Falling below the minimal level of truth

There was an interesting article the other day by Bruce Thornton which he has titled, “Lies, Democracy & Obama” but whose central point applies just as well here. He begins with a quotation from Jean-François Revel, a name wrongly disappearing into the past but whose books could be resurrected even more urgently for the present. This is the passage he took from Revel:

Democracy cannot survive without a certain diet of truth. It cannot survive if the degree of truth in current circulation falls below a minimal level. A democratic regime, founded on the free determination of important choices made by a majority, condemns itself to death if most of the citizens who have to choose between various options make their decisions in ignorance of reality, blinded by passions or misled by fleeting impressions.

To which Thornton added, conflating his text from the first and last paragraphs:

If Revel is correct, the rapidly diminishing level of truth in our public discourse suggests that we are in dire straits. . . . Following Revel, we can say a healthy democracy is one in which truth is allowed to circulate freely and inform citizens so they can make the right decisions. But today institutionalized lies have more influence than the truth, with baleful effects visible all around us. This suggests that we are a sick culture, and our condition is worsening.

Thornton is most emphatically not talking about the fact that politicians don’t always tell the truth but something that goes more deeply. And while he thinks of this as a feature of the left in modern politics, as do I, where it starts is with the media, which can no longer be expected to willingly publish anything that harms the political prospects of the left.

Two recent stories, both found on the editorial page of The Australian, are prime examples of the problem. Both spooked me, and while it is ironic that I am criticising the media for not revealing the facts when I have found out what I know by reading the media, it is still shameful that these are, firstly, opinion pieces rather than news stories and then, secondly, that they are not being splashed across the news so that everyone is aware of what’s happening and those who are responsible made to explain themselves.

The first is a column by Janet Albrechtsen dealing with Penny Wong and the amounts of money she has signed off on while Minister of Finance. The Finance Minister is the gatekeeper for government outlays, making sure governments do not spend too much nor waste what they spend. Well, forget it. The facts so far as they are even willing to admit – and this doesn’t include all kinds of outlays that are kept off the books – are maddening. Of Wong’s performance, Abrechtsen writes in conclusion:

Not even a nice smile can save Wong from being remembered as the $106 Billion Woman and this nation’s most incompetent Finance Minister.

Oh but yes it can. I read Janet’s article and maybe you read it but who else and who has shown that they care? Is it the scandal that it ought to be? Is there a hue and cry about just how badly she has managed her portfolio? Will anyone remember a day from now never mind when the new government tries to fix what is now seriously broken? Not a chance. Wong will walk away with not a care in the world, her credibility intact, remembered for her slick public persona, not for her disastrous role as the Minister of Finance.

And then we have a second opinion piece, this one from a surprising source given the contents. This is by Kevin Morgan who was “the ACTU member of former ALP leader Kim Beazley’s advisory committee on telecommunications”. And what he is trying to do is blow the whistle on the catastrophic hole in which the National Broadband Network is placing the finances of our country, never mind the damage it is doing to our infrastructure. A report on the NBN has been given to the government and everyone knows it, but there is no outrage that is being suppressed nor a intensifying demand to have this report released now. From the article, where I have conflated the first and last paras:

Kevin Rudd claims there is a conspiracy surrounding the NBN. He may be right. But it is not a conspiracy in which Rupert Murdoch seeks to bring down the Labor government to sabotage the NBN. It is a conspiracy to hide from the voters, until after the election, just how bad are the finances of the NBN. And the dire straits that the NBN is in can be sheeted back to the deals done by one man: the Prime Minister. . . .

Now Rudd’s back telling us, as he repeatedly did on Sunday night, that his visionary NBN is going marvellously. Well if it is Rudd will have absolutely no problem in immediately releasing an update of NBN Co’s corporate plan that is sitting on the desks of Penny Wong [sic] and Anthony Albanese, the two NBN shareholder ministers. To do otherwise would be a conspiracy and Rudd wouldn’t want to be accused of that.

Rudd cannot engineer this conspiracy of silence on his own. He needs help from a media apparently willing to go quiet on a program that is ruining their very  country – the very country they live in themselves – in order to maintain the most incompetent government in our history, but so far as they are concerned a government of the right political shade. We have fallen below Revel’s minimal level of truth, well below, and we will pay for this dearly and for a very long time to come.

Steve Kates teaches economics at RMIT University. His most recent book is Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader

Leave a Reply