Hypocrisy at the top

The compliment vice pays to virtue

Hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. That’s not my line, but it’s a good line. And it’s good because it encapsulates a neat little truth about the world in a pithy, brief little maxim.

More to the point, boy does that line apply to our Prime Minister. At present the man reeks of hypocrisy. It swirls around him like the lingering scent wafting from the fish processing plant worker or sewer repair guy. Doesn’t matter what Mr. Rudd says, or how much he tries to redirect your gaze with Clintonesque spin, you know the smell’s there. This hypocrisy is just too blatant for anyone to miss.

Recall what Mr. Rudd said before the last election.  He mooted a ban on publicly funded, meaning you the taxpayer funded, government advertising near election time unless both parties explicitly agree. When asked to confirm this Mr. Rudd was unequivocal: “That is an absolute undertaking from us. I believe this is a sick cancer within our system. It’s a cancer on democracy.”

Fast forward two and half years down the track. In between we’ve seen the Prime Minister go from being just about the most popular new Prime Minister going to very, very ordinary indeed in the public’s perceptions. We’ve seen the BER giveaway, the ETS climbdown, the bill of rights jettisoning, the insulation debacle, and loads and loads of extravagant promising followed by exiguous to non-existent following through.  Other than the symbolic gesture, and spin, there hasn’t been much to point to.

So when the next big idea came along, the Super Profits tax on mining, Mr. Rudd knew he needed a winner. He reckoned there could be no going back this time. He figured this was the thing on which to bet the house.

And so when the Super Profits tax ran up against extremely vigorous opposition, something had to give. And that something was Mr. Rudd’s strongly stated principle above about party partisan government advertising being ‘a cancer on democracy’ and his ‘absolute undertaking’ that his government would not indulge in it.

Apparently ‘absolute’ is to be understood in a rather more malleable sense once Mr. Rudd’s own future is on the line. It is a far, far better thing to spend $38 million of our taxpayer dollars giving his side of the story, than to have to try to win this debate without undermining democracy in the very way Mr. Rudd himself spotted two and a bit years ago.

Now before readers split into their two ideological camps, for and against the super profits tax, notice that this complaint has nothing to do with the merits of the tax. Lots of smart, well-informed, reasonable people you’d be happy to go out for a beer with will be opposed to it, and lots of equally smart and all the rest people will be in favour. Resolving such disagreements in a country of 22 million people is what elections are for.

No, this is about the limits on what an elected government ought to be able to do, in a healthy democracy. And many of those limits are conventional; they’re self-imposed. Some governments in some countries that call themselves democracies make a point of punishing constituencies that didn’t vote for the government. They don’t fix the roads or the sewers in those constituencies, pour encourager les autres as it were.

And some countries do worse. They shut down anti-government newspapers. Or they take over the public broadcaster. They limit the information that voters receive.

Now this little $38 million dollar indulgence is nothing like as bad as those things. But it is highly suspect; and Mr. Rudd knows it’s highly suspect because he told us so himself in no uncertain terms.

It’s suspect because the government has virtually unlimited access to your money, the taxpayers’ money, any time it wants. It can simply exempt itself from any rules it wants and inundate voters with its side of the story. The other side – bad luck old chaps – has to use its own money.

No one would object to the Labor Party running whatever ads it wanted with its own money, as the Liberal Party is doing. No one would object to the unions countering this, if they feel so inclined.

But this is different. You know it. And Mr. Rudd knows it.

And notice that it is no defence to claim the ads will only state the facts. If you think that’s a good defence then stop for a minute and consider this. I strongly oppose bills of rights. But I could compose an ad in favour of these awful instruments in my sleep that would state only the truth.

You see the key is what you leave out or play down or overlook. So even if the government funded – oops, taxpayer funded – ads state only the truth (and this is often in the eye of the beholder), it will be Mr. Rudd and his henchmen who decide which truths go in, and which do not. And you have to pay for that amazing electoral advantage, whether you want to or not.

It’s exactly for that reason that Mr. Rudd, back before it mattered to his own political future, called this sort of thing “a cancer on democracy”.  

It’s worse than that too. Why? Because this sets an awfully strong precedent. Any future government that doesn’t like the way the polls are trending just pulls out the chequebook – oops, takes some of your money – and starts ‘advertising’ how wonderful its policies and programs are.

Start down this road and you quickly undermine a key pillar of democratic governance, the idea of a level playing field between the government and the opposition.

Mr. Rudd can be understood as saying that the level playing field was a jolly good idea when he was in opposition, but it has somewhat less appeal to him now that he’s in government.

That is a concept that is otherwise known as hypocrisy. It stinks. And often hypocrisy doesn’t go down terribly well with voters. They prefer, what was the line again, oh yes – a fair shake of the sauce bottle.

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