Issue Eight, Summer 2007/08  
Art & Lies I   

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Aporia Australis: Lies and Responsibility

Grayson Cooke

Central Queensland University

 

‘Truth is absolute, truth is supreme, truth is never disposable in national political life.’
John Howard, ABC Radio, 25 August 1995

‘By definition the liar is someone who says that he says the truth … but the more a political machine lies the more it makes the love of truth into the watchword of its rhetoric.’
Jacques Derrida, ‘History of the Lie’

 

As something of a prefatory move, I would like to begin with the proposition that Australia is a particularly appropriate place around which to structure a discussion of the lie, because in some way Australia was founded on a lie, and lives the reverberations of this lie daily. Contemporary Australia inherits this lie, it lives with it, savours it, experiences it as a quality of the light, a quality of the air, as well as an ongoing socio/cultural/economic reality. This lie is the lie of an empty land, a land of no-one, a terra nullius.

As a concept, and as a technology of colonial power, terra nullius has a vexed history in Australia. Amongst other issues, debate has revolved around the official and documented role of terra nullius in Australian history; in other words, quibbling over what is historically documented, and what this documentation might mean, has resulted in assertions that terra nullius was introduced not as a part of the colonial machinery but as part of 20th century native title claims, primarily to do with the Mabo decision (Veracini 2006).

That terra nullius was not documented as an explicit part of the legal doctrine or logic under which Australia was colonized, however, does not suggest that terra nullius or a logic of its kind was not operating as an at least tacit element of the colonial cultural and legal machinery. Moreover, it is kept alive and well in contemporary debates around native title, the ‘history wars’, and reconciliation more generally, which ensure that questions of the rights of Indigenous Australians remain a problem for contemporary Australia. This problem is frequently figured in terms of guilt and responsibility, with the central question of the last few years hinging on the Howard government’s refusal to apologise, and in so doing take responsibility, for the actions of Australia’s European settlers, and for a governmental failure to recognize Indigenous Australians as a sovereign people. Indeed, with the recent 40-year anniversary of the signing of the 1967 Referendum, Howard again publicly refused to apologise, and again framed his refusal as a refusal to hold contemporary Australia responsible for the sins of past generations.

The fact that contemporary Australians were not responsible for the actions of their predecessors does not, however, mean that all responsibility in relation to this period of history has vanished; it simply means it has turned into a responsibility to those that inherit the actions of the past. There remains an excess of responsibility, unclaimed, like lost property, and the lie of the land remains a question of responsibility, a question of who can and should take responsibility for what, and in whose name this responsibility will be taken. I will return to this notion later in this paper.

If we take it as a given that contemporary Australia inherits this ‘lie of the land’, and has evolved complex strategies to absorb, discharge and reabsorb this lie on an ongoing basis, what of other lies that circulate in the contemporary arena? Specifically – what is the state and status of the political lie in Australia today?

Despite the generally held belief that lying is ‘bad behaviour’, lying in the political arena is a venerable tradition. Hannah Arendt, in her article ‘Lying in Politics’, is unequivocal on this point:

Secrecy … and deception, the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends, have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings (Arendt 1972: 4).

This is a broad statement, and we can understand its broad sense easily. But its nuances require unpacking. There are different kinds of lies, different ways of lying, and different degrees of the acceptability of lying, depending on different contexts.

For example, in a paper entitled ‘Lying in International Politics’, John Mearsheimer outlines a number of different types and contexts of lying, and finds different degrees of justifiability in these lies. Inter-state lying, that is, one nation lying to another or to others, is for Mearsheimer frequently justifiable on a strategic level. States, being separate units joined by trade, diplomacy, travel, migration and an avaricious globalized media, must frequently lie to each other because they cannot be entirely sure of each other’s intentions. However, Mearsheimer finds that fear-mongering – that is, the manufacture of false threats to national security to shore up support for a government’s actions – which more frequently occurs between a state and its citizens, is much less acceptable, because it assumes a knowledgeable and arrogant government experiencing a disjunct with its people. This disjunct can become manifest, and potentially disastrous for a government, if the threat that was manufactured turns out to have been false, and a nation’s public discovers and reacts to what was done in its name. While the political lie has a long tradition, and in some circumstances is justifiable and indeed expected, in other contexts it can be dangerous for all concerned, and signals an anti-democratic wedge in the operation of modern democracy.

At bottom, lying is a form of deception, and it forms part of a series which includes falsehoods such as errors, mistakes, spin and concealment. In its ‘classical’ conception, a lie rests on a conscious intention to deceive, and even to harm; a lie occurs when a person deliberately makes a false statement, with the intention of misleading their audience. Drawing on Aristotle and St Augustine, as well as Hannah Arendt, this is what Derrida refers to as the ‘frank lie’, and for Derrida, it is vital as a ground-zero of the concept of the lie: ‘no ethics, no law or right, no politics could long withstand, precisely in our culture, its pure and simple disappearance’ (Derrida 2002: 37). That is to say, the intention to deceive another is the base requirement for the classical concept of the lie, and no theory or law of interpersonal relations can function without this baseline. We should also note that the lie requires an other to lie to, it can only exist with the support of an other or others, which puts the lie squarely in the arena of ethics.

Errors and mistakes, then, no longer qualify as lies as such, because it is intention, and thus good or bad faith, which is the condition of possibility of a lie; a speaker does not lie if they speak a falsehood while thinking that they speak the truth. This emphasis on intention, however, both founds and destroys the concept of the lie; it renders it (im)possible. For the question of whether a statement is or is not a lie to come down to the intentions and good faith of the speaker, is to eternally defer the possibility of knowing, definitively, whether someone has lied or not.

For structural reasons, it will always be impossible to prove, in the strict sense, that someone has lied even if one can prove that he or she did not tell the truth. One will never be able to prove anything against the person who says, ‘What I said is not true; I was wrong, to be sure, but I did not mean to deceive; I am in good faith’ (Derrida 2002: 34).

This should, for Australian readers, and most likely for readers of other nations as well, begin to sound remarkably familiar. This excuse, the excuse which confounds utterly the possibility of assaying the intention of a speaker, and thus determining whether they have lied or not, is the excuse that has been used by the Howard Government numerous times over the past eleven years, when faced with one political scandal or another. As many commentators have noted, Australian politics during the Howard era has consistently turned on the government’s ability to deny wrongdoing or knowledge of wrongdoing, and thus ensure that good faith is left intact even while questions of competence and accountability hang heavily in the air. Lying in politics, then, is a question of the management of good faith. As Paul Miller notes, when questioned in parliament about the Children Overboard affair, John Howard adhered strictly to the classical model of the lie given in good faith, which we can also understand as the lie of good faith, the lie of the very possibility of good faith:

Howard: It is clear from the report, which I will table during question time, that the original statements made by ministers regarding children being thrown overboard were based on reports and advice received. They were provided in good faith to ministers by serving officers of the defence forces and were used in good faith by ministers (Hansard 2002; Miller 2004).

Likewise, when questioned during the Cole Inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board’s rorting of the UN oil-for-food program and payment of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, and Trade Minister Mark Vaile were able to speak in ‘good faith’ about their ignorance of AWB’s actions because, in this instance, they had NOT received advice from personal staff, nor had they any system in place which recorded what they were told and what they were not, which ensured the innocence of their seemingly infinite capacity to forget:

Agius: Do you know what criteria are applied in determining whether particular cables will be the subject of a ministerial submission?
Vaile: Within the department? No.
Agius: Who determines that?
Vaile: Well, I would imagine the relevant departmental officer at a particular level.
Agius: And you have never had cause to investigate that?
Vaile: No. (Australian Government Attorney General’s Department, 2006a: 6435)

Agius: … Was there any system maintained within your office which recorded which cables were brought to your attention and which were not?
Downer: No, we don't have a system that does that. (Australian Government Attorney General’s Department 2006b: 6563)

Agius: … Were there any formal criteria laid down which indicated the basis on which documents ought to be brought to your attention?
Howard: No, there weren’t. (Australian Government Attorney General’s Department 2006c: 6635)

Agius: Was there any record maintained in your office at that time as to which cables were drawn to your attention and which were not - a written record?
Howard: No, I believe a written record began to be kept sometime in 2003. (Australian Government Attorney General’s Department 2006c: 6639)

I could go on – these examples are only two of many, and they turn on two significant issues. As we have discussed, they turn, firstly, on the forever-deferrable question of good faith and intention. Despite what in other contexts would be referred to as ignorance or incompetence, ministers are understood to operate in good faith because ‘what they don’t know can’t hurt them’, and through a strategic erosion of the Westminster system of government, this good faith of the individual is the criterion against which ministerial conduct and a minister’s department as a collective, is to be judged.

Secondly, both instances highlight the phenomenon of the obfuscatory power of ministerial advisors. As noted by commentators and journalists such as James Walter, Patrick Weller and Margo Kingston, as well as the authors of the Senate Inquiry into the Children Overboard affair, over the last thirty years, and especially under the Howard government, the number of staff working in ministerial offices has more than doubled, and ministerial advisors play an increasingly political, partisan and autonomous role (see Walter 2006; Weller 2002; Kingston 2004; Parliament 2002: 174-175). Ministerial staffers have been described as ‘convenient scapegoats’ who will readily ‘take the bullet for their ministers and protect them from political fallout’ (Weller 2002: 72), and who provide ‘a firewall around ministers’ (Walter 2006: 26), and the political and informational structure they inhabit has been described as a ‘black-hole’ of government (Weller 2002: 70), and an ‘accountability vacuum’ (Parliament 2002: xxxiii). These descriptions draw a picture of an informational or archival structure into which anything may enter and nothing may emerge, leaving ministers free at all times to know that they don’t know, and to be safe in that ‘knowledge’, which is at the same time a kind of blissful ignorance. As Alexander Downer remarked in the aftermath of the Cole inquiry, ‘What you don’t know you don’t know – and you can’t get to the heart of what you don’t know’ (Overington 2006).

That such a phenomenon has become commonplace in contemporary politics seems completely absurd, yet it is an absurdity that is a political fact. This absurdity was highlighted in the days after the Cole Inquiry presented its report on the AWB kickback scandal, when John Howard called on the Opposition to apologise for having subjected his ministers to ‘character assassination’ with accusations that his ministers were incompetent (Lewis 2006). While the Cole Report exonerated Howard and his ministers from direct blame and direct personal knowledge of AWB’s actions, the transcripts of the Inquiry draw a clear picture of a system of ministerial ‘advice’ that works by not working, guaranteeing at all times the potential ignorance of the minister concerned. Given such evidence, the call for the Opposition to apologise seems preposterous, amounting more to a call for Howard’s ministers to be congratulated for having effectively quarantined themselves from any information relevant to the Inquiry.

It is the very nature of this ignorance and system of quarantining that is my interest here, because it is this system that underpins the possibility, and impossibility, of the contemporary political lie. Firstly, I would like to understand this ignorance in the context of the notion of self-deception and the modern lie. Secondly, I would like to understand it in terms of the notions of responsibility it engenders.

In her article on the Pentagon Papers, ‘Lying in Politics’, Hannah Arendt argues that both deception and self-deception are mutually-inclusive in modern politics. While Arendt does not examine the notion of self-deception in great detail, she contextualizes it in terms of a modern mode of ‘defactualization’, wherein the political liar comes to believe their own lies when these lies circulate and are amplified in the public domain. Thus, the public domain is ‘suffused’ with the lie to the extent that the liar has their own lie broadcast back at them. This is, for Arendt, the ‘modern’ lie, to be distinguished from the ‘traditional’ lie by its existence in a mediated system of the circulation of images and representations. In this ‘modern’ system, self-deception is a distinct possibility because the circulation of images and information, the building of images upon images, and the increasingly central role played by media of many kinds in public life, ensures that access to ‘the truth’, or rather, access to an idea of the truth, is always-already mediated by a political and economic system of representation.

This is of course a ‘loose’ notion of self-deception, revolving more around a kind of wilful intellectual laziness or conscious outsourcing of knowledge to unconscious ideology, than around the strict intention to lie. According to the classic definition, lying requires an explicit and conscious intention to mislead on the part of the liar. Given this definition, Derrida points out that self-deception or ‘lying to oneself’ is, strictly speaking, impossible, or minimally a logical absurdity, and he questions Arendt’s un-problematic use of such a deceptive term. However, he argues that her formulation of the modern lie, and the contextualization of the modern lie in terms of a mediatic structure of the simulacrum and image-substitute, effectively foregrounds the ‘artifactuality that presides over the constitution of images of so-called information’ (Derrida 2002: 65). Artifactuality is the neologism Derrida uses to highlight the artificiality of the informational artefact in the tele-techno-mediatic system, and in actuality in general. For Derrida, informational artefacts are ‘in principle subject to the principle of truth and veracity’, but

all the same, through filtering, selection, editing, framing, substitution of the artifactual archive for the thing itself, [they] ‘deform’ in order to ‘inform’ without it being possible to assign or localize an intentional lie in the mind of a single individual or even in a delimitable group of individuals. (Derrida 2002: 65)

We can easily see how this filtered, edited and framed artifice of actuality can relate to the workings of government. Both the Children Overboard and AWB affairs involved the ability of the Howard Government to frame public knowledge of an event or series of events in terms of the government’s own knowledge or ignorance of these events, this knowledge or ignorance in turn having been already filtered by strata of the government – that is, ministerial advisors – that are sheltered from accountability and from public view. With this expanded and diffused notion of self-deception as the modern lie in mind, we can see that the Howard Government’s approach to the handling of information within ministerial offices, is essentially one of automated and out-sourced self-deception, a system whereby it is possible for ministers to be ‘deceived’ by their own system of ministerial advice, while not being aware of any deception. In this system, it is always possible to speak responsibly, in good faith, with the intention of speaking the truth, because bad faith, irresponsibility, the knowledge of one’s ignorance, and the possibility of an intention to lie and thus mislead, have been outsourced to a ministerial unconscious which can remain eternally hidden in an accountability vacuum.

Questions of accountability, or responsibility, then, are central to an enquiry into the phenomenon of the modern political lie. But, responsibility is a complex concept, multi-faceted and subject to numerous contexts and definitions. To hold governments accountable and responsible for their actions, and to charge ministers and ministerial advisors with abrogating responsibility, may seem like a simple thing – and, indeed, it is done all the time in the public sphere, in Senate inquiries and in the agonisms of parliamentary debate. Accusations of irresponsible behaviour are legion, they are the stock-in-trade of an active Opposition and of a concerned public and media. However, these debates are inevitably conducted under the vexed sign of a concept that is as malleable as notions of the truth, the lie and ‘good intentions’. Moreover, the outcomes of such debates are rarely satisfactory for those wishing to play the blame game. Only occasionally do apologies or resignations arise from accusations of irresponsible behaviour, and even then, it is worth asking whether such redress addresses the problem that was identified, and further, whether the terms of the initial accusation and the operative understanding of responsibility were ever likely to result in an assumption of responsibility that would be genuinely performative and not simply a performance on the part of some scapegoat or spokesperson.

In order to unpack some of these complexities, it is firstly necessary to outline some of the popularly held notions of responsibility. Responsibility as a concept spans both political and philosophical arenas, can be held by both individuals and collectives, and is apportioned within both juridical and ethical frameworks.

Juridical responsibility is responsibility as it is encoded in law; this is a system whereby accountability and punishment for the actions of individual ‘persons’ that contravene existing law is determined and apportioned. Juridical responsibility is a fundamentally economic system of debtors and creditors, with punishment or the assumption of responsibility as the method of equivalency, that is, of currency. Quoting Paul Ricoeur, Andrew Schaap notes that ‘central to the juridical conception of responsibility, then, is the metaphor of an account, which suggests "a kind of moral bookkeeping of merits and demerits, as in a double-entry ledger: receipts and expenses, credits and debits, with an eye to a sort of positive or negative balance"’ (Schaap 2004: 15). Thus, juridical responsibility is a ‘responsibility for’; a person is responsible for their actions or inactions, and it is their own actions they are responsible for. Underpinning juridical responsibility is the idea of moral responsibility, which is essentially Aristotelian – that is, only a freely-acting moral agent or ‘sovereign individual’ can be held responsible within a juridical framework.

Collective responsibility refers to the possibility of ascribing responsibility to a group or collective of persons as if it were a single agent, and it is again a question of responsibility for. This is, obviously, a difficult notion; it asks the question of whether a collective is a single agent or a collective of freely acting individuals, and the type of agency that can be ascribed to such a collective, and thus to its constituents. It is, nevertheless, a vital notion, given that a large part of the world’s political and economic life is governed by collectives of one sort or another. Finding a model by which to ascribe responsibility to the collectives that dictate the experience of life for citizens the world over, is vital as a means by which to moderate the exertion of power, especially power that is underpinned by any notion of democratic representation.

Ethical responsibility, in contrast to both the prior notions, is a responsibility to other people. This is a ‘universal’ responsibility, as Kierkegaard understands it, not in the sense of universal ‘values’ or ‘norms’, but in the sense of a relational responsibility that exists between each person and every other person, and thus in the world in general (Kierkegaard 1985: 83). Again, as Andrew Schaap explains, ethical responsibility refers to ‘an obligation "to respond" in the sense not only of being accountable for but of being responsive to’ (Schaap 2004: 16). This responsibility is generalized beyond questions of legal prohibitions and infractions, into the question of changes effected in the world. Ethical responsibility is performative in a way juridical responsibility is not: where juridical responsibility is grounded in the performance of a pre-determined calculation or program, ethical responsibility requires performative change to be effected.

Following on from Kierkegaard’s notion of ethical responsibility is the notion of an absolute responsibility, figured, in Fear and Trembling, as a responsibility towards God. Kierkegaard analyses the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, reading Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac as a triumph of absolute responsibility, in all its absurdity and infinite resignation, over the call of the ethical. In The Gift of Death, Derrida takes up this notion of a conflict between ethical responsibility to other people and absolute responsibility to God over all, and figures it in terms of a Levinasian, infinite responsibility to the other as infinitely other, unknowable, and demanding always to be assessed anew. This, for Derrida, is the aporia of responsibility, that every one to whom one is responsible is succeeded or exceeded by an other, to whom one has necessarily been irresponsible, and to whom one thus owes a response. Absolute responsibility marks out that zone of responsibility which is never done, but is rather an ongoing obligation to respond to a call that can not, and must not, be silenced.

Within the context of government, however – and in our particular case governments founded on the Westminster system – both individual and collective responsibilities are nuanced rather differently, and are generally subsumed within the notion of ministerial responsibility. Under the current government in Australia, the responsibilities of ministers are laid out in the document ‘A Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility’, written by Prime Minister John Howard in 1998. Responsibility within government is primarily juridical; the Guide covers a range of both significant and mundane responsibilities, from the responsibilities of ministers in relation to Parliament, to responsibilities relating to travel, accommodation and staff expenditure. A large part of the Guide is dedicated to advice to ministers as regards to potential conflicts of interest; amongst other things, ministers must divest themselves of investments and directorships in any organisation related to their portfolio. Failure to do so has the potential to damage the government’s public standing, and can result in ministerial resignation. The recent resignation of Santo Santoro is a case in point; Santoro acted unethically in personal financial dealings which related to his portfolio, he contravened the rules of the Guide, he lied to Parliament and to his own Party, and he brought bad publicity on the government at a time it could ill afford bad press. Significantly, he acted as an individual, and was punished as an individual.

The guide also briefly examines the notion of collective responsibility. Unlike a more broadly philosophical notion of collective responsibility, within the discourse of government collective responsibility refers to the responsibility ministers bear towards Cabinet. Ministers collectively bear responsibility for cabinet decisions, they must publicly support decisions of Cabinet, and must not speak publicly about Cabinet processes until they are fully endorsed by Cabinet. In this context, collective responsibility marks out policy decisions as collective decisions, and binds ministers as a collective of government. The problem with this nomenclature, however, is that it limits the notion of collective responsibility within government to issues relating to Cabinet, and leaves hanging the question of the collective responsibilities of ministers for departments and personal staff.

Another key aspect of the Guide, then, one that is more ambiguously worded and ultimately far more contentious, relates to a minister’s responsibility for their departments and staff. Here too, an aporetic notion of responsibility arises. Firstly, ministers have overall responsibility for the administration of their portfolios (Prime Minister 1998: 13). This is a broad general principle, and its caveat exists in the recognition that ministers cannot be held responsible for every administrative action or inaction of their department. Departments are a public ‘utility’, in essence if not in practice, and the principle of an independent public service must extend in both directions to protect both the department and the minister from the shortcomings of the other, and to ensure a public service able to respond both to the needs of government and to the public interest. Ministers are, however, responsible for setting the department’s general priorities and policies, which ensures that ministers bear some kind of responsibility where such priorities or policies result in public service failures. As Michael Keating puts it:

Responsibility occurs if the minister, or their staff, was directly involved or if the minister should have acted. The latter case applies if there were recurring or systematic poor performance by the department. Then either senior management or the minister is responsible and accountable even if the day-to-day administrative authority has been delegated (Keating 1999: 40).

Likewise, it is worth keeping in mind that distinctions between political and administrative decisions are often extremely shaky. Peter Wilenski argues that even simple administrative decisions such as determining departmental opening hours or the qualifications required of staff, are political acts, as they imply value judgements and affect the public appearance and operational tone of a department (Wilenski 1986: 53-54). During questioning in relation to the AWB scandal, Mark Vaile’s admission that the decision as to what cables would be shown to the minister was made by ‘the relevant departmental officer at a particular level’, and that he had not set specific guidelines regarding the making of such decisions, foregrounds the political nature of what might on the surface be administrative decisions, because in this case what is a significant lack of decision-making, results in a convenient ministerial ignorance.

Ministers bear a greater degree of responsibility for their personal staff than for their departments, however. Ministerial staff are hired by ministers to liaise with departments in the minister’s name. As Patrick Weller notes, from this status grew the assumption that speaking to ministerial staff was the same as speaking to the minister: ‘If the adviser knew, the minister knew’, and if the adviser was asking, the minister was asking (Weller 2002: 71). Because of this assumed status as simple extensions of the minister, the Guide holds that ‘ministerial staff do not give evidence to parliamentary committees, their actions are not reported in departmental annual reports, and they are not normally subject to other forms of external scrutiny, such as administrative tribunals’ (Prime Minister 1998: 13-14).

We might expect, then, that ministers could and would be held responsible for their staff’s actions or inactions. However, in practice this has not been the case. In the Children Overboard affair, in the AWB kickback scandal, in the decision to join the war in Iraq, and in questions relating to governmental knowledge of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, ministers have consistently fallen back on the excuse that either they were not given certain information by their advisors, or they were given information ‘in good faith’ that turned out to have been incorrect. At the same time, advisors have been sheltered from scrutiny either in parliament, in senate enquiries, or in the public sphere (Walter 2006: 25). There have been instances where advisors have resigned, and in each case it was because they had information that they had failed to pass on to the minister. ‘A lack of action was sheeted home to them, not to the ministers, and so they resigned (and were usually found comfortable billets thereafter)’ (Weller 2002: 72).

As with the problem of intention and the lie of good faith, locating an agent of responsibility in such a system is extremely difficult. Ministerial staff are simultaneously present and absent, visible and invisible, and correlatively, ministers are simultaneously individuals and collectives, vacillating between the two roles according to the political tenor of the issue of the day. Ministers act broadly as collectives, but take responsibility narrowly as individuals, ensuring that any excess responsibility is foisted off into the black hole of accountability constituted by the spectral status of ministerial staff.

Part of the problem, then, is the search for an agent of responsibility. In this search, it is assumed that someone could, theoretically, take responsibility, just as in the search for the truth of a lie it is assumed that somewhere there is someone with good or bad intentions, and what they say about their intentions is ‘true’. Despite being rendered meaningless by the infinite deferrability of intention and the black hole of accountability, both the possibility of an assumable responsibility, and the possibility of statements that are definitively true or false and intentions that are trustworthy and verifiable, are not questioned in public and political discourse; rather, these possibilities are maintained as insurance against the public realization that responsibility can never be fully ‘taken’ and that ‘truth’ can never out. The sovereign individual, and the juridical mode of responsibility, over-code and obscure the necessity of, firstly, understanding ministerial offices as attracting collective responsibilities, and secondly, exceeding the bounds of a juridical framework and raising questions of ethical and unassumable responsibilities; that is, responsibilities that can and must never be absolved.

How can we move beyond this search, with its assumption of an individual responsible before the law, who can nevertheless never be found? This is simultaneously a political and a philosophical question. The most obvious political solution is, as Patrick Weller suggests, to cease assuming that advisers are the extensions of ministers, and thus to cease protecting ministerial staff from accountability and scrutiny through parliament and other mechanisms of inquiry (Weller 2002: 73). To close the black hole, in other words, thereby voiding the aporia whereby ministers are simultaneously individual and collective and their responsibilities can be taken and avoided as required. To do so, however, would in no way change the fundamental assumption of juridical responsibility and the sovereign individual as the basis of government. Ministers would still be free to think of themselves as individuals, and would therefore continue to seek to limit their responsibilities to what can be expected of an individual.

Alternatively, we could require that ministers and their offices are treated as collectives at every level, and must implement policies and administrative technologies that acknowledge collective responsibility, and that facilitate collective knowing, remembering and acting. Over the past thirty years, ministerial offices have grown immensely, as the complexity of the role of government has increased. As highlighted during the AWB scandal, ministers receive hundreds of submissions and cables a day, and they have rightly expanded their staff to accommodate this informational load (Dodd 2006; Walter 2006). Citizens now expect government to be informed and to respond to a myriad of issues, and the stakeholders of government have grown to include a plethora of interest groups and lobbies, across public and private sectors (Keating and Weller 2001). This same period has seen the development of a global ‘real-time’ media apparatus, underpinned by satellite television broadcast, and Internet-based digital media transfer, storage and reportage. And, a substantial independent opinion-led media has sprung up in the ‘blogosphere’ and in other social-media systems, ensuring both an ongoing critique of mainstream media and a thriving alternative medium of reportage.

Implementing information and communication technologies to deal with this situation would be a priority for any government interested in remaining relevant, responsible and ‘responsive’. And of course Australia’s government has made a number of statements which suggest they are rising to this challenge. For example, John Howard announced in 1997 that by 2001 all appropriate government services would be online (NOIE 2002: iii). In 2002, the ‘Better Services, Better Government’ document announced that ‘in this new era of e-government, citizens are at the core of the process’, and iterated the implications of having government services online. It also noted that by 2001, 89% of federal agencies had implemented ‘metadata’ tagging on their online services, which ‘tags’ documents with keywords related to their content, to facilitate more accurate database records and search experiences for users (NOIE 2002: 17). And in 2006, the ‘Responsive Government – A New Service Agenda’ document laid out the government’s priorities in ICT developments over the coming period: meeting users’ needs, establishing connected service delivery, achieving value for money, and enhancing public sector capability (AGIMO 2006: 6).

It is only in this final 2006 document, and then only in two paragraphs of the section on public sector capability, that the government places an emphasis on improving its own internal information management processes, that is, the way in which it reports to itself and monitors the information it receives (AGIMO 2006: 22). The primary emphasis is on delivering services to citizens online. While this is a necessary and laudable emphasis, it points out a troubling disparity. During the same period that the government publicly announces its dedication to the cause of ‘e-government’, with all the narratives of technological efficiency and transparency that this connotes, the Children Overboard and AWB affairs demonstrate that the government’s internal methods of information management, storage and retrieval are less than satisfactory, and in fact work to quarantine ministers from the potential fallibility and automated self-deception of their advisors and departments.

In the Children Overboard affair, Patrick Weller notes that while the reporting of the alleged incident in which asylum seekers were said to have thrown children overboard, was done through a series of phone calls and later ‘verified’ by a series of unidentified and decontextualized videos and photographs, the retraction of this fabrication required ‘formal advice’, in writing, which was never forthcoming from the Department of Defence (Weller 2002: 95-97). Because the informational archive on which the claims of asylum seekers throwing children overboard was sketchy to non-existent, getting the archive to verify a retraction of the claims was virtually impossible. Likewise, the exoneration of the government from the charge of knowledge of AWB’s rorting of the UN oil-for-food program, rested on the admission that no processes were in place for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to respond to allegations of breaches of the sanctions it oversees, and that ministers had no processes that recorded which submissions and cables were shown to them and which were not (Walters 2006). Despite, in 2002, recognizing the importance of keyword tags and metadata on materials placed online for the public, during the same period there was clearly no system of databasing and metadata in place which would have enabled the government to effectively deal with the problem of receiving hundreds of submissions a day and needing to collate and monitor their contents on an ongoing basis. Such a system would have represented an acknowledgement of the collective nature of government, and an attempt to be collectively responsible. But it didn’t exist. And, given that in the wake of the AWB scandal Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer examined his department’s procedures and admitted of no serious problems, there is no reason to believe that such a system has now been put in place.

Obviously, the events that characterized these two scandals can and have been interpreted in a number of ways, and it is easy to apportion blame in hindsight, and to judge from a distance. For those reasons, questions of the political lie, of the truth and the lie of what happened, what someone said or what someone knew are, in the final analysis, meaningless, and lead primarily to political point-scoring. My point, rather, is that what enabled these scandals to occur as they did, and what underpinned the excuses that were given, was a tacit assumption that ministerial offices and departments are staffed by individuals who act as individuals, know as individuals, remember as individuals, and take responsibility as individuals. In an era of information overload, real-time media reportage and transfer, and massive worldwide R&D into database development, metadata and search technologies, such an assumption is, perhaps, the greatest self-deception of them all. Governments are collectives, and they must implement policy and technology that enables the collective to be aware of what it collectively knows, and to act on that collective knowledge. Within a collective such as government, responsibility is not a debt that is absolved when it is taken by some figurehead, or when some agent is generated onto which it can be foisted. As deconstructive forays into questions of responsibility suggest, responsibility is an ongoing obligation to respond always to another other; an other, and indeed a crowd of others, a collective, that is yet to come or arrive.

In the terms with which I began this paper, reconciliation mobilizes such an obligation. The Howard government’s refusal to accept, on the part of contemporary Australia, responsibility for the events that characterized Australia’s settlement/invasion, is representative of the model of individual, juridical responsibility that has underpinned the events discussed in this paper; it assumes a populace of individuals who would have to, on Howard’s account, bear a final ‘guilt’ for the wrongs of the past, and it assumes a populace of individuals separated from and suspicious of the project of reconciliation. This is the knee-jerk reaction of a bad conscience. Responsibility is not a question of judgement, and responsibility for the wrongs of the past does not relate solely to the past and does not end in the present, nor is it borne individually. As Andrew Schaap argues,

the assumption of responsibility is predicated on an acknowledgement of the extent to which who we are depends on our historical relation to others, the way we are enmeshed in the stories enacted in the world, irrespective of our particular motives and intentions …. Lack of agreement over what happened [in the past] is not fatal for reconciliation so long as the invocation of the ‘we’ that is still to come serves to delimit a space for a reconciliatory politics in the present (Schaap 2004: 36-39).

Responsibility is neither currency nor capital; it is a process, the process of collectively imagining the future as a differential guide for the present. It is not absolved by apologies and it is certainly not absolved by excuses; indeed, absolution is not the point. With such an aporetic or unassumable notion of responsibility in mind, we can see that the lie of the land, then, is not set in stone, although it remains a national burden. What is required is a governmental recognition - the recognition of a government to come, whoever and whatever that government might be - that responsibility for Australia’s past is a question posed to those who will inhabit Australia’s future.

 

References

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Australian Government Attorney General’s Department (2006b). "Inquiry into Certain Australian Companies in Relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Programme: 11th April 2006" (http://www.ag.gov.au/agd/WWW/UNOilForFoodInquiry.nsf/Page/Transcripts: accessed 20/06/06)

Australian Government Attorney General’s Department (2006c). "Inquiry into Certain Australian Companies in Relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Programme: 13th April 2006" (http://www.ag.gov.au/agd/WWW/UNOilForFoodInquiry.nsf/Page/Transcripts: accessed 20/06/06)

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Lorenzo Veracini (2006). "Terra nullius and the ‘history wars’", On Line Opinion 10 Feb; http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=4141: accessed 17/4/07)

James Walter (2006). "Ministers, Minders, and Public Servants: Changing Parameters of Responsibility in Australia", Australian Journal of Public Administration 65(3) September: 22-27

Patrick Walters (2006). "DFAT in clear on kickbacks", The Australian November 28

Patrick Weller (2002). Don’t Tell the Prime Minister (Melbourne: Scribe Publications)

Peter Wilenski (1986). Public Power and Public Administration (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger)

 

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