The Politics    Friday, June 5, 2015

Is honesty the best policy?

By Sean Kelly

Perhaps the government should be upfront about the economy

I’m fond of saying that what governments do matters a whole lot more than what they say. It’s hugely diverting to talk about spin, but the largely disengaged public tend to judge governments on a few big moments, and those moments are more often dictated by actions than by words. When I say “matters”, I mean in political terms.

But what about when saying things is a legitimate tool of government policy, a way of achieving (or not achieving) the end you want?

One example this week was furnished by Guardian reporter Katharine Murphy, who railed against the government’s use of phrases like “if people take up a gun or a knife against us then they don’t deserve citizenship”, variations of which we’ve heard from the PM and his ministers this week. Most people – including the prime minister, in the past – agree that bringing the community together is essential to keep the causes of terrorism at bay. Using inflammatory lines and soundbites that are more likely to divide Australians than to unite them is counter-productive. In this case, the political aim of sounding “tough” won out over the policy aim of keeping Australians safe from terrorism. (In case you’re considering accusing me of being soft, consider that the PM could have introduced exactly the same laws without the cowboy rhetoric, achieving the same “tough” aims without being divisive.)

The other example that came to mind this week was the economy.

There is a rising chorus of voices suggesting that the economy is not in flash shape, and not likely to get flash any time soon. The national accounts came out this week. The treasurer said they were a “terrific set of numbers”. The Australian Financial Review didn’t think so. Nor did Andrew Charlton, a former Rudd economic adviser, who speculated in a commercial note this week that the economy may even have re-set to a new norm of lower-trend growth. 

It’s common for commentators to call for governments just to be straight with people – and for governments to ignore that call entirely.

On the economy, that’s because what governments say – not just what they do – can have an impact of its own. Paul Keating gave us the most famous case, when his warnings that Australia was at risk of becoming a “banana republic” brought chaos down upon the markets and the dollar.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are therefore unlikely to say the economy is in trouble, whatever their actual opinions – or even that it might be in trouble. Hovering over their shoulders is the fear that such candour would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a pit of economic gloom into which their government would quickly tumble.

And, to some extent, that’s fair enough.

But of course they do not merely refrain from uttering doomsday words. Both actively cling to the trumpet cries of economic victory: the “best budget” ever, a “terrific set of numbers”. Terrified of giving off the scent of pessimism, they err on the side of blithe denial. In doing so, they knowingly provide the public with misinformation in the terrifyingly dumbed-down vocabulary of Dick and Jane books.

Whether it is on national security or “economic security”, the public is long past the days of benign trust, the pre-Nixon wonder years of innocence. None of us expects governments to be entirely upfront with us on every issue that comes before them. But we have a right to expect better than this.


Today’s links

  • The national accounts also showed a huge decline in tobacco consumption, which – coincidence? Ha! – comes after the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes.
  • Alan Bond has died. Paul Barry’s obituary.
  • Joan Kirner was farewelled today.
  • What seems like either a pretty bad or deliberate screw-up from the government: a mistaken claim that a letter from the Sydney siege gunman to Attorney-General George Brandis had been examined by the siege inquiry. It took three days to correct the error, ensuring that no questions would be asked about it in parliament.
  • There are allegations that Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was covertly followed, or spied on, when she was visiting the Australian detention centre in Nauru. The PM said she was being “looked after”, which Hanson-Young said was “creepy”, given it suggested the PM didn’t understand women didn’t like to be watched.
  • And in news only mildly unrelated, journalist Glenn Greenwald – who first reported on Edward Snowden’s revelations for the Guardian – says Australia is one of the most aggressive nations when it comes to surveillance. He suggested there would be reporting on this before long.
  • Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs should apologise over a suggestion that the Indonesian government wouldn’t engage with Australia over the death penalty (and the Bali Nine) as a result of Australia’s policy of turning back boats.
  • A panel led by former UN chief Kofi Annan has said Australia is a “free-rider” on tackling climate change.
  • A judge will decide how much influence Alan Jones had over the Abbott government’s decision to back down on a proposed Middle Head aged care home.
  • Mark Kenny, Laura Tingle, and David Crowe with worrying assessments of the government (worrying for the government, that is). Michelle Grattan on spin over substance. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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