[TimorLesteStudies] Whistleblowing: Lying for Your country by Peter Ellis

Bu Wilson Bu.Wilson at anu.edu.au
Wed May 30 15:55:22 EST 2007

Whistleblowing: Lying For Your Country
By: Peter Ellis
Wednesday 30 May 2007
New Matilda

One thing that any savvy citizen thinks they know about diplomats is that
‘an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for their country.’
Perhaps many who use the saying don’t know how old it is — it was first
written by Sir Henry Wotton, an English diplomat of the early 17th century.

Wotton’s rash (and originally private) comment about lying for one’s country
was already a piece of facile cynicism when he wrote it. He fell into
disgrace when it was publicised in 1611, leaving him without diplomatic work
for some years. Perhaps things have moved on since then.

It would be strange indeed if diplomacy were the only part of governance
that had not changed in the intervening centuries. Among other things, since
Wotton’s time, we have seen the empowerment of Parliament, the development
of conventions for responsible government, the enfranchisement of the
masses, mass communication, and an impartial and apolitical public service.

Progress continues even in our own lifetime. In fact, today, unlike 10 years
ago, Australian diplomats have the same legal obligations for honesty and
integrity as any other public servant. But there can be profound informal
pressures otherwise — comparable to or perhaps even more so than in domestic
portfolios. An example from my own experience is illustrative.

In 2005, while I was employed as the head of the Australian aid program in
East Timor, the Minister for Foreign Affairs (who is responsible for AusAID
as well as DFAT) decided that the Commonwealth should break an overseas aid
contract with the East Timorese human rights NGO Forum Tau Matan. The
contract was for $65,830, none of which had been paid at that time — a tiny
amount for AusAID, but a very big sum for an East Timorese NGO.

There was discussion within the public service over what the NGO should be
told. The decision to break the contract was based on the recently
discovered fact that, in 2004, Forum Tau Matan had been one of 12 NGOs to
sign a statement critical of the Australian Government — which, in its
strongest comment, accused the Government of ‘stealing natural resources
that rightfully belong to’ East Timor.

There could have been political repercussions — in East Timor and Australia
— if it were widely known that the contract was broken because of this
political criticism. And it was clear that the problem would not be confined
to one instance — other NGOs that had signed the same statement were
unlikely to receive funding from our grants schemes, at least for the
immediate future.

I was pressured by some individuals, orally and in writing, to provide false
reasons to Forum Tau Matan, and to — in effect — maintain a secret blacklist
as the basis for future funding decisions.

The apparent aim of this pressure was to reduce embarrassment to Australia
(or to the Australian Government) from the true reasons emerging. When I
objected on the grounds of the honesty requirements in the Austra lian
Public Service (APS) Code of Conduct and the general principles of
administrative and financial management transparency — not to mention the
Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) and the Financial Management and
Accountability Acts — I was urged in writing not to raise the Code of
Conduct in the discussions.

One justification I was given for hiding the truth from Forum Tau Matan
wrongly compared the issue with the legal obligation to hide the activities
of the Australian intelligence community. Another person suggested that
refusing to fund NGOs that had signed the statement could be explained
misleadingly in the same way that politically unacceptable applicants are
apparently routinely (illegally) excluded from APS staff selection
processes. Both these inappropriate arguments strike me as indicative of a
culture of deception and as a rationalisation for politicisation.

I stuck to my guns and, in the end, told Forum Tau Matan the truth, with the
support of DFAT and AusAID. Other NGOs that had grant proposals knocked back
on the same basis have likewise been told the truth.

Because of complaints I had made during these events under the protection of
section 16 of the Public Service Act (‘Whistleblowing’), a preliminary
assessment was held by DFAT of my claims that I had been pressured to lie.
The assessment seemed to agree with me that lying or keeping a secret
blacklist would have been wrong. Incidentally, it also found that no breach
of the Code of Conduct had been made by any of the officers I had named;
that only discussions of a preliminary and exploratory nature had taken

Back to Wotton, and the general principle of lying abroad. Was I naïve and
wrong to dig my heels in? Should lying on such matters be acceptable or even
routine, when national or Party-political embarrassment (even trivially)
might ensue if the truth behind a decision were known? Let’s be frank, many
people think so and take Wotton’s aphorism as a serious statement of the
role of diplomats.

The rise of instantaneous global communication over the past 150 years has
had a dramatic impact on the role of diplomats. Diplomats no longer hold any
significant discretionary power as all significant decisions can be referred
to home for instructions. Their public comments are as likely to be
scrutinised by the voters at home as in their host country, and any
differentiation from non-diplomatic public servants has become fairly

The rise of mass opinion about international affairs from the late 19th
century has also been significant in redefining the role of diplomats. Since
diplomacy became part of democratic domestic politics, any lying has been
more likely to be at home. Such lies are to appease public opinion (whether
it be belligerent nationalism or human rights-oriented globalism) rather
than other diplomats. The modern pattern of deceit in diplomacy in some
countries — seen, for example, in the build-up to the Vietnam or Iraq wars —
has tended to reserve lying and partial truths for domestic constituencies.

Are diplomats then no different from domestic public servants? (Perhaps we
should call them ‘domestic servants’?)

Today, diplomats are legally just a sub-species of Homo public-servantus,
but this is a relatively recent development. In Australia, until the Howard
Government proposed and Parliament passed the new Public Service Act in
1999, Ambassadors and High Commissioners were not public servants. They were
officers of the Crown who had to take leave from the public service for
their period as a Head of Mission.

An incongruous part of the 1999 Public Service Act allows the appointment of
Heads of Mission to remain exempt from the normal meritocratic procedures of
the public service. Ambassadors and High Commissioners are the only
Australian public servants that can be chosen by means of ‘favouritism or
patronage,’ an odd, last, little remnant of the glory days of corruption and
incompetence. But once they are appointed, there is no ambiguity — all
Australian diplomats, even Heads of Mission, are public servants and are
bound by the APS Values and Code of Conduct.

Many senior diplomats have publicly disputed the archaic ‘lie abroad for
their country’ wisdom, maintaining that good diplomacy is based on frankness
and trust. The ineffectiveness of lying in diplomacy is one good reason for
honesty, but more important is the corrosive impact lying by any public
servant has on democracy at home. Any international case of political
interest has the potential to become a domestic political matter, and if we
were to accept State-sponsored lying overseas, who is to draw the line
between lying for one’s country and lying for the political Party that
happens to be in power?

Politicisation of the public service looms as a real danger.

The temptations for even apolitical public servants to hide or amend the
truth for the governing political Party are enormous. Accordingly, much of
our governance tradition is built around safeguarding honesty and
accountability. This is to allow Parliament to hold the Executive
responsible for the actions of the Crown; and electors to choose the
Parliament they want based on genuine information. Any corrosion of public
servants’ honesty threatens the very basis of our democracy and needs to be
fought, tooth and nail.

Unfortunately, declining public trust in government shows that perceptions
of dishonesty and corruption — by both public servants and politicians — are
widespread and growing.

In my own experience, insisting on honesty can be stressful and have
significant material and emotional costs. Yet, while there has been argument
about the facts of my case (for instance, was there pressure or just
‘preliminary exploratory discussions’? was I retaliated against by
individuals or not?), it has been reassuring that, when I stood up for
honesty and the matter was taken to senior levels for serious consideration,
the system did the right thing on truth.

Lying is not acceptable; the requirements for honesty and integrity laid out
by law in the APS Code of Conduct are there for a reason and they need to be
taken seriously.

Interestingly, another, less well known of Wotton’s sayings was ‘tell the
truth and so puzzle and confound your adversaries.’ Perhaps people should
pay more attention to that one.

Bu Wilson
Regulatory  Institutions Network (RegNet) 
College of Asia and the Pacific, RSPAS
Australian National University 
Canberra   ACT   0200 

T: 02 6125 3194 
F: 02 6125 1507
M: 0407 087 086 
E: Bu.Wilson at anu.edu.au


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