Sweet little lies

Cartoon of Joel Fitzgibbon as Christine Keeler

David Goodman writes about the truth, the half truth and anything but the truth.

In June 1963, a terrible thing happened. A British Member of Parliament, and not unimportantly, the secretary of State for War, John Profumo, was forced to resign from public life. His crime was that he lied to Parliament.

One of the problems was that both he and a naval attaché from the Soviet Embassy, Yevgeny Ivanov, had had sexual relations with Christine Keeler, though not apparently at the same time. These relationships were never found to have caused any national security breach. When questioned about the matter in Parliament during March 1963, Profumo admitted knowing Christine Keeler but also denied any other “impropriety”.

He was later found to have lied, an act that rapidly led to the end of his public career.

Luckily, Australia is not the Old Dart and in any case, we now live in more enlightened times. We have successfully overcome the petty concerns that blighted former unfortunate generations in public life. Public lying is no longer in itself a cause for public disgrace, or even accountability, let alone resignation.

Philosophers have long differentiated between sins of omission and sins of commission. The former was regarded as a form of necessary lie for most politicians in the 20th century, and indeed many thrived through their skill in being economical with the truth.

This concern with veracity was of course wildly dysfunctional. Complex societies do not run on principles of black and white; public life is not just about getting up in the morning, being nice to people, and going to work.

Communist politicians since 1917 have long been prepared to announce that circumstances change and the expressed attitudes or principles of one era may not apply in another.

Once those communist politicians started embracing elements of capitalism and competing in global markets, it made no sense for public figures in liberal democracies to be hampered by a spurious higher moral authority. Where would we be, for example, if John Howard had stuck to his promise not to introduce a GST?

Insistence on veracity has more sensibly been replaced by a principle of acceptability. Truth is not negotiated, only the consequences of untruth. In sophisticated societies, public figures know that getting caught in a lie is less important than consideration of the kind of lie and under what circumstances they can adequately explain their behaviour.

Recent events in Australia have underlined the wisdom of this change in attitude towards public lying.

The Minister of Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, was caught in a lie when he denied receiving substantial gifts worth several thousands of dollars from a Chinese-born Australian citizen and friend, without declaring them on the required public register. Later the same day, he had to admit that he had, in fact, done so. The acceptability principle kicked in.

Unlike Profumo, Fitzgibbon is a cabinet minister, and engaged in a major reform of defence force procedures. Obviously state intelligence elements might somehow have been involved in attempting to shame the minister. An added bonus was that public discussion 
of this matter rapidly morphed into concern about China’s growing wealth 
and influence in Australia: a much more important issue than the minister’s personal integrity.

Sensibly, too, the acceptability principle determined Justice Marcus Einfeld’s fate.

Einfeld was found guilty of having committed perjury when trying to avoid a traffic fine. This could have been a complete personal disaster: disgrace and jail sentence aside, he could have forfeited his state pension.

Einfeld himself addressed the issue of acceptable behaviour in an interview for the ABC Four Corners program before sentencing. His actions were acceptable because this was not the first time he had engaged in trying to avoid a traffic fine, and in any case, people did things like this all the time. He received a two-year non-parole sentence, with the trial judge acknowledging the mitigating factors of trial by press.

All the same, Einfeld has some reason to feel he was not treated completely fairly. Had he claimed that Deng Xiaoping was driving his car instead of the equally late Teresa Brennan, then doubtless his act of public lying might also have been overtaken by concerns over the influence of the Red Chinese in contemporary Australia.

There will be those who might see my comments as a cynical attempt to curry favour with the political powers that be. And there will also be those who criticise the lack of personal integrity in these recent developments.

Both these criticisms miss the point. There is no need for a standard of veracity in a mass society. We have left elitism behind for a sounder and more broadly based democracy. How much better it is to have moral decisions filtered through responses to talkback radio and internet polls.

It is not as if this minor adjustment to public lying has had any significant impact on individual responsibility or public accountability. It remains inconceivable, for example, that private bankers would ask the state to bail them out in a financial crisis, or that politicians might lead us into foreign wars on dubious grounds.

David Goodman is professor of Chinese Politics and director of the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.