In 2012, Malcolm Turnbull delivered the George Winterton Lecture at the University of Western Australia, in which, coincidentally enough, he discussed the importance of truth, particularly in the climate change debate, and how the demise of journalism and the deplorable behaviour in question time are instrumental in damaging both the public’s trust and their ability to make informed decisions. The following is an extract from that speech.
Republican virtues: Truth, leadership and responsibility.
“Politicians and shock jocks, scientists and coal barons, all of them can argue for as long as they like, but they cannot change physical reality.
The reason our planet is not a frozen chunk of ice is heat trapped by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Increasing the amount of those gases will necessarily over time cause the earth to warm.
I won’t linger on climate change – the hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan nature of the debate is too well known to rehearse. But there was irony aplenty in Tampa last week when the first day of the Republican Convention was cancelled because of a cyclone, even as the extent of Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest area since satellite measurements began and the worst American drought in more than 50 years sent corn and wheat prices soaring.
How often do we hear Australian politicians discuss these challenges in a genuinely open, honest, spin-free and non-adversarial way? Where the intention is to clearly explain the problem, accept responsibility for past misteps if appropriate (rather than apportion as much blame as possible to the other side), allow a non-ideological discussion of possible remedies, and see if there is any common ground for bipartisan work?
Seldom, and even more rarely if a camera is rolling.
Most Australians believe we need an honest, informed policy debate. Yet I don’t see many people who believe we have that. Instead, we all hear again and again that Australians are ashamed of the parliament, that they see it as nothing more than a forum for abuse, catcalling and spin.
There are reasons for this view. Question Time, Parliament’s most visible ritual, is one. If you love your country, have an interest in politics or policy, and care deeply about our nation’s future, there is nothing more certain to arouse your fury and invite your contempt than listening to an entire House of Representatives Question Time.
Normally this is doubly the case if the party you favour is in opposition; Governments tend to wield the advantages they have in Question Time with the subtlety that Trotsky’s assasin wielded his ice pick. There is a reason it is called Question Time and not Answer Time.
The journalists of Australia, the media, play as important a role in our democracy as any elected representative. But their numbers are dwindling fast and the media’s capacity to report on, let alone hold to account, governments and oppositions is diminishing.
As they endeavour to make do with fewer resources, newspapers and other media as well resort to more and more commentary and opinion. An opinionated columnist costs less than a team of news reporters. It is so much easier to put one slanted opinion up against another than to investigate and objectively report on the facts of the matter.
Increasingly too the journalists who cover politics are drawn into the game – often praising politicians for their skilful use of spin, their cunning ability to avoid a difficult question or their brutal ability to misrepresent and destroy their opponent’s arguments. Commenting on the play takes a lot less time than painstakingly pointing out where the spin has misrepresented an issue.
In my view, all of this requires politicians to be especially careful to remember our responsibility to explain the big issues of our time. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent’s policy does not respect “Struggle Street”, it treats its residents with contempt.
Call me idealistic if you like, but we have a greater need than ever for informed and honest debate and, yet, with the decline of journalism less means to deliver it and hold to account those who seek to frustrate it.
So what can be done? Well for a start all of us can consciously do a better job at explaining issues. Shouldn’t one key benchmark for politicians be: have we made an issue clearer and the complex comprehensible? We all want “cut through” messages- how about cutting through with clarity, rather than with spin?
And while newspapers are shrinking think tanks seem to be expanding – wouldn’t it be great if some of those public intellects actually held politicians like me to account, pointing out where we had exaggerated or misled. Public fact checking would raise the quality of debate.
In this environment our public broadcasters have an even heavier responsibility to be objective, balanced and comprehensive in their news coverage – it may not be long before the largest employer of journalists in Australia is our ABC.
The ABC enjoys a very high level of trust in the Australian community – much higher than in politicians or bishops I saw recently -and as the rest of the news media decline, they will have to work harder and harder to retain it.
But let us return to Question Time.
In our Parliament every sitting day has a question time in which most of the questions are asked of the Prime Minister. For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focussed on people smuggling and the carbon tax.
Are they really the only important issues facing Australia? A regular viewer of Question Time would be excused for thinking they were.
In Britain’s House of Commons the Prime Minister takes questions for half an hour every Wednesday but on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday question time deals, by turn, with one of the other departments.
If we were to do that, or some variant thereof Question Time might actually serve to hold the whole of the Government to account and enlighten the public as to what is going on in all those other departments that are not concerned with carbon tax and people smuggling.
Now I don’t have any silver bullet to make us politicians more accurate or more likely to keep our promises.
But we can make it easier to earn and keep the people’s trust. We should be much more careful about raising false expectations – whether on what we can do or what our opponents will do.
And we can waste less time on tedious “gotcha” moments when an opponent’s phrase is taken out of context and used utterly to misrepresent his position.
In case you think my call for a change of attitude and practice to truth in politics is just idealism – let me make a practical political point. It seems to me that we don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust. We can argue for hours which side and which politicians, which journalists indeed, have contributed most to it. But it affects all of us and all of our institutions. The politicians and parties that can demonstrate they can be trusted, that they will not insult the people with weasel words and spin, that they will not promise more than they can deliver, that they will not dishonestly misrepresent either their own or their opponents’ policies – those politicians and parties will, I submit to you, deserve and receive electoral success.”
Would that it were so Malcolm but, as you have so pointedly demonstrated, the temptations of the dark side are even too great for the man who “looks billionaires in the eye” to resist.
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