QUARTERLY ESSAY 16 Breach of Trust



Paul Kelly

No Australian prime minister within my experience has been “pervasively” or “systematically mendacious” (Billy McMahon excepted). Raimond Gaita makes this claim against John Howard, but, as far as I know, he has never established the evidence to sustain his proposition. It is an extraordinary claim – that Howard’s mendacity is integral to his conduct of the office. I believe that Gaita misunderstands Howard, misunderstands how prime ministers operate and misunderstands politics in Australia.

There is no doubt, however, that he reflects and contributes to a view held either with world-weary cynicism or passionate intensity by many Australians and many influential Australians. In the process he assists neither Howard’s critics (still clueless about how to beat him) nor the wider debate about politics and ethics.

No competent PM will lie on a regular or capricious basis. This is not just because it is unnecessary and politically dangerous to do so, but because a political system built on falsehood will risk internal collapse as well as external hostility. The first problem with Gaita’s essay is the faulty empirical analysis upon which his argument rests. The purpose of my article (The Weekend Australian, 28–29 August 2004) that Gaita criticises was not to excuse Howard but to try to put his lies into historical context.

My argument was that lies – and big lies – have been a reality of prime ministerial power and that Howard has no unique status on this measure compared with his predecessors; that lies and deception, from war to the economy, tend to be driven by policy failures or political failures (that is, the lies are symptoms of a deeper problem); and that truth in politics is important but not an absolute.

Policy results are usually more important in moral terms than assessments of whether or not a government has been mendacious. Let me elaborate – how should one judge the morality of a government that never lied but whose economic failures were directly responsible for a recession that left a million people unemployed or whose national security ineptitude resulted in the death and injury of a number of its citizens? I am sure the Australian people would form a harsh moral judgement about such a government, and treat with derision any moral self-justification it offered based upon its honesty and its avoidance of “pervasive mendacity”.

It is a neat polemic that Howard lied on both children overboard and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But these are quite different situations and each needs to be assessed on merit. At this point we don’t know whether the Prime Minister lied about the children overboard, but the circumstantial evidence against him is strong. The evidence on Iraq is that Howard believed what he said about the weapons of mass destruction; that is, he did not use as a justification for war claims that he knew were wrong or that he suspected were wrong. (Of course, further disclosures might alter such assessments.) In both cases the public has been misled.

I believe the “breach of trust” campaign, despite its elements of validity and the intensity with which it is waged, is weak overall and is really the search for an organising moral principle to condemn and de-legitimise the Howard prime ministership across the board. Seen in this way, its defect is obvious – it is asked to carry too much. The claim of “pervasive mendacity” is an exaggeration and the idea that the immorality it represents should be the sufficient ground for the people to vote Howard out is a judgement devoid of any balance. Howard’s election counter-attack, based on the notion of trust, exposed the weakness of Gaita’s position. Trust is a more complex concept than his essay encompasses, a point he recognises yet resists.

In particular, trust is tied irrevocably to outcomes – whether in economic, social or military policies. Gaita’s position – if I understand him correctly – is that the Iraq war is morally wrong and, as a result, even if much good resulted from the war, that fact could never redeem its immorality. He argues that because the intervention is wrong, the coalition can take no credit for the good consequences but must accept responsibility for the bad consequences. My own view is that the morality of public policy cannot be so divorced from its consequences. A smooth transition to democracy in Iraq would have helped the moral legitimacy of George Bush’s position just as the deterioration over the past eighteen months has undermined it.

I say this neither to exonerate Howard nor to justify any lies or distortions. Gaita says he expects me to explain what could have justified Howard’s lies, but I don’t seek or need to justify these at all. My view that Gaita has misread the Howard government and has a flawed analysis of morality in politics does not mean that one is defending Howard’s lies.

The problem for Gaita is that, having depicted Howard as a moral reprobate, he has also to explain his re-election by an increased majority. The trap for the moralists is that they might blame the people. The alternative is to offer rationalisations for the vote. But they avoid the obvious – the fact that their depiction of Howard as a moral reprobate and their insistence that the election be seen in these terms was a mistake. History will show that this interpretation of Howard by his influential critics has helped him, and that it has undermined the formulation of an effective, realistic and broad-based line of attack against Howard on the issues that are important to the people and in a language they find acceptable.

Gaita argues that war should only be a last resort and I agree. This is the reason I declined to support the war on strategic grounds. Iraq was a war of choice and the absence of any weapons of mass destruction suggests that the choice was an unnecessary one. It is a strategic folly to think that every genocidal dictator should be eliminated by regime change.

However, I remain unconvinced by many of the moral arguments. There was, for me, something disconcerting about the worldwide demonstrations two years ago when the middle classes of the rich democracies marched for the moral cause of keeping the Iraqi people enslaved under a tyrant, with many demonstrators dishonestly claiming to speak on behalf of the Iraqis.

I also have trouble with the moral tests that Gaita applies – notably his claim that no person should ever be treated as a means to an end and that evil (presumably killing) cannot be justified for a good end. These are excellent in the abstract, but what are the consequences of their literal application in the war against Islamic extremism? Given that Osama bin Laden has formally declared that the murder of any American anywhere on earth is the “individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it” and that his terrorist organisation seeks a weapons of mass destruction capability to use against the American people, it seems to me that Gaita has taken a moral stance doomed to be unsustainable in this conflict. The war against terrorism remains in its early phase and much of the debate revolves around the subject of Bush’s incompetence. However, the grave risk for the liberal left lies in its embrace of a moral principle that is untenable – given that democratic leaders have a political and moral obligation to safeguard their peoples.

It seems to me that the Australian people bring their sense of realism and scepticism to these issues and this is typified by their response to the Iraq war.

The people knew we went to war because of the US alliance, a point that Howard fudged. From the start they had no appetite for this war and, if Australia had to be involved, they preferred a very limited role (something that Howard ensured). They knew when Howard ordered the military deployment but pretended no decision had been taken on war, that, in effect, he was lying. They knew that Saddam Hussein, with or without his weapons of mass destruction, was no threat to us, but they accepted the world was likely to be a better place without him. They knew the exercise was a calculated risk in strategic terms and that its moral justification would depend upon creating a better Iraq. They know that Iraq has turned out a lot worse than Howard suspected and they know that Bush has severely miscalculated. I think, overall, the people are suspicious of the extreme claims advanced by both Bush and his moralistic critics and that these are healthy responses.

Finally, and in a wider sense, I fear the morality that Gaita wants to impose upon political leaders is simplistic in the extreme. At times he seems in denial about the compact of democratic governance. Governments have a responsibility to govern and that often requires inflicting hurt upon people (higher taxes, lower benefits) that would be unacceptable in the moral relations between two individuals. Political leaders have multiple responsibilities to their party, their supporters, the public and the national interest, and such responsibilities are often in conflict. Their job is to construct policies, to sell them and to persuade. Leaders select the advice they want; they operate as advocates; they are agents of partisanship.

Yet Gaita argues that “mendacity” captures many forms of untruthfulness and “more insidious forms of dishonesty than lying does”. He tells us that a mendacious person “might lie, he might evade, he might intentionally muddy the waters and he might do any of these things sincerely …” and, as I understand him, he wants to apply these standards to politics. Yet in politics the waters are muddied to begin with – political judgements, usually, are imprecise and uncertain and often made in the face of uncertainty as to the facts and the truth.

Let’s take a famous example. In 1996 Howard won an election after saying he would never have a GST. Using Gaita’s test Howard should have said something like this: “As you know, I have long supported an indirect tax. My pledge means that I won’t introduce the tax this term but, depending upon circumstances, I may try to introduce the tax in a later term.” This would not have been a responsible political statement. It would have been a disservice to Howard, to his party and to the community. (A similar argument can be mounted with respect to Keating’s income tax commitment at the 1993 election.) I see no other way to interpret Gaita’s argument than that this is exactly what he thinks Howard should have said. Yet this denies the essential craft of politics and its partisan nature.

I accept the sincerity of Gaita’s position. But the more I read him the less I am convinced that under his rules our politics would be enhanced either in practical results or moral quality.


Paul Kelly is the Editor-at-Large of the Australian. Among his books are The End of Certainty, Paradise Divided and 100 Years: The Australian Story.


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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