Saturday, September 04, 2004

The trust is out there

When I was back at Uni I read about a theory called cynical disbelief. The argument went that sometimes cynicism was an offical ideological tatic which allowed authority figures to hold an ideological position that they knew was untrue. Yet the authority figure would not be held accountable for the lack of sincerity or truth because everyone would implicitly know that the ruling ideology was cynical, and therefore it was not meant to be taken literally or seriously.

One effect of this was to make anyone who took the comments at face value appear foolish and negative. It also meant that simply picking holes in an argument - or exposing lies - missed the point and risked political irrelevance.

Watching John Howard try to avoid the tag of liar made me think back to the tatic of cynical disbelief. Howard has tried to argue that the public don't care about the truth of the children overboard issue any more - that they find it boring. While this is undoubtedly political spin, I have wondered whether there is any truth in the claim.

Do people generally expect that politicians lie and are they therefore unfazed if the 'truth' is outed?

Did Howard nominate 'trust' as the theme of the campaign even though his truthfulness was under question because Howard anticipates that people don't expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth in Government? Did he think that in making it the campaign issue, his lack of truthfulness would not be held against him, but that the statement would encourage his political opponents to focus on the issue, making them seem irrelevant and boring?

Peter Hartcher made the point in today's SMH that trust in politics is not just about truth, but about successful policy. He cites a survey which found that participants rated honesty as the most important attribute for a politician, but listed 'politician's integrity' as only the 14th most important priority for government action. Hartcher concludes from this that 'if trust is defined not as "trust in what the Prime Minister says" but "trust in what he does" then Howard's immunity in the charge of dishonesty instantly makes sense.'

Hartcher goes on to suggest that Howard's call to 'trust' is a negative disguised as a positive because what he really means is, 'don't trust Mark Latham, particularly with the economy.'

A just released Roy Morgan poll found that 60% of people thought that the PM lied about children overboard. Meanwhile, a Newspoll reports that Howard's rating as preferred PM has risen from 47 to 48% in the last two weeks. So basically, more than half the population think the PM is a liar, but they don't necessarily care and on balance it isn't a reason to stop him from being a good Prime Minister.

This episode reminds me of Clinton's 'I did not have relations with that woman' scandal, where only 20% of people believed his story, but 75% wanted him to stay on as President.

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