QUARTERLY ESSAY 16 Breach of Trust



Mungo MacCallum

In a moment of cynicism I once defined a politician as “a man or woman who honestly and sincerely believes that the worst thing that could happen to the country is for him or her to be voted out of office”.

This is, of course, an unfair and exaggerated generalisation: self-belief does not always translate into megalomania. But it is a rare politician who does not have the conviction, held honestly and sincerely, that his or her own interest happily coincides with the public good: l’état, c’est moi. Indeed, in some cases it becomes almost a matter of divine right; President Nixon is reported to have said something to the effect that any act performed by himself as president could not, by definition, be deemed a crime.

Faced with this kind of certainty, any normal person’s attempt to apply normal standards of morality is, inevitably, doomed to failure. It is not simply a matter of ends and means. Rather, retention of power by this peerless individual is so overwhelmingly desirable that it justifies any amount of skulduggery in the process – whatever it takes, in the words of Labor’s arch-manipulator Graham Richardson. The underlying premise is that the removal of the said individual would in itself constitute a great wrong – a sin against the public weal. The avoidance of this evil is in itself the overriding moral imperative.

It is an idea that John Howard has sold to the electorate with considerable success. Last year I was interviewed on ABC radio about my book Run, Johnny, Run which is highly critical of Howard’s regime. A number of listeners rang the studio to voice their disapproval and in the process to accuse me of treason. L’état, c’est Johnny.

But while Howard’s actions make it clear that he is at one with Richardson that the acquisition and retention of power transcends all ethical considerations, he still understands the need to pay lip-service to conventional morality. Thus he sets up a code of conduct for his ministers, even if he has not actually enforced it for many years. He constructs a firewall of unaccountable advisers between himself and the public service so that he can plausibly deny knowledge of any information which could cast doubt on his own integrity.

His statements are hedged around with lawyer’s fine print, or even a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of language: thus the promise that there would “never, ever” be a GST should be understood to mean “not in this term of government” – although in fact it meant “not until I think I can get away with it”.

The fact that any reasonable person would take his words at face value is irrelevant; as with Humpty Dumpty, Howard’s words mean what he wants them to mean, no more and no less. Mendacity is, then, not really possible.

Howard has tried to live down the ironic nickname Honest John to the extent that he now cherishes it as a compliment: John Howard is the man the voters can (and, it appears, do) trust. He may even believe this himself. If he does, then while one may accuse him of self-delusion, it becomes more problematic to say that he is actively immoral.

In the old days, in opposition, Howard espoused (or at least pretended to espouse) a truly ruthless standard of political morality. Here he is on telling the truth to parliament:

Gough Whitlam had the guts to sack Rex Connor because he inadvertently misled parliament. He had the guts to sack Jim Cairns because he inadvertently misled parliament and his Prime Minister. We want to know if Paul Keating has the guts to sack Senator (Graham) Richardson because he misled the Senate. The supreme test of the courage and probity of the Prime Minister is whether he insists on ministers observing the basic requirements of a minister; that is, that they tell parliament the truth.

No ifs, no buts, and inadvertence is not a defence.

On that basis the present front bench would be very sparse indeed and Howard himself would be long gone. But of course, Howard’s departure would be a far worse evil. The greater good supersedes the lesser. This, I fear, is the new political and ethical reality which Howard’s critics (among whom I include Raimond Gaita) have failed to grasp.

In a famous exchange, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked to his friend Ernest Hemingway: “The rich are different from us.” “Yes,” replied the down-to-earth Hemingway, “they have more money.” But that was not what Fitzgerald meant.

Similarly, politicians are different from us. It’s not that they are more (or less) moral; it’s just that they are different.


Mungo MacCallum’s books include Run, Johnny, Run, How To Be a Megalomaniac and Mungo: The Man Who Laughs. His Quarterly Essay, Girt by Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear, was published in 2002.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 16, Breach of Trust. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 17, 'Kangaroo Court'.


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