Does plagiarism by politicians matter?

Someone in Malcolm Turnbull’s office has had a very bad day. It seems that material he or she gave to Julie Bishop, the new Shadow Treasurer, was lifted from The Wall Street Journal. Bishop was subsequently accused of plagiarism.

In some cases plagiarism is clearly a problem. But it is hard to get worked up about it when committed by a politician.

If the sin in plagiarism is passing off other people’s work as your own, then for senior politician it is a sin that they commit just about every day. They rely heavily on advisers (and for those in government, bureaucrats) to prepare speeches, media releases, position papers and correspondence. Their staff are trying to second-guess the politician – to say what he or she would say, if he or she had the time – but nevertheless the words are not the politician’s. Using other people’s words is an occupational necessity; there would be massive efficiency losses if we pedantically insisted on personal authorship.

In this case, the words were copied from someone who was not employed by a politician. But the words were just a news report of information that was widely available in any case, on how the proposed US financial sector rescue package would work. There is no ethical issue here in giving credit to the intellectual or creative work of others, as there is in some plagiarism cases.

Politicians and their staff should paraphrase to spare us these tiresome controversies. But the fact that the Bishop/WSJ borrowing was reported at all reflects the application of norms of original work that properly apply to creative endeavours or when testing student knowledge, but which have little relevance to politics.

10 Responses to “Does plagiarism by politicians matter?

  • 1
    James Simpson
    September 25th, 2008 01:21

    I have to say, the fact that this so-called plagiarism is being reported at all during this historically significant time absolutely staggers me. It speaks volumes about the relevant journalists and editors. I wonder what motivated them ever to go into newspaper publishing? They could more usefully spend their time quoting the Wall Street Journal. Given the volume being written about the current situation, there’s nothing original left to say about it anyway.

  • 2
    Bob Hodge
    September 25th, 2008 09:14

    Andrew, Are you Linda’s son? If so. Hi! Let me know sometime. Cheers, Bob

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    September 25th, 2008 09:31

    Bob – Son of Elizabeth.

  • 4
    Tom N.
    September 26th, 2008 02:22

    Sadder than the plagiarism gotcha was the “do you know what the RBA cash rate is?” gotcha a few days earlier. Who the hell cares, and what would it prove if Bishop did know this? About as meaningful as testing Andrew Peacock’s treasurer credentials by asking what Australia’s GDP was.

    Next time some smart-arse journo asks such a question, the pollie in question should respond with something like “I’ll tell you, provided you tell me the average length of margarine commercials screended on your chanel between 9pm and midnight on a Sunday evening first”.

  • 5
    ennui
    September 26th, 2008 14:37

    I would agree, Son of Elizabeth, plagiarism amongst politicians is hardly a novelty. In a prepared speech one would expect appropriate referencing but in the hurly burly of parliamentary question time it is generally unnecessary.
    Of course the real purpose of the charge of “plagiarist” is tied up with the continuing political battle for ascendency on the floor of the House. Without a Keating or Costello the daily battle is always up for grabs. Nobody took the charge seriously (with the exception of the original plagiarist!!) and should be viewed as simply the political process operating at low water mark – as it regularly does during question time.
    As to the ‘pop-quiz’ questions I don’t think it is quite as clear-cut as Tom N suggests. There are certainly smart-arse questions but there are also some basic questions within their portfolio which a Minister or Shadow Minister should be able to accurately respond to – Bishop should have known the appropriate interest rate, Swan should have known what a Phillips curve was (maybe it was NAIRU?). Whatever, the point is the same. We don’t expect abstruse knowledge from our politicians but can expect them to properly “understand their brief”.
    That is surely is not asking too much!!

  • 6
    James Simpson
    September 26th, 2008 19:46

    But to what extent is mindlessly memorising trivia important to performing their role? Yes, they should understand their portfolio thoroughly, but this isn’t demonstrated by memorising interest rates. A four year old can do that.

  • 7
    ennui
    September 26th, 2008 22:26

    The level of interest rates trivia? For people running small business (or large ) or mortage holders or retirees etc interest rates are far from trivia. In fact, I’m surprised anyone would suggest otherwise.
    Mindlessly memorising irrelevant data is not important to performance, but failure to know or understand the very ‘building blocks’ associated with or underpinning the portfolio demonstrates both ignorance of their importance and general sloppiness of thinking.
    One may defend Bishop by reason of freshness or Swan by the esoteric nature of the question. But neither defence stands – in Bishop’s case it is so basic, in Swan’s case it should have been forseen being very relevant to the issue of the preceding days.
    My I suggest that we refrain from defending the indefensible!

  • 8
    James Simpson
    September 26th, 2008 23:49

    You have to be kidding? Yes, the interest that people earn or are charged is hugely important, but “the interest rate” is not the most important thing for a treasurer to know. (Presumably the journalist was referring to the RBA Target Cash Rate, but by not being specific betrays their own ignorance. “Interest rate” is a meaningless term without more information.)

    When choosing a mechanic, you wouldn’t ask “Which part of this car is the engine?” and walk away feeling confident that your car is in safe hands. You would want to be confident the guy understands how it works, how what he will do to it affects it, etc.

    This is more nuanced than the mainstream media has time for, so they have resorted to this absurd ritual of quizzing politicians about interest rates figures or the price of a litre of milk. It is absurd and it conveys virtually no useful information.

  • 9
    Tim
    October 4th, 2008 23:31

    What do you think about this particular cartoon for liberal arts? Its funny! Cheers!

    http://www.jjcomics.com/liberal_arts_degree_and_education_cartoon_comic.htm

  • 10
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Should politicians use ghost writers?
    October 31st, 2008 13:02

    [...] month I was defending Bishop in her previous plagiarism controversy, on the grounds that senior politicians aren’t [...]