Peter Smith

The crime, not the stress

Parliament and public office more generally is not the place to be if you expect quarter.

US congressman Anthony Weiner sent images of his private parts, via a social media network, to young women. He looked straight into TV cameras and denied sending the offending images. He lied repeatedly without the least sign of shame and suggested that his political opponents may have hacked into his account.

His pursuers were unrelenting and he was eventually undone. This case and many others like it share two essential and interdependent elements: lying on the part of the pursued and (particularly if you are in public office) persistence on the part of the pursuers. Without these two elements nothing would play out and be the potential stuff of movies: Profumo and Keeler, Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Lewinsky.

There is another common factor which is usually present in cases where people are pursued over wrong-doing. The presumed perpetrators are put under great stress. Wouldn’t you be if, indeed, you had murdered Roger Ackroyd and the indefatigable Hercule Poirot was on the case? However, I have never seen an episode where Hercule decided to abandon his investigation for fear the perpetrator was suffering too much stress and might do himself grave harm.  It is a price he was prepared to pay because to have done otherwise would have left all of his investigations to the mercy of perpetrators prepared to game his sensitivity about upsetting them.

It is a fact of life that many of those who conduct themselves in a (gross) morally reprehensible way seem to find it possible to lie about it when challenged. So it goes; prisons are full of innocent people. Perhaps this is not too hard to understand. If you are prepared to send unsolicited images of your genitals to young women it may be more likely that you are the kind of person who will lie about it. If you are prepared to, say, steal from or harm others it may be more likely that you are the kind of person who will lie about it. This puts the rest of us in a difficult position if we are fearful of causing presumed perpetrators great stress. In fact, we might as well give up as soon as the offence is denied.

Joel Fitzgibbon was interviewed by (or more accurately had a cosy chat with) Chris Uhlmann on the ABC program 7.30 last week. Basically the interview was all about trying to shift the focus of public debate away from pursuing Craig Thomson to denouncing that “wrecker” Tony Abbott who was putting Mr Thomson at risk. Now Tony Abbott was not accused of infiltrating the HSU and masquerading as Thomson in brothels with supporting evidence from Ms Scarlet suggesting that while she can’t recognise his face he definitively wore budgie smugglers. Rather he was accused of playing a leading part in a parliamentary and media pursuit, which, apart from disrupting parliament, is putting Thomson under great stress.

According to Fitzgibbon “even if Craig Thomson was guilty of everything that’s been alleged, the punishment he has received both in the Parliament and in the media probably is greater than…he deserves, given the nature of some of the allegations [stealing and/or misusing half a million dollars of union members’ money no less].” Methinks a number of people in Long Bay might swap places with Craig.

Amazingly, even for the ABC, Uhlmann let this extraordinary statement from Fitzgibbon go unanswered and moved to the case of Greg Wilton, a Labor MP who took his own life 12 years ago. Later in the evening on Lateline, to continue the aim of shifting the focus of debate, we had replayed Tony Abbott’s condolence speech for Wilton in which he asked for more civility in parliament. But does civility include allowing crooks to go unchallenged? Hercule was uncommonly civil.

There are just two sensible ways to look at the events unfolding. One is that the pursuit of Thomson will prove to be misconceived, unjust, and cruel because he is innocent of all wrong-doing as he claims. The other is that the pursuit of him will prove to be justified because he is guilty of some or all of the alleged wrong-doing and the stress produced by the relentless pursuit of him is self-inflicted because of his equally relentless lying.

There isn’t a third way. We don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes the innocent are found guilty and the guilty found innocent. However, if there are strong grounds for believing someone guilty of serious criminal behaviour and gross moral turpitude then they should expect to be challenged relentlessly, certainly if they are in public office, despite the stress this causes them.

Peter Smith’s book, Bad Economics, will be published very soon by Connor Court. You can pre-order (post free) here…

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