Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that no one become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand”. Machiavelli (c.1513)
Much has recently been made of the fact that government officials lie to or mislead the public regularly. On May 1, the Washington Post published that US President Donald Trump had made 3001 false or misleading statements since his inauguration.
While Trump is probably the gold medallist at making false or misleading statements, such activity has been to the fore since hominids decided that living in trees wasn’t for them.
There are, off course, times when misleading statements or lies are told to protect national security or individuals. Public officials can also bend the truth to ease personal pain.
We in Australia are in no way exempt from our public officials making false or misleading statements. We know that there are many security related matters that are best kept in-house. However, it is quite possible that most Australians are unaware of processes that can be used to question statements made by senior public officials, politicians or public servants.
US citizens are aware of their congressional committee’s oversight functions. The US public is kept informed of the actions of congressional committees by a media that spends a great deal of air time covering their meetings. There is no such widely disseminated coverage in Australia.
Yet Australia has a system of departmental oversight like the US, with Senate, House of Representatives and joint committees. In particular, the Senate Estimates Committees conducts robust questioning of ministers and public servants.
I believe that few Australians are aware of the existence of parliamentary committees or are interested in the content of their meetings. The general lack of interest in questioning statements made and actions carried out by Australian politicians leaves our leaders feeling free to do as they please. The politicians soon realise that any lie they tell, or pork-barrelling they do, will soon be forgotten given the apathy of much of the Australian public and the 24-hour news cycle.
Certainly, there are a few zealous advocates questioning our political masters, many of whom use the letters section of the Herald to vent their spleen, but they are, in my view, a minority.
As a senior officer in the RAAF at Air Force Headquarters, I was, for a time, responsible for collating reports from our many operational and support areas for use at Senate Estimates. The questioning by the senators was generally direct, and I am certain that they had informants who told them what to ask.
The opposition, whichever party it is, strongly questions ministers and officials, but rarely gets to the nub of an answer before the minister steps in to protect his or her domain.
A major problem with our parliamentary committee system is the partisanship of the members. The result of this partisanship is that the opposition committee members will be shut down before obtaining the information they desire.
Perhaps voting in Australia should not be compulsory? That way only those genuinely interested and (hopefully) informed, would vote and the apathetic could stay home.
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