Politicians are notorious for never giving a direct answer to anything. Why do we let them get away with this? Presumably they only do it because it works for them -- perhaps they can't risk providing their opponents with a juicy quote to exploit, so instead they merely waffle. But this can't be good for democracy. We should be looking for ways to change our political culture so that sincerity is rewarded and disingenuity discouraged. We need to get the incentives right.
This means that journalists need to be willing to ask the hard questions. And if the politicians start to give misleading or waffly answers, they need to be called on this, interrupted, and told to state their position clearly or else shut up. If politicians are obviously being dishonest, then analysts shouldn't hesitate to point this out, loud and clear, shaming the liars and forcing them to own their words. (Blogs are generally good for this much, if nothing else, as demonstrated by recent posts on Frogblog and No Right Turn, for example.)
Just as important, we should be willing to accept politicians who own up to making a mistake. When Labour makes a u-turn, they shouldn't try to hide the fact. They should stand tall and say, "Yes, our past policy was stupid, for reasons x, y and z. That's why we've changed it to this new policy which avoids these problems because of p, q and r. We're here to promote what's best for the country, and we're not too proud to let our past mistakes get in the way." (Of course, if they can't offer any such explanation -- say, because the new policy is actually no better, but is simply an opportunistic vote-grabber -- then they shouldn't be proposing the policy in the first place.)
My opinion of a politician would actually improve were they to make such a frank admission. But I guess I mustn't be the average voter. Besides, no doubt partisans would jump all over such an admission, and use it to paint the politician as "incompetant" or a "flip-flopper" or some other nonsense. To any bloggers reading this who would be tempted to behave in such a fashion, I ask you simply: please don't. You're damaging the quality of political discourse. Just don't do it.
Perhaps late-night blogging lends itself to misplaced idealism, but I simply cannot comprehend why we tolerate such unclarity in our political discourse. Surely our current political culture is not by necessity so muddled. We could make it better. So why don't we?
Politicians should be exposed not just for dishonesty, but also illogic. An example that springs to mind is Rodney Hide telling National supporters to vote ACT instead because National "can't govern alone" and so will need ACT there as support. But of course what matters isn't the number of parties, but the number of seats obtained by the left vs right blocs. If National loses seats to ACT, that will do nothing at all to make a National government more likely. Rather, what National needs is for the center-right to get as many seats as possible, however they are distributed. So Hide's argument is simply illogical. (There are complications regarding the 5% threshold which I won't get into here. Suffice it to say that while there are possible situations where it would benefit National to sacrifice some of its votes to ACT, that is an entirely different argument from the idiotic one that Hide was presenting -- which quite literally consisted of nothing more than the premise "National cannot govern alone", from which he tried to derive "so National supporters should vote for ACT instead". And he gets away with it too. Pitiful.)
There are some issues that are genuinely difficult, and we can't expect any easy answers to them. But for others, it really isn't that hard to come to the truth if one is willing to think critically. Politicians and partisans defend obvious falsehoods all the time. It shouldn't happen. They ought to be exposed as either stupid or dishonest. Once we're all agreed on the easy questions, then we can concentrate on disputing the hard ones. And if we continue to hold each other up to the high standards of reasoned discourse, then perhaps some real progress might be made. So why aren't we doing this?