raising false expectations – whether on what we can do or what our opponents will do.

Remember the way Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan created the impression that John Howard was responsible for rising supermarket prices and under their Government prices would either fall or stop rising. Then followed the low farce of Grocery Watch .

To his credit, Tony Abbott has said he is determined to make very few promises before the next election and only to make ones he knows he can keep.

When a promise is conditional on the funds being available to do it, that should be spelled out. The people respect that – they know in their own lives that you can?t afford to do everything, so just be honest – “We will do XY and Z if we have the funds available. At the present time it appears we do have those funds, but if it turns out we do not then we may only be able to do X and Y.” Most people would say “Fair enough.”

And we can waste less time on tedious “gotcha” moments when an opponent’s phrase is taken out of context and used utterly to misrepresent his position. A recent egregious example is when Tony Abbott, far from proposing cuts in funding to government schools, observed no more than the fact that students from similar socio economic backgrounds at non-government schools receive less public funding, per capita, than do their counterparts in the government system.

An even worse example in the Presidential election is a Romney ad which shows President Obama saying “If we keep talking about the economy we are going to lose.” In fact what Obama had said in 2008 was “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, “If we keep talking about the economy we are going to lose.” Challenged with this the the Romney campaign’s pollster said “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

Wayne Swan, for example, again and again would stand in the House and accuse the Coalition of opposing the guarantee for banks’ wholesale borrowings. Yet far from opposing it, the legislation authorising it would never have been passed without the insistence of the Opposition. Again and again I, or other members, would correct him. I do not recall any newspaper taking him to task – he didn’t care, he got the line up. [4]

In case you think my call for a change of attitude and practice to truth in politics is just idealism – let me make a practical political point. It seems to me that we don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust. We can argue for hours which side and which politicians, which journalists indeed, have contributed most to it. But it affects all of us and all of our institutions. The politicians and parties that can demonstrate they can be trusted, that they will not insult the people with weasel words and spin, that they will not promise more than they can deliver, that they will not dishonestly misrepresent either their own or their opponents? policies – those politicians and parties will, I submit to you, deserve and receive electoral success.

And as Thomas Jefferson would remind us, truth and enlightenment are as thoroughly liberal values as they are republican virtues.

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1. Letter to Count Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours April 24 1816
2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/belief-that-obama-is-musl_n_1506307.html (retrieved 4 Sept 2012)
3. http://essentialvision.com.au/trust-in-institutions-2
4. See Hansard 16 June, 18 August, 19 October 2009 among other occasions.