Truth Overboard

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When we teach our children about telling the truth, we tend to explain it like this: Always tell the truth because the real story will come out eventually. If you tell the truth, you won't have to remember which version of events you told whom. If you get a reputation for dishonesty, you may not be believed even when you are telling the truth. And - borrowing from pop psychology - the truth will set you free. But in public life these days, what sets you free is spin. Playing loose with the facts keeps your options open.

Take Federal Liberal M.P. Ross Cameron. The father of four, a prominent campaigner for family values, told Good Weekend magazine recently that he'd been "an unfaithful husband." He added: "People are entitled to have a more unvarnished view of who I am if I'm asking them to vote for me." Whatever his motives for applying coarse sandpaper to his reputation, Cameron is now likely to lose his marginal Sydney seat of Parramatta. The garrulous pants man may have believed he was doing the right thing by setting the record straight. But did anyone applaud the candidate's candor? No - on the contrary, reporters in Canberra immediately ran with further details of Cameron's private life, unleashing stories they'd been sitting on for years.

Another old story concerns "a certain maritime incident," also known as the children overboard affair. In October 2001, two days into an election campaign in which Prime Minister John Howard successfully portrayed his government as tough on border protection, ministers claimed that illegal immigrants aboard a fishing boat code-named SIEV 4 (suspected illegal entry vessel 4) had thrown children into the sea. This, government ministers suggested, was an attempt at blackmail: sailors from H.M.A.S. Adelaide, which had apprehended the vessel, would be forced to rescue the children, thus improving their families' chances of gaining entry to Australia. Defence Minister Peter Reith, citing photographic and video evidence, said at the time: "It is an absolute fact - children were thrown into the water." The media demanded proof.

Pictures indeed showed people in the water. But they were taken the day after SIEV 4 was intercepted, after it had begun to sink. Senior bureaucrats and military officers had differing ideas about exactly what had happened, but it gradually became clear to them that the first reports given to the government were inaccurate. Two inquiries have now established that military commanders told Reith before polling day that no children had, in fact, been thrown overboard. At the time, no one in the government moved to correct the record, and no inquiry was launched. Perhaps ministers believed that admitting they had misled the public would damage their re-election chances. It is still not clear how much Howard knew about the initial report's inaccuracy.

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