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Turn off the microphones and let politicians be as bitchy as the rest of us

Nicholas Sarkozy is a master of the political insult. EPA/Kerim Okten/Pool

So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has been called a liar in a conversation that was released on the web. I’m not talking about the chat between Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama. Rather, I’m referring to the former head of the Israeli intelligence service who recently called his prime minister a liar.

In Australia, we’re used to hearing our prime minister referred to as “Juliar” by the politically fevered. Accusations of “liar!” regularly pepper our parliaments in a way forbidden in the “mother of parliaments” in London, although that doesn’t mean British prime ministers, such as David Cameron, avoid being targets for this oldest of political accusations.

Hide your real thoughts

Nevertheless, global media are now swarming with incredulity at the frankness of the exchange about Netanyahu between Sarkozy (“I cannot bear him, he’s a liar”) and Obama (“You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day”). Change the names and it could be any one of us moaning about a third person with whom we have to deal but can’t stand. But we don’t want everyone to know our real thoughts, especially the target of our venom. Or some don’t wish to pin their names to the anonymous entries made at the bottom of blogs.

Except politicians are supposed to act differently. We may spray politicians with all sorts of verbal ordure but are surprised if they do the same in private. Although we know it happens all the time. A microphone picked up George W. Bush’s quiet word to Dick Cheney that a particular journalist was “a major league asshole”, a feeling I’m sure was reciprocated.

Robert Menzies and Herb Evatt, leader of the ALP from 1951 to 1960, absolutely loathed each other in private but maintained the niceties in public. Le Monde recently reported one politician saying that European leaders often let each other know what Sarkozy said about them behind their backs:

“When European leaders phone one another and we have just spoken to Nicolas Sarkozy, we start by saying: ‘Are you going to tell me the nasty things he said about me? Or shall I go first?’”

Long history of back-biting

Although Sarkozy may take the prize as a most accomplished back-biter, there is a long and complicated history to the practice. The British MP Greg Knight rightly noted in his book on political insults, politicians have always indulged invective, especially in their in private letters.

It was the arrival of democratic politics in the nineteenth century with universal suffrage, party organisations and mass newspapers that began to constrain the public expression of such predilections. Through the twentieth century the growing power of the media tightened such constraints even further.

In other words, there were limits to the aggression that the mass of voters would tolerate where it may rebound upon the speaker. Since the legitimacy of democracy derives from approval of “the people”, whatever that hazy term may mean, they need to be pleased.

Such widespread political assumptions imposes its own decorum of speech (or “political correctness” for those who rage so much at such a notion but forget there are always rules and manners to handle social organisation): politicians aren’t supposed to tell a bunch of ordinary voters that they idiots, even if that’s what they think. Hence the problem and subsequent grovel when British Labour leader Gordon Brown was caught on mic but in private calling a constituent he just met “bigoted” and “appalling”.

This hints at a further reason not contemplated by Knight but which involves the distinctions between public and private in politics.

Double standards

We slag off politicians all the time for not speaking straight out and for not stating clearly what they believe. But we also expect them to please each and every one of us all the time – or else we’ll think they’re complete bastards. AND they are supposed to represent all the principles and beliefs that each one of us hold dear. AND they must represent the public interest and not their own interests and beliefs, which of course conflicts with the requirement of standing by their principles.

In other words, the job of a politician dictates a split-personality, or more specifically they must develop public facades to cope with the conflicting duties and maintain distinctions between public duties and private thoughts.

In that way, politicians and parliaments are the means for channelling all the aggressions and emotions stirred in the population into meaningful outcomes and compromises. A healthy political society has antagonists but not enemies.

So as much as Barnaby Joyce plays up to the Billy Tea Party ragers who froth about Gillard with his claims of socialist tyranny, he is quite prepared to sit for a nice private chat with Julia on a plane, as he admitted in a recent interview.

Similarly, Jim Killen (Liberal) and Fred Daly (Labor) have passed on but were renowned parliamentary performers during the Cold War who would lash each other in the chamber, usually with great wit, in order to please partisan prejudices but were close friends outside.

So it will be no surprise for Netanyahu to find out what Obama thinks of him. He’d already stuck it up the president in one public meeting and gave him a patronising lecture about the Middle East in front of reporters. And he has repeatedly given Obama nothing in return for a host of offerings. For his part, Obama stuck it up Netanyahu by leaving one private meeting for an hour to have dinner with his family. Yet the diktats of the US-Israeli relationship and Middle East politics will balance their private antagonisms.

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