Truth and lies: what young people think about politicians
Is it acceptable that politicians lie? Is there a difference between a lie and a broken promise? Keen to find out what young people think, secondary school teacher Chris Fotinopoulos talked to his students.
There is a line from Victorian schools’ prescribed English text The Kite Runner that seems like an appropriate quote to kick off a discussion with my students on political honesty:“When you tell a lie you steal someone’s right to the truth.”
Crikey has recently raised questions around whether it has become par for the course, and accepted, that our politicians lie to voters before elections. Off the back of the recent federal budget, Crikey identified 10 major broken promises by politicians dating back to 1943, and looked at whether they got away with it.
Interested in what young people think about this issue, I asked my year 11 English group if they had a right to the truth. And do politicians have a duty to tell the truth?
“The public has a right to the truth, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be told the truth,” said Alex*.
“Truth is very important to me. But politicians aren’t very good with it,” added Nick.
After some discussion about the budget fallout, I was impressed by their political awareness. A large number of students knew about the $7 GP hit, and the ones who where planning to go to university go were particularly concerned about the potential rise to higher education costs. They were in complete disbelief when I told them that my university course was free. “You’re lying, right?”
I explained that my generation received a free university education under the Whitlam government. Unsurprisingly, just one boy from the group had heard of Gough Whitlam.
The discussion turned to broken promises, and it wasn’t long before the laptops that former prime minister Kevin Rudd had promised secondary school students in 2007 came up. I put it to them that this was not so much a promise but a pledge.
“Now you’re sounding like one of them,” said Greg.
I explained that a pledge is different to a promise and directed their attention to Crikey’s fact-check article, which found that the previous government’s failure to deliver 1 million computers by the established deadline was not a broken promise. The kids were still not convinced.
“Actions speak louder than words … I can’t remember my older brother or sister getting a computer from the government,” said David.
“I know a lot of kids my age that do not want to vote at all, but I will take my vote seriously, simply to get those pack of liars out.”
I directed their attention to the Coalition’s plan released before last year’s federal election. It told us of the Coalition’s plan to build “a stronger 21st-century Australia” by creating 2 million more jobs within a decade, providing better services, lowering tax and debt, and creating stronger borders, including stopping the boats. I suggested that it was far too soon to judge the Abbott government on this. What’s more, we can’t really accuse anyone of lying if the plan is not realised.
The students concurred with a quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you”.
Former prime minister Bob Hawke pledged in 1987 that “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”, yet children continue to live in poverty today. Did he lie? The kids were split on this. Is there a difference between a broken promise and a lie?
Deyshan said: “A lie is intentional, while breaking a promise may be out of their control.”
“So why do they make them?” questioned Rani. “Because they want power,” said Tim.
Later in the day I asked my year 8 English group why truth-telling was so important.
“Because it’s drummed into us by our parents, teachers and through stories,” said Anna. Like Pinocchio? “Yeah, like Pinocchio.”
Sam said: “It’s OK to be a little lazy and irresponsible like Pinocchio when you’re really young, but nobody wants to be like that forever.”
“The more they say, the more they lie,” said Joseph. So you’re suggesting that politicians are becoming less trustworthy? I asked. “Have they ever been trustworthy?” said one boy.
“Lies are of no use to anyone,” said Beth … “except for politicians,” replied Tim.
“All I know is that they are making life harder for my mum and dad,” said Diane.
I wondered if such cynicism comes from their parents. Are these kids echoing their dad’s disgust at the daily tabloid headlines, or mimicking mum’s disbelief at the evening news grabs? Perhaps they’re parroting remarks picked up at family gatherings or a neighbourhood barbecue?
A Facebook post shared by an ex-student a few days ago provides a clue. It shows a photo of Tony Abbott winking. The accompanying comment reads, “Seriously this has to be the most cringe-worthy thing that has ever happened ever!! Surely he’s not human, more like some type of reptile”. The ensuing comments, “F@#$ing sleazy turd”, suggests that social media plays a part in teen cynicism.
I continued the discussion with my year 10 media group. “Politicians say they have our interest at heart, and then they get caught behaving like dumb boys,” said Sophie. “Like when he was caught on camera winking at a grandma who does phone sex.”
I showed them the ABC Radio 774 clip of the Tony Abbott wink. Most of them were unsure of the context.The Prime Minister’s office said the wink was to reassure Jon Faine, the radio host, he was happy to take the call. The students laughed in disbelief, which brought George Washington quote to mind: “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” I suggested that they keep this in mind when they get caught doing something wrong. It certainly would have helped the Prime Minister.
Abbott’s excuse infuriated the girls, while the boys couldn’t see anything wrong with it, reflecting the talkback gender split on the issue. I suggested that sniggering, laughing, eye-rolling, smirking and yes, winking behind one’s back is a form of bullying.
So how seriously would they take their vote when they turn 18? “I know a lot of kids my age that do not want to vote at all,” said Abdullah. “But I will take my vote seriously, simply to get those pack of liars out.”