Truth Tally — What’s Wrong With Australian Political Debate
By Alan Austin, Mike SeccombeSeptember 10, 2012
Reflections on Malcolm Turnbull’s speech calling out the paucity of good, honest parliamentary discourse, paired with a by-the-numbers analysis of the top echelons of government across four decades and seven prime ministers.
Well, didn't Malcolm Turnbull hit the nail right on the head with his description of the "deficit of trust" in Australian politics.
Not just because he was interpreted as having taken a swipe — multiple swipes, actually — at the man who supplanted him as leader of the federal Opposition. The media reports left the clear impression that when Turnbull said "trust deficit" he actually meant "Tony Abbott".
Actually, what he was criticising was something broader. It was the devolution of the whole political process. It was a very thought-provoking speech.
But, here's the interesting thing. The examples he cited to show the lack of civility and honesty in political discourse overwhelmingly related to the behaviour of the political right.
Let's get the Abbott stuff out of the way first, because the immediate focus of reportage of Turnbull's September 5 George Winterton lecture at the University of Western Australia was, of course, how his words reflected the tension between the man the Liberal Party wants to lead it — Abbott — and the man most Australians want to lead it, Turnbull.
And that was fair enough. As evidence of the degradation of political debate in this country, Turnbull cited several examples clearly implicating Abbott.
First, the cynically exploitative — his terminology — campaign against the Republic 12 years ago, a campaign run by… guess who?
Second, the "hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan" debate about climate change. Guess who also has been a leader in fostering that confusion and partisanship?
Third, he cited the unedifying behaviour of opposition in Parliamentary question time. He blamed the system — indeed he said he was not making a "criticism of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard" — but the example he chose reflected straight back on Abbott.
"For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focused on people smuggling and the carbon tax," he said.
No doubt Turnbull's shots at Abbott were calculated, but it was just a small part of his critique.
Turnbull's topic was republicanism, but not the narrowly defined issue of making Australia a republic, to which the late George Winterton was devoted as Turnbull is.
No, he chose to speak about something broader: "Republican Virtues: Truth, Leadership and Responsibility".
And he took one of the original republicans: Thomas Jefferson, the principle author of the American Declaration of Independence, as a starting point.
Turnbull cited Jefferson's article of republican faith: "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day."
Well, said Turnbull: "Misapprehension and misinformation stand in the way of democracy as resolutely as they did in Jefferson's day."
He made particular reference to the media, saying that as news organisations came under greater cost pressures, good reporting which held governments and oppositions to account "was diminishing".
Instead, he said, newspapers and other media were resorting more to commentary and opinion and more to analysis of the effectiveness of political spin than to analysis of the substantive issues.
At the same time, there was more media "narrowcasting" — strident partisanship aimed at like-minded consumers.
"Fox News in the United States is an example of how commercially successful that strategy can be as are some of the shock jocks in Australia," he said.
"Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent's policy does not respect 'Struggle Street'; it treats its residents with contempt. It is the opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal," said Turnbull.
This was extraordinary stuff, coming from a Liberal MP. He was bagging the Murdoch media model — only Fox by name, but its Australian operation by implication — when he talked about that the "hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan" coverage of climate change. The News Ltd papers, and particularly The Australian, have led the climate-change deniers.
As for the shock jocks, well, there are no left-wing shock jocks. And the reference to struggle street? It could only have been aimed at the man who almost has a copyright on the term — Alan Jones.
Furthermore, he defended the role and performance of the ABC.
Turnbull endorsed some form of public fact-checking, presumably meaning through organisations like those which exist in America, and analyse the pronouncements of public figures and the media in a strictly non-partisan way.
You can imagine how this would go down with the right-wingers who apparently believe they are entitled not only to their strident personal opinions, but also to their own personal "facts".
The preferred opposition leader of the people went on to condemn the frequent use of the word "liar" in relation to politicians — another clear shot at Jones in particular, who dubbed the Prime Minister "Ju-liar".
Said Turnbull: "A lie is a false statement known to be false by the person who utters it. This may be a deliberate misstatement of fact [such as] 'I did not have sex with that woman'. Or it may be a false statement that the speaker has no basis for believing to be true: 'Tony Abbott has a secret plan to reinstate WorkChoices.'"
But, he said, "a change of policy is not a lie."
Thus Julia Gillard had not lied about the carbon tax before the last election. She had, for political reasons [the need to get the support of the Greens to take government] broken a promise, "welshed on that deal" with the Australian people.
He went on a bit more, but we won't. You can always read the whole speech on his website.
The point is, Turnbull not only gave a serve to Abbott, but to all the like-minded il-liberals out there who are thereby damaging political discourse.
Indeed, their promiscuous use of the word "liar" is only a small part of it. Check out this excerpt from Media Watch showing the standards of discourse upheld by Alan Jones.
It is fair to say the tone of political debate has never, ever been so vituperative. That applies to both sides, but it applies more particularly to the right, as Turnbull acknowledged by his choice of examples.
The common chant now from the conservative commentariat is that the current federal government is not just untruthful, but "corrupt". They make allegations of unspecified "criminal acts".
This, they suggest, over and over again, is not only the most incompetent government ever, but the most corrupt.
So, let's do as Turnbull suggests, and subject the case to a little fact checking. Not on the matter of competence, which is very subjective, but on honesty and integrity, two areas which can be more or less objectively measured.
To this end, journalist Alan Austin compiled the following report analysing standards of ministerial integrity in Australian political history:
INTEGRITY BY THE NUMBERS
Integrity in government is actually a live area of academic research. Social scientists compile spreadsheets and tables, then draw conclusions based on comparisons between regimes and between countries.
Seldom, however, do their findings make the news. If they did, they might surprise.
One measure of integrity under the Westminster system of government is ministerial responsibility. Ministers in countries with a British parliamentary tradition — Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, India, Israel, Australia — are expected to maintain certain standards. Governments can specify and vary their codes of conduct. Whatever codes are set out, when ministers fail, they are required to resign. If they don't, they are sacked. If they are not removed, a certain stigma usually remains along with the minister.
Hence two measures of integrity today are the number of ministers who resign over serious breaches, and the number who breach but stay put.
Ministerial resignations fall into two main categories:
(1) Those which represent a breach of ethics and competence. These include personal and professional integrity and portfolio performance.
(2) Those which represent a failure of policy and leadership. These include internal party disputes over policy and political position. Resignations in this category often imply government dysfunction, but not necessarily failure on the part of the departing minister.
Let's consider the past 40 years. This takes in three periods of Labor Government, totalling almost 21 years, under five prime ministers. It also includes two periods of conservative Coalition government, totalling 19 years, under two PMs. This analysis includes all Executive Council members — cabinet ministers, other ministers and parliamentary secretaries. It is based on the contemporary accounts that caused the sackings; whether or not the allegations were in the end proved, the political cost of keeping the pollie in his or her portfolio was unpalatable. Some ministers were later exonerated, but were obliged to leave – temporarily or permanently – due to the high political cost of staying.
Taking ethics and competence first, Gough Whitlam's Labor Government (1972-75) saw three ministers sacked, all in 1975.
Treasurer Jim Cairns was demoted to Environment for misleading Parliament over overseas loans; Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor sacked for making misleading statements in the matter; and Jim Cairns was turfed out a month later when an incriminating letter on the same subject came to light.
Malcolm Fraser then led the Coalition for just over seven years (1975-83). Seven members of his Executive Council were removed for ethical and competence matters:
Telecommunications Minister Victor Garland in 1976 for electoral offences; Fraser's Treasurer Phillip Lynch, who was sacked in 1977 over using a family trust to minimise tax (he was replaced by John Howard); Veterans' Affairs Minister-elect Glenister Sheil in 1977 over support for South African apartheid; Administrative Services Minister Reg Withers in 1978 after a Royal Commission found he had inappropriately interfered with electoral redistribution; Primary Industry Minister Ian Sinclair in 1979 over allegations of forgery; Health Minister Michael MacKellar in 1982 over import fraud; and Business and Consumer Affairs Minister John Moore over the fraud cover-up.
Bob Hawke then led a Labor Government (1983-91) for nearly nine years. That period saw four ethical and competence departures:
Special Minister of State Mick Young in 1984 for breaching cabinet secrecy over the Ivanov affair; Environment and Tourism Minister John Brown in 1988 for misleading parliament over a contentious contract; Mick Young again when Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1987 over election donations allegations; and Treasurer John Kerin in 1991 following difficulties explaining policy.
In the four-year Keating Government (1991-96), there were a further four:
Transport and Communications Minister Graham Richardson in 1992 for using his influence to help a relative avoid a court penalty; Industry Minister Alan Griffiths in 1994 following accusations relating to electoral-office funds; Environment, Sport and Territories Minister Ros Kelly in 1994 after allegations of pork barrelling over sports grants; and Graham Richardson again in 1994 amid claims of improper influence.
Then followed 11 years and nine months of Coalition Government (1996-2007) under John Howard, during which 15 Executive Council members departed over ethical and competence matters:
Both Assistant Treasurer Jim Short and Parliamentary Secretary to Treasury Brian Gibson in 1996 for holding undeclared shares in companies within their portfolios; Parliamentary Secretary to the Health Minister Bob Woods in 1997 for misuse of parliamentary privileges and personal matters; Small Business Minister Geoff Prosser in 1997 for failing to declare commercial interests in his portfolio area; three ministers in 1997 — Transport Minister John Sharp, Science Minister Peter McGauran and Administrative Services Minister David Jull — for misuse of travel allowances; Resources Minister Warwick Parer in 1998 over share holdings and false declarations; Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith for breaches relating to a parliamentary Telecard and other matters (a serial offender, Reith retired from Parliament at the next election); Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop in 2001 for failures to respond to abuses of elderly citizens; Health Minister Michael Wooldridge in 2001 after a series of serious breaches of ministerial responsibility including the 1998 "scan scam" disclosed by the Auditor General and his 2001 defamation of AMA President Kerryn Phelps; Parliamentary Secretary Bill Heffernan in 2002 after he used forged documents to slander a High Court judge; Human Services Minister Ian Campbell in 2007 for dealings with lobbyist Brian Burke; Territories and Local Government Minister Wilson Tuckey in 2003 for interfering in a police matter involving his son; and Minister for Ageing Santo Santoro in 2007 for unethical share trading and then lying to the PM.
Departures of seven of these — Woods, Parer, Wooldridge, Reith, Bishop, Heffernan and Tuckey — were pragmatically delayed. Some, with an election approaching, were permitted to complete the parliamentary term before the sacking took effect. All were forced removals nonetheless. Howard's much-touted, muscled-up code of conduct had proven too difficult to enforce, and in his subsequent terms the code operated on a much-diminished basis.
In this period — now approaching five years — there has been one departure for ethics and competence: Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon in June 2009 for an association with a businesswoman and for failing to declare expenses.
So, departures for ministerial ethical and performance issues were:
Gough Whitlam: 3
Malcolm Fraser: 7
Bob Hawke: 4
Paul Keating: 4
John Howard: 15
To these must now be added ministers caught committing ministerial breaches which warranted dismissal, but who stayed put. In any other Westminster country or in Australia at any other time, all these would certainly have had to go.
There were none under Whitlam, Fraser or Hawke.
In the last days of the Keating Government, Treasurer Ralph Willis was duped into releasing a forged letter he had claimed was from a state premier.
During the Howard years:
Alexander Downer misled parliament in 1996 over complaints from regional governments about cuts to life-saving aid programs. Downer said there had been none when he had in fact received several.
Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Resources Warren Entsch was found in 1999 to be the undeclared director and secretary of a concrete company which won a lucrative government contract without tender. Bizarrely, the PM claimed this was "an inadvertent error".
Assistant Treasurer Helen Coonan in 2002 witnessed a false electoral enrolment form.
In the cash-for-visas scandal — arguably the second-worst-ever example of a resignation not demanded — Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock was accused of issuing immigration visas to questionable applicants after being advised of campaign donations. An Australian Federal Police report later cleared Ruddock of wrongdoing, though the "report said its ability to properly investigate Mr Ruddock's use of his powers was obstructed by the refusal of the Immigration Department and the Government to surrender relevant case files".
Arguably the worst was Treasurer Peter Costello who presided over losses of several billion dollars of taxpayer money in currency swaps on the foreign exchange markets between 1996 and 2001 — almost certainly the costliest blunder in Australia’s economic history — before he ended the practice.
De-Anne Kelly in 2004 was accused of breaking the ministerial code of conduct by unlawfully approving electoral grants and misleading the Parliament.
Philip Ruddock, again, and Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone in 2005 were shown to have failed to manage their departments adequately regarding the unlawful deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Solon to the Philippines and to the unlawful detention of permanent resident Cornelia Rau.
There were also numerous incidents where you might have expected ministerial dismissals due to the scandals in the press, but where the ministers were later cleared. As noted before, these were not included in my analysis. These include the 2001 children-overboard affair, the 2006 Australian Wheat Board bribery scandal, the 2007 Muhamed Haneef affair and the 2010 pink-batts scheme.
So, ministers who committed hanging offences in the areas of ethics and competence, including those who resigned and those who stayed on, number:
This yields a significant difference across party lines. In 19 years, Labor lost 12 ministers out of 13 offenders, a fulfilment rate of 92.3 per cent. The Coalition in almost 21 years lost 23 ministers out of 31 offenders, a fulfilment rate of 74.2 per cent. In other words, Labor lost or should have lost one minister on average every 19 months, the Coalition, one every 7 months.
When we include resignations over matters of government policy and leadership, the numbers even up slightly. These 'offences' relate to relations within the ministry team, not portfolio performance.
Whitlam Labour and Immigration Minister Clyde Cameron was sacked in 1975 after refusing a portfolio change.
In the Fraser years, respected senior minister Don Chipp was dumped as Health and Social Security Minister when the PM decided they could not work together; Environment and Community Development Minister Ivor Greenwood was removed in 1976 after he refused to resign while incapacitated due to illness; Attorney General Robert Ellicott resigned in 1977 after a dispute over paying costs in a court case; Finance Minister Eric Robinson resigned in 1979 after a dispute with the PM; and Industrial Relations Minister Andrew Peacock resigned in 1981 in a highly damaging dummy-spit.
There were three voluntary resignations under Bob Hawke: Immigration Minister Stewart West in 1983 in protest against uranium mining; Telecommunications Minister Gary Punch in 1989 in protest against the Sydney Airport decision; and Treasurer Paul Keating in June 1991 to challenge Bob Hawke for the leadership. Bob Hawke departed in December 1991 when defeated in a party room ballot for the leadership.
There were none during the Keating period.
During the Rudd/Gillard period, there were two involving the same minister. PM Kevin Rudd resigned in June 2010 after a leadership tilt by Julia Gillard. He then resigned as Foreign Minister in February 2012 to challenge Julia Gillard unsuccessfully for the leadership.
A complete table of ministers who departed, or who clearly should have, now reads:
Comparisons between the parties in Australia suggest the Labor Party has now replaced the Coalition as the conservative party with regard to respecting Westminster traditions.
International comparisons suggest, on the face of it, that the current Australian administration has had one of the lowest, if not the lowest, number of ministerial resignations and sackings of any Westminster parliamentary administration since the early 1800s. Another contender is New Zealand's Savage Government in the 1930s.
Why such a significant difference? Why a surge during the Howard years, and a dramatic drop since? Does size of the parliamentary majority matter?
Different answers will of course be offered by different observers. Some suggest Coalition ministers have greater private wealth, more shareholdings and private sector backgrounds which make them more susceptible to temptation. Labor members, in contrast, tend to be drawn more from sectors where truthfulness and propriety are requisite, such as academia and the law.
Meanwhile, Australia's media accuse the present "disgraceful, contemptible, corrupt government" of continuing "its ever downward spiral of lies and criminal acts". This would seem, however, not supported by objective analysis.