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 loses 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.