Politicians have a licence to tell some lies
One of the many elements of Tony Blair’s memoir to have created headlines was his admission that he “stretched the truth past breaking point in order to get agreement” during negotiations in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Send out an SMS alert, create an explanatory graphic - a politician has admitted lying. Blair was pressed about this by a newspaper and, in the customary manner of a former national leader freed from the shackles of office, here’s what he said:
I actually think that with normal people, when you go to them and ask: do you think a politician should ever be obliged to, you know, stretch the truth in order to achieve a greater national objective, they would look at you as if you were bonkers for asking the question. There’s no walk of professional life that you can exist in where you literally open up everything to everybody.
Blair has always been deliberate and precise in his use of language and there are a couple of notable phrases here. First is that “normal people” think it’s “bonkers” to wonder if a politician should always present the unvarnished truth.
Follow Blair’s lawyerly logic and the conclusion is people who think politicians should always be fully open about everything are not normal, indeed, they are bonkers.
The second is that phrase again, “stretch the truth”, which he said he did in his memoir “past breaking point”.
There’s a colloquial and slightly coarse yet delightfully apt term for stretching the truth past breaking point. We call it bullshit.
And we all know politicians are full of it. But then, as Blair says, the low-level stuff goes on in all walks of life.
Distasteful as the idea may seem at first, it’s as if politicians have a licence to do it and it’s something the public is resigned to as one of the costs of participating in a political system founded on debate and a free contest of ideas.
In short, Blair is right.
Lying Stretching the truth to breaking point is common currency in all sorts of areas of public debate. There are obvious applications to national security and even basic local policing.
But then consider the economy. Surely with all the minds that Treasury employs, there are those who work up the worst-case scencarios such as double-dip recessions, the threat of a housing bubble, insufficient control on government spending, or Barnaby Joyce becoming finance minister.
These, clearly, never see the light of day. Part of this is because of the important role government has to play in maintaining economic confidence.
When it comes to accounting matters, something that might at first seem a matter of concrete fact - the cost of a party’s policies - can be distorted by politicians. This has been magnificently demonstrated in the past week.
In the many absurdities of the past fortnight in Australian politics has been the debacle over the Coalition’s policy costings by Treasury. Under pressure from the rural independent MPs to demonstrate the impact of their policies on the Budget bottom line, Tony Abbott agreed to submit the party’s proposals to Treasury for costing.
They found a “black hole” in the Coalition’s costings of between $7 billion and $11 billion. The only thing more risible than the accounting failure by the Coalition was the inability of Treasury to say exactly how big the failure was. Instead we got a ballpark $4 billion, give or take.
The explanation provided for this was that certain policy settings which are determined by the government of the day can affect the bottom line. The “truth” of the figures, in other words, can be stretched by politicians too.
It applies to other policy areas as well. One that leaps to mind is health reform, where every leader claims to have the answer but the reality that truly equal health service provision to all Australians is simply not possible, short of building a major hospital with a full array of specialists into every medium-sized town.
Yet we get politicians promising to “fix” the system - Kevin Rudd did this in 2007 - as if it’s something that’s just broken and in need of some policy repair. Going back to Blair’s test, if you were to “literally open up everything to everybody”, what you would get is a picture of a system in which deaths are part of the operating expectations, where errors and mistakes are expected to happen, and which is besieged by such an array of lobby groups from professionals through to various patient interest groups that it can never and will never keep everyone happy.
And what kind of political argument is that?
But then there is stretching the truth to the limits of credulity. Julia Gillard’s claim that if Tony Abbott was Prime Minister on Sunday, Work Choices would be back on Monday springs to mind. Taking this much truth-stretching licence deserves ridicule.
One of the things Tony Blair will be remembered for is presenting the ultimately discredited argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This led to him, George W. Bush and to an extent John Howard being labelled liars.
What Blair has pointed out in his book, however, is that politicians do - and are even expected to - take liberties with the truth in order to get things done sometimes. So it becomes not a question of whether the truth is stretched past breaking point, but to what degree it should be and when.
What are the limits for you?
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