QUARTERLY ESSAY 16 Breach of Trust



Paul Bongiorno

Two weeks before the 2004 federal election, the Sydney Sun-Herald carried the front-page headline “My Husband Does Not Lie”. Mrs Janette Howard was quoted accusing those attacking her husband’s veracity of attempting to manipulate attitudes for political purposes. In that she was no doubt right.

That she took the highly unusual step, for her, of entering the public debate in the heat of the election campaign is ample testimony to the fear in the Liberal camp that these attacks had the potential to undermine the government’s reelection prospects. The fact that they did not has left many in Australia, to quote Raimond Gaita, “shocked, disheartened and bewildered”.

One of the more disheartened, Robert Manne, has come to the sad conclusion that most Australians don’t value issues of truthfulness and humanity as highly as he. But I am not sure this view is right. Ever the optimist, I have not yet joined that army of the disillusioned, “unsure about what to make of their country”.

John Howard was emphatically re-elected although, in the first week of the election campaign, a Liberal Party official in Queensland swore in an affidavit that the Prime Minister’s chief protector in the children overboard Senate inquiry, George Brandis, said of him, “He’s a lying rodent” and “We’ve got to go off and cover his arse again on this.” Brandis in a counter-sworn statement denied saying this. Almost simultaneously Mike Scrafton was swearing to the inquiry that he had told Mr Howard, before the 2001 election, that no one in Defence believed children had been thrown overboard. There was no evidence to support the claim and the navy video was inconclusive. For Howard’s opponents, his mendacity is an open and shut case. They would not vote for him with a gun at their head.

But I believe many others, although critical of him on this matter, did vote for him. Labor’s Bob McMullan on Meet the Press in early December 2004 pondered why it was that thousands who voted Labor in the Tampa election deserted the party for the Coalition this time. If these people were motivated by disgust over the lies and cruelty last time, why weren’t they confirmed in their views when more evidence was in? I believe the answer has two parts. First, the case against Howard is not as clear-cut as his more strident antagonists claim. And secondly, while philosophers can and must argue abstractly and in a discursive way, voters have to make a concrete choice.

John Howard accepts that he misled the Australian people when he claimed that children were thrown overboard and stated, “I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia.” He also accepts, somewhat more grudgingly, that he misled the Australian people over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But in both cases he pleads that he himself was misled. He was not being mendacious or lying because he did not set out to deceive.

Maybe only a Royal Commission into truthfulness in government as it applies to both cases could get somewhat closer to the facts. But I don’t think so. Such commissions are inevitably tainted by politics and as such merely confirm prejudices already alive in the community. The Marks Royal Commission set up by the Richard Court Liberal government in Western Australia more than ten years ago is a good case in point. It found that the former premier and Labor high flyer Carmen Lawrence lied on three counts over the Penny Easton affair. It recommended charges of perjury be laid. Three were, only to be thrown out by a jury. The key point was that the jury believed Dr Lawrence’s failure of memory. She was not on balance, as far as they were concerned, deliberately lying. That doesn’t stop Dr Lawrence’s federal opponents branding her a liar, or at the very least untrustworthy. 

The Senate inquiry, after hearing from Mike Scrafton, former Defence liaison officer in then minister Reith’s office before the 2001 election, found his evidence to be credible. The non-government majority also found it credible that he contemporaneously told a couple of naval officers what he had said to John Howard in phone conversations. The problem is that only John Howard and Mike Scrafton directly participated in the phone conversations in question. Many who abhor the government’s asylum seeker policy see it as reason enough to think the worst of the Prime Minister. But if Howard was so deceitful, why did he release the inconclusive video two days out from the election? Could it be precisely because it was inconclusive, as Scrafton says he told the Prime Minister? Maybe a jury, if not a Royal Commission, would also give Mr Howard the benefit of the doubt. It’s not unreasonable to suggest many voters, even though they were uneasy with the policy in 2001, gave him the benefit of the doubt in 2004. In other words, their vote wasn’t a cynical discarding of the moral underpinnings of a genuine democracy.

But I found Professor Gaita’s discussion of the morality of war interesting and challenging. He gives short shrift to the “war on terror” but accepts that “for the defence of community, politicians will always do evil if they judge it to be necessary. Most people know that and most people expect it of them under pain of irresponsibility.” But no such latitude is extended to Bush, Blair or Howard over the invasion of Iraq and, more broadly, the war on terror. Indeed it seems to me Gaita’s view is that calling it a war is at best a metaphor, but one used with no legal or moral justification.

While the “Christian triumvirate”, as they are called in the essay, linked terror to Saddam Hussein as a further justification for the invasion of Iraq, there is a body of evidence, convincingly compiled in Bob Woodward’s book, Plan Of Attack, which shows that as far as the US President was concerned, September 11 was only an excuse to finish off the Iraqi dictator. But what if Australia’s own participation in the war had a broader justification than that? What if it arose from a judgement that our national interest and survival lay with staying close to America?

If we accept that the security of the nation demands that prime ministers can’t tell all of the people all of the truth all of the time, maybe we can excuse Howard’s dissembling over the pre-positioning of our troops in the Middle East. Remember, the government insisted no commitment to an attack had been made, only that the option was being actively pursued. But then the argument becomes one of the relevance of Iraq to Australia’s security. For those who see no relevance, then the Prime Minister has no justification for his lack of candour. But for those who see al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers as introducing a different paradigm, then Mr Howard’s stance is a defensible one. Especially his linking of Australia’s need more than ever to cleave to the United States in such a new and uncertain environment. Surely we have to accept the existence of a transnational phenomenon dedicated to the destruction of the Western culture of which we are a part. This is not paranoid, right-wing delusional thinking. The argument is over the best way of handling this threat. Is Howard’s way making things better or worse? This I submit throws a different light on the whole issue of the government’s morality and the electorate’s endorsement of it.

The Prime Minister, of course, gave as the main reason for joining the invasion the disarming of Saddam Hussein. An all-party parliamentary committee found the government was less than frank about the way it presented the intelligence it was receiving from our own agencies. But John Howard wasn’t alone in believing the Iraqi regime possessed such weapons. The Labor opposition at the time, as well as opponents of the invasion in Europe, expressed similar beliefs. The argument was over timing and process.

The daily bloodshed in Iraq is bleak testament to America’s failure of planning and its lack of understanding of what was before it. Many would say it is a damning indictment of the foolishness of the policy. The President’s own father, George Bush Snr, warned some years earlier that such an invasion could see America bogged down in that country for at least seven years. Yet while many will argue the Bush/Howard way is making matters worse, what now is the alternative? Howard understood instinctively that a majority of Australian voters would not countenance a weakening of commitment to the American alliance as an acceptable answer.

When John Howard asked whom voters would best trust with their security, he was not doing this in a vacuum. Rather than resorting to bravado to mask his record of untruthfulness, the Prime Minister was appealing to a reality. The reality was his record of bolstering the American alliance. The alternative prime minister, Mark Latham, was presenting a record of undermining it. He had foolishly attacked the American President personally as dangerous and incompetent, indeed as the most incompetent president in living memory.

Like Professor Gaita, I grew up in central Victoria in the ’50s. He was one class below me at Saint Patrick’s College, Ballarat. During World War II, Ballarat hosted American GIs for rest and recreation. The citizens of my home town welcomed the Yanks as saviours. Though I was born at the end of the war, my parents and their friends still had stories of the young Americans in their dashing uniforms. Australians in my experience have never been reluctant to acknowledge this debt. It is, I believe, part of our national psyche. Mark Latham’s clumsy promise to withdraw Australian troops – what was left of them – by Christmas was a misreading of this deeper political reality. It fed the perception that he would put the alliance at risk. Many may have been ill at ease with John Howard’s closeness to George W. Bush, but they would prefer it to the alternative on offer, scarcely concealed antagonism.

Raimond Gaita says, “To trust someone you must do more than believe him. You must believe in him. You must believe that he is essentially truthful.” This is certainly true of personal relationships. But there is a significant difference in the relationship between voters and candidates for leadership. Their choice is limited only to what is on offer. It could come down to whom do you trust more or whom do you distrust less. Howard’s question to voters on whom they trusted with interest rates and the economy had the credibility buttress of eight and a half years of record-low interest rates and a growing economy. The alternative, Mark Latham, had been less than a year in the leadership and he made only a belated attempt to calm fears on his economic credentials. Howard’s pitch even survived the fact that when he was treasurer in the Fraser Liberal government, interest rates were higher than under the previous Whitlam Labor government and he’d left a $10 billion black hole in the budget. It survived because the Prime Minister was able to truthfully point to his government’s record.

Breach of Trust is a discussion a genuine democracy with accountable government needs to have. The most powerful insight of the essay serves as a wake-up call for all of us. “Once one acknowledges that morality does not serve our interests but is their judge, then one will be free of the illusion that one can always creatively adapt it to serve our interests. Then one can acknowledge that morality and the world are not always suited to one another. To do this is to do no more than to acknowledge tragedy.” The fact of the matter is no one side of politics or one particular leader has all the virtue or all the vice.


Paul Bongiorno is Network 10’s Parliament House bureau chief in Canberra. He has been the presenter of the national political program Meet the Press since 1996.


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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