I’ve just returned from Australia for Wellington Anniversary weekend and it struck me how honesty seems to be a one way street.
When you are a citizen of a country you strike a deal with the Government. I, as a citizen will behave in a certain fashion – I’ll obey laws, not breach social contracts and pay taxes; in return I will get both freedom and protection. That’s it. Freedom and protection. But in order for the system to work, it relies on honesty. Because honesty is the cornerstone upon which the rest is built.
I had to fill out two forms to get into Australia, one asked me if I had Ebola and if I’d been in West Africa in the last 21 days. Being honest is within my best interests in this situation. If I do have Ebola I should probably get checked out, and if I’ve been in West Africa lately then again, I should be checked out, it’s also best for society as I protect the rest of people from my possible Ebola.
The other card asked me if I was carrying more than $10,000AUD, if I had XYZ illicit substances on me or if I’d been handling animals etc. This form relies on me being honest in spite of it not being in my best interests if i am doing something illegal.
If I’m hypothetically carrying more money on me than I should, ticking that box may get me a fine, or turned away at the border.
This applies internally too. Self employed people are asked to be honest when self reporting how much work they’ve done in order to calculate their tax bill. GST claims are made for businesses, but only on purchases made for business and so forth. And yes I’m aware that people do lie, do claim more back for GST than they should and do fudge their work hours, God knows I’ve paid for jobs in cash before.
But, and it’s taken me a long time to get to my point here, there are penalties if you breach the honesty code. Big penalties. Lie on your tax form? Well you’re paying everything you owe plus at least 50 per cent again. Hell you might end up in prison. The man from media works did. Lie on that little form flying into Australia? You’re in for a fine there too mate, and possibly going back where ya come from.
For this system to work, for the carrot and stick honesty approach to be really successful, it needs to be reciprocal. If we’re going to be honest to our Government, then our Government needs to be honest back. And right now it isn’t feeling like we’re getting that.
The most frustrating thing about this issue of unrequited honesty is that, if indeed I’m right, we have no recourse. There is no real way to punish a central government organisation or individual if they are dishonest with us.
The theory behind democratic countries is that we have the ultimate recourse, we can vote those fuckers out who lie to us. Except in New Zealand we live in a duopoly, where there is only one of two possible people who will end up Prime Minister. And at the last election we had Liar A and Liar B to choose from.
At the very beginning of this parliament, just after the election, John Key was asked by Andrew Little whether he’d been in touch with Cameron Slater recently. He said no. It subsequently came out that this was a flat out lie. Key had to come to the house and apologise and correct his answer.
There is no way Key didn’t know whether or not he’d talked to Slater. Otherwise he could’ve said “I don’t recall”, he has form for that response. But no, Key just lied. And for the Prime Minister of the country to be called back to parliament to apologise for lying is kind of a big deal. In a tradition sense. In real terms most people wouldn’t know, and most wouldn’t care.
There has to be a better form of ensuring our officials are honest, because if they’re going to punish us for our dishonesty then we need to publish them for theirs.
And this isn’t a call to partisanship, Cunliffe lied about a bunch of shit. Got caught, but again very little happened other than he suffered his own embarrassment.
We also have issues with the OIA. That is supposed to be the media and public’s avenue to discover the TRUTH of what’s going on. Within reason. Except it’s being abused. I had my own story where there were shenanigans involved with the release of information. David Fisher has been covering abuses of it, and I’ve heard anecdotally that organisations have been fudging the titles of official documents so when people request them, they can “honestly” say that those documents do not exist.
Our recourse here is to complain to the Ombudsman. An organisation woefully underfunded and understaffed. The Ombudsman’s office will undertake an investigation for every complaint. This takes a lot of time – sometimes up to a year. And then if they find that there was skulduggery they … glare menacingly at the Government Department. All the Ombudsman can do is publish a list of Government Departments who are naughty with their OIA responses. Name and shame. That’s how we hold our Government officials to account. And it’s just not good enough.
So in the spirit of civil disobedience I think it’s time we started lying. And if we lie in unison then the individual can’t be singled out from the chorus. I haven’t wholly thought this through, I haven’t thought about what we could do – so I’m taking any and all suggestions.
But it certainly is something to think about, next time the Government asks you to be honest to them, just think “do they deserve my honesty?”