Watching the speeches by politicians from both sides of politics in relation to Rob Oakeshott’s asylum seeker legislation (and being swallowed whole by their disingenuousness) and a subsequent Twitter conversation with @Drag0nista as to why people react so viscerally to the Greens more so than politicians from Labor and the Liberal Party, got me thinking back to my take on democracy (and civil society more broadly) and what makes it work. I’ve named my theory on this the ‘Compact of Deceit’.
Like the joke goes: ‘How can you tell when a politician is lying?’ Answer: ‘Their lips are moving’. It gives rise to an interesting paradox – we expect politicians to lie, but we are sometimes shocked when they are caught out lying. The key word is sometimes. Julia Gillard gets labelled with the name ‘Juliar’ based on the view by her political opponents that she lied. But, if she has indeed lied, why is it so remarkable? Why do some commentators react as if she’s the first politician to have lied? As others have pointed out, John Howard lied with alacrity and we greedily lapped it up: core and non-core promises were treated with a nudge and a wink, not with scorn by most.
I think part of the answer is simply partisanship. The supporters of a political party will view their politicians as truthful and the other parties’ politicians as liars, and they won’t see deceit in those of their own political persuasion. If they do ever admit to deceit in their own political party, they will see it as a necessary untruth.
But what else other than partisanship? Well I think it has to do with the functioning of democracy and basic human behaviour. We all lie and we all justify our dishonesty. We talk of ‘white’ lies, those which are somehow excusable because they are done to avoid causing hurt or discomfort in other people. Every day when we are greeted by someone with ‘how are you?’, regardless of how you are you will nearly always respond with ‘good, thanks’. It’s part of the social compact – I’ll pretend to care and you’ll pretend to share. Psychologists have shown that being honest in these encounters is generally not a good thing, people switch off when confronted with honesty. Dishonesty is used as a lubricant to smooth social interactions.
I often make the analogy of governance being just like parenthood. A good parent doesn’t aim for popularity, they constantly act in the best interests of their children: children’s liberties are curtailed, they have to abide by rules they don’t agree with, they have to do chores they don’t want to. It’s easier for a parent to act in the best interests of their children and family as a whole because families aren’t democracies, they’re parental dictatorships. If family life were a true democracy, kids would vote on what they wanted for breakfast, whether they went to school, whether they should clean their teeth and whether they should refrain from beating the crap out of their little brother. And self-interest would dictate a breakfast of chocolate, no school, no cleaning of teeth and a good thumping of the obnoxious little brother.
Being a good government is just like being a parent. Government is about looking after society as a whole and minimising conflict. But societies aren’t homogenous. To maintain the balance of the whole, governments often need to impost burdens, obligations, liberties and responsibilities differentially: many individuals will benefit, some won’t. And unlike the inherent authority in the parental dictatorship, democracies require consent.
So how do you gain the cooperation of those who won’t readily consent? In an ideal world, government would calmly explain the rationale, why it’s fair and reasonable and those who don’t win out would accept it for the sake of the greater good. And indeed that does happen. But it’s far easier to appeal to self-interest than to appeal to reason, to convince everyone that they’ll be a winner and that nobody will lose out. But to do that, you have to lie. Politicians lie just like parents lie. “The needle won’t hurt”; “the medicine won’t taste bad”; “going to the dentist is fun”: these are all lies that parents tell children to agree to something that isn’t pleasant but is in their best interests. Parents are in a position of trust, so kids are prepared to set aside a certain amount of disbelief. It facilitates the rationalisation that ultimately what they’re about to endure is good for them. It’s the Compact of Deceit: I’ll lie to you for your own good and you’ll go along with it because, deep down, you trust me enough to know it’s in your best interests.
So politicians lie to makes us all think we’re won’t be worse off. So too we accept their lies because we know, deep down, that it’s in our or society’s best interests. Because, like our parents, we trust them.
And that’s the key ingredient to the Compact of Deceit: trust. This is why we accept the lies of our own political party, because we trust them. This is why we won’t accept the lies of the other party, because we don’t trust them. And as an aside I think it’s why Julia Gillard is copping such a hiding for her dishonesty – not because she’s dishonest as that’s ultimately unremarkable in a politician, we actually expect it. But it’s because we don’t trust her. She can’t even engage in the Compact of Deceit.
So what does this have to do with the Greens and the scorn they arouse? Because they don’t play by the rules at all, they refuse to sign up to the Compact of Deceit. The Greens tells us what they think, not what we want to hear. They generally won’t lie to us. They’re like the person who, when asked how they are, tells you that they’re crap because they’ve just lost her job. We don’t want to know the truth, we want the comforting lie. They broke the Compact of Deceit by not proffering the soothing lie.
In the context of the current debate on immigration, the Greens are not playing by the rules. And the rules were put out in the open by Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 programme on 27th June. Whilst the leader of the Greens, Christine Milne, came across as shrill, she did so partly because she wasn’t playing into the dominant paradigm.
The debate has been crafted by both Labor and the Liberals as stopping the boats. The ostensible reason is that we don’t want to see refugees drowning on their risky trips to Australia. But I would strongly argue that that’s not the real reason, that reason is one of the lies in the Compact of Deceit. I don’t think that most Australians give a toss about foreigners, particularly those that are dark and mostly Muslim, drowning at sea. Sure, there are a small group of ‘bleeding hearts’ who do, but I really don’t think the apathetic masses do.
The real driver to stopping the boats is to stop the trickle from becoming a flood, the stop Australia sliding down the slippery slope of compassion that would lead to us being invaded by hundreds and thousands of Afghans and Iraqis and all the fears that arouses about our ‘way of life’. Admitting that truth is particularly unpleasant however, we don’t want to admit that fear and a lack of compassion are significant drivers in this debate. So our politicians reassure us that we’re a kind, compassionate nation by lying to us that, we’re not doing this out of fear or selfishness, we’re doing it out of love for these poorly refugees. And we gratefully lap this up because it makes us feel good about what we’re doing and who we are.
So Leigh Sales maintained the normative discourse by asking Ms Milne repeatedly how she’s going to help us stop the boats (because the lie dictates that this is about saving lives, not stopping hordes of foreigners invading our shores). And Ms Milne breaks the Compact by sayings she’s not interested in stopping the boats, the Greens are only interested in helping these people in need. And Ms Sales’ questions kept coming back to stopping the boats to stop the drowning, and the answers kept coming back that the Greens aren’t working in that paradigm. The Greens want these people to come and they want them to come safely. How does this break the Compact of Deceit? Because to discuss the Greens options would force people to admit that they actually don’t want the boats to come because they don’t want these people here. Or discuss that stopping the boats requires a policy unpleasant enough to be worse than whatever they’re fleeing.
The truth is for most of us, we don’t care what happens to them and where they go provided it’s not here. We can’t maintain the lie otherwise. The Greens, were they allowed to shift the public debate to their paradigm, would force people to adopt honest but unpalatable positions in attacking the Greens’ position. So we accuse them of being airy fairy, of being impractical, but we don’t say why or address their arguments because it forces the lie into the open.
The Greens aren’t the only ones who break the Compact, but they’re amongst the few in Australian politics who do. When you refuse to proffer up the lies that make the whole system work, you’re forcing people to work with the truth. I know from personal experience given my work having to deliver or uncover truths that the truth is often unpopular. The truth can be confronting, distasteful and shameful. It can cause conflict. It can hurt people’s feelings. That’s part of why I think the Greens are hated so much, their idealism prods at the dark truths that our Compact of Deceit allows us to deny (there are other reasons like their inherent ideological contradiction but that’s the subject of another post). We all engage in the most common formula of lie: the ‘but’ lie: ‘I care about these refugees, but…’, ‘I don’t want to see Koalas become extinct, but…’, ‘I respect your views on this matter, but…’. We all know that the ‘but’ renders all before it a lie, but it’s offered and accepted at face value as a truth. What is really being said is: ‘I don’t really care about refugees, so…’; ‘I don’t care if koalas become extinct, so…’; ‘I couldn’t care less what you think, so…’.
We’re not as nice as we tell each other we are. Tell me it’s not true.