April 02, 2004 | Graham

It’s not whether they lie, but how they lie

Australia seems to have its very own Kelly/Gilligan affair with some differences. The person playing the role of Andrew Gilligan is Opposition Leader, Mark Latham. Defence Department Deputy Secretary, Ron Bonighton is Kelly. While David Kelly was not in a position to know the information that he was supposed to have passed on, Bonighton was. However, the substance of the affair is eerily similar. Has the Government disregarded the information provided by the public service, and has it misused information provided to it by the public service to try to discredit a whistleblower (in this case Latham)? Of course, this being an Australian soap, there is no suicide thrown in to complicate things, we hope.
One of the most significant disjunctions between how the denizens of the parliamentary ecosystem view the world and how we lower phyla do is the question of lying. Politicians think it is important to prove that your opponent is lying. Voters don’t because they take it as a given that all politicians lie.
Viewed through this prism it really doesn’t matter whether Mark Latham is lying or not about briefings by public servants and when or if the ALP formulated policy on troop withdrawals. The coalition has wasted a week trying to prove that he is. What they should have been saying is not that he is lying and so can’t be trusted. What they should be saying is that he isn’t paying attention to this serious issue, and so shouldn’t be trusted, and that he is reckless.
That is not to say that they don’t have to show that he is lying. It is a threshold question, but it is a threshold that can be skipped over very quickly. There is no need for the government to still be knocking on the door.
Still, even with that reservation, I think the government won the parliamentary debate. I watched most of the motion of censure on datacast, with the exception of the Prime Minister’s speech. Latham’s delivery was bombastic and hectoring. Not what you’d expect from a man that reads his kids to sleep at night. Costello, who followed him, was by contrast cool and forensic, with an emotional edge, but one that was kept appropriately under control. His line? This is a “question of character”. Interestingly this is the title of a revisionist biography of John Fitzgerald Kennedy , as well as a question that was often asked about Bill Clinton (see this article from The New American).
Both sides of politics borrow heavily from, and are frequently enamoured of, US political figures. The use of this phrase is not only redolent of that relationship, but should be a warning to Costello. The question of character never did harm the careers, or the public’s affection for, JFK or Bill Clinton. It also, perhaps unconsciously, punctuates how derivative of Clinton policy formulations, and campaign strategy and tactics the Latham approach is.
The second speaker for the Opposition was Julia Gillard. Her speech cut a pattern that was duplicated by the Opposition speakers who followed. She did little to defend Latham, instead focusing on integrity issues of the government’s.
I am not sure who is winning the broader debate. Campbell Newman’s win in Brisbane should send shivers down John Howard’s spine because it shows that when confronted with two people who both say the other is a liar, the public will choose energy over apathy. Which is not to say that Howard is a Tim Quinn, but there is a perception that he is not setting the agenda anymore, just as there was a perception in Brisbane that Tim Quinn was not looking ahead.
Robert Hill’s move today to ensure that Latham has a note-taker at any future briefings may be an effective ploy. The difference between this fracas and the usual political rumble is that normally innocent bystanders – public servants – have been dragged in by both sides. The result of this is that we now have Latham in collision with a very senior public servant in circumstances where Latham is almost certainly misrepresenting what was said to him.
I say “almost certainly” very advisedly. I like Latham’s style and the change he has brought to Australian politics. I like the fact that he is prepared to go out on a limb, not just on issues, but on ideas. I want to think the best of him, but it strains my credulity to believe that a senior public servant told him that the War in Iraq, and the justifications for it, “stink” – either on or off the record. Anyone who has ever dealt with public servants knows how careful they are to only ever say things like that by careful implication and with a thick shield of plausible deniability.
Truth may not matter as Latham certainly seems to have the press on side. How else can one explain the ABC’s (shades again of Gilligan) appalling reporting of the incident? Faced with an official denial they ran the story last night on the 7:00 p.m. bulletin with a report that a “friend” of Mr Bonighton had rung them and said that knowing Bonighton they were sure Latham’s version of the story was correct. It seems that ABC journalists haven’t heard of hearsay. Why not interview his mother, siblings, all his ex-girlfriends or maybe his dachshund to see what he might or might not have said? Whoever let that go to air ought to be bounced down a couple of grades. The rule with un-named sources is that they should be in a position to know either first or secondhand, not guess. The only reason that anyone could have even included something like that in the story would have been to give the impression that it was one against two.
We have a long way to go to the election, and at the moment Latham is ahead. Many people believe Howard to be a liar, as shown in opinion polls. They probably now think the same thing about Latham. That will only affect Latham’s advantage if it can be shown to be indicative of some other vice. The danger for Latham is not that he has not told the truth, but that he has been reckless about it. There are other events in his life that can be sewn together to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour. At the last election we found that voters favoured Howard over Beazley because while they thought Howard represented the past and Beazley the future, they had confidence that Howard could at least deliver. Latham needs to be very careful that he doesn’t get himself a reputation for unreliability out of all of this.

Posted by Graham at 2:43 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. The description of the briefing from Latham that I heard had him actually saying that Bonighton told him certain information and from that he formed his judgement of the policy. It seemed to me to be pretty carefully crafted to avoid reporting what Bonighton had actually said. Perhaps Latham siad some other things which were not so circumspect but I haven’t heard those – unfortunately I’ve lost the masochistic streak that used to see me listening to entire parliamentary debates.
    Speaking of which – the really relevant thing is what from the parliamentary debates gets into the media and the public consciousness, rather than the debate itself. On that basis I think the result so far is pretty even, but Latham may actually have set himself up pretty well if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate and the electorate starts to get jack of it all – he’s certainly got the debate a long way from a one dimensional focus on his promise to bring the troops home and more towards the decision to send and keep them there.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — April 2, 2004 @ 9:17 pm

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