On the Campaign Trail – Part 1

As we go into the final week of the Australian federal election, I will attempt to write several shorter pieces, each relating to an aspect of ethics (and corruption) within an election. The intention is to provide a single piece each week day, they will necessarily be a little bit shorter.

However, as a large portion of the population lacks the formal training to critically assess claims in the public domain, let alone separate fact from opinion, I would place the onus upon those who would seek to govern.

Defining the Ethics of our Politicians

There is no requirement in Australian electoral regulations to prevent untruthful claims (save some limitations). The article linked makes this observation, and argues that this is as it should be, as there is no way to police or enforce the truthfulness of political statements. Specifically, it makes the case that nothing should regulate the content of electoral messages, being a matter for the demos to resolve without interference.

Consider then, the current (2013) Federal election, which has seen its share of claims that are highly contestable, and where the factuality of their claims have been brought into question. Two of these relate to claims over two of the most prominent issues of concern for this election: namely the economy and asylum seekers. Certainly, the ABC Vote Compass suggested that they are (or were) the two biggest issues from their sample.

The issue of the economy is a rather useful example to examine how the different electoral campaigns frame the matter. If we examine the Coalition’s election campaign, we see a platform that seeks to discredit the ALP Government’s management of the economy. Many of the concerns highlighting the deficit and economic performance, linking this to the impact on families and jobs. However, we have a starkly contrasting view about the state of the economy by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz view is perhaps a most qualified rebuttal to the persistent anxieties about the Australian economy. The huge distinction between Stiglitz and the Coalition is significant of the difference between the political conversation around the economy, and the academic discourse on the same. An academic discourse purports to discover the truth through a method of peer review and subject to critique by expertise. Conversely the political debate is rhetorical, designed to secure a following through persuasive tools to convince the populace of a certain position.

The above is not intending to assess the validity of the claims around the economy or other issues, or even their verisimilitude. Rather, the intention is to highlight the dissonance between expertise and public opinion. This distinction is hardly a new issue, and one might draw parallels to the difference between a common sense understanding, informed by anecdote, and a critical understanding, informed by an evidenced debate.

In rejecting the claim that there need be no regulation of political statements, it is necessary first to address a particular problem: the fact-value distinction.

Fact-Value distinctions

At a most fundamental level, it should be sufficient to suggest that our society would benefit more from honest political statements, which would then benefit the public to cast more informed votes. It alludes to an issue of a type of signal-to-noise ratio within political speech, and the diminishing returns on the rigour of the political debate.

Fundamentally though, what seems to be at stake is an is-ought dilemma; or better yet, a fact-value distinction. On one hand we have a descriptive issue, which is produced through empirical research and a scientific method; on the other, we have a prescriptive problematisation of that issue through a value system. This is because the work of politics is prescriptive, in an inherently contested medium, which must take descriptions of the real world and formulate them into a political platform.

This is because the work of politics is prescriptive, in an inherently contested medium, which must take descriptions of the real world and formulate them into a political platform.

To explain better, I will refer to one of my earlier articles, where I made an argument for how the issue of environmentalism could be co-opted by two diametrically opposed economic systems. That is, let us agree momentarily with the scientific consensus that climate change is anthropogenic, the article then argues how both advocates of growth and steady-state economic have laid claim to providing the appropriate solution to the problem. The point being that we have a description of a phenomenon (anthropogenic climate change), which is then problematised (degradation of the environment, economic costs, amongst others), and based on how the problem is understood, a particular set of social values are applied to derive a solution (steady-state or growth).

The Value of Truth

To some extent, I agree with the claim (in the above-linked article) that contests that there should be any kind of regulation of political speech. I agree to the extent that the issue is incredibly fraught, and there are huge gradations of truthfulness that makes the matter rather murky. Two important issues would have to be resolved, namely, how to recognise a mistruth when it is delivered, and what the appropriate response to that matter becomes. In particular, it is very difficult to demonstrate intentionality behind statements (fraudulent), but we can more readily demonstrate when a claim is factually incorrect (erroneous).

Because of this, I would have to reject the claim that there is no limit to the content that can be produced. The type of institution that would be necessary to investigate and respond to fraudulent political statements would be one of vast apparatus. Conversely, a fact checking institution is relatively simple, which is why a number of self-appointed watch dogs have taken to informally attempt to regulate the factual content of the political claims made my politicians in this election.

…the breach of conduct relates [to] the intentional or unintentional conflation of reporting and editorialising…

A comparison on this can be made towards the recent criticism by the Australian Press Council of News Corp, for failing to differentiate news from its editorial. This seems to confirm that the breach of conduct relates not to providing a political opinion in the role of a ‘trustee’ of public opinion, but the intentional or unintentional conflation of reporting and editorialising, or from what we would expect to be information presented factually from that which is laden with a value opinion.

So fundamentally, I would argue that political commentary should be subject to some manner of scrutiny. Certainly, politicians should be entitled to put their platform forward in a contest; the proverbial “market of ideas”. Yes, I recognise that a part of that debate is not to establish a truth but contend an opinion. However, as a large portion of the population lacks the formal training to critically assess claims in the public domain, let alone separate fact from opinion, I would place the onus upon those who would seek to govern.

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