Our politicians didn't pause to discover the facts.

Our politicians didn't pause to discover the facts. Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

The photographic evidence is proof: something bad happened on the waters of the Timor Sea. Hands are badly burnt and blistered: the asylum seekers claim a sailor commanded them to hold scalding hot metal.

Our politicians didn't pause to discover the facts. In complete ignorance of what actually occurred they rapidly labelled the allegation an ''outrageous slur'' and dismissed the claims.

And the rest of the country? Well, it appears as if we just don't want to know. Despite the promise of transparency, the reality is the maritime operations are anything but. Even the pretence that full briefings would be provided has been abandoned. The government wants us to focus on just one thing: the boats have stopped.

Not completely perhaps, but the flood of arrivals has been reduced from a torrent to a trickle. Is this inhumane? Tony Abbott is betting the majority of electors simply do not care; do not want to know, and it would appear he is correct.

Mr Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison have chosen their words carefully. Such events could, they insist, never happen because it's not government policy. That is why they have ensured no one knows what really occurred - because if we did find out, some uncomfortable facts might also surface. The government is relying on the fact the majority of us do not really want to know what is happening and it would seem that hunch is correct.

The reality is that Kevin Rudd's words, promising succor to the oppressed, unilaterally reopened the people-smuggling trade. Since that moment, Labor has wound itself in knots attempting to craft a humanitarian policy. The current government has displayed no such scruples. It understands two things. Firstly, the previous policy of deterrence was not working. It has now been ratcheted up to dangerous levels. Secondly (perhaps more horrifyingly), the accepted political reality is that we just do not care. We want the problem to go away.

That's the key to understanding a virulent new dynamic that's changing this country. At one time our politicians treated us like adults. Policy was explained. Negatives would also be detailed. That's not the case today. Instead we've been led to expect that a cake can suddenly be produced, glowing in all its frosted lustre, as if it has been conjured out of thin air.

The government will get away with it, of course. When the claims of abuse first surfaced in the Indonesian media, only the ABC bothered to follow them up.

Tactically, politically, their subsequent outright dismissal by the minister seems to make ineluctable sense. He is brushing it away, relying on the forgetfulness of our ever-turning media cycle to sweep the events into the background. If an investigation does later report that somehow, accidentally, or even on purpose, the actions of one sailor did result in the burns, well, by then the events can all be dismissed as unfortunate, disappointing, but most of all, completely irrelevant.

Because we have been taught to focus on the ends, not the means. This reasoning treats the citizen as a cipher, incapable of understanding and not wanting to be bothered by difficult issues.

Do you want cheap milk? Doesn't the lure of some extra money in your pocket outweigh the needs of dairy farmers on the south coast? And life's enough of a struggle anyway; why would anyone volunteer to curb their own carbon emissions while others refuse to act or even accept the reality of climate change?

The basic assumption is that an appeal to self-interest will trump any notion of the common good. It's the basis on which ''economic man'' is conceived; the idea that our motivations can be reduced to a balance statement of the profit and loss resulting from every transaction. This is nothing more than a complete denial of our history and humanity.

Self-interest is an incredibly strong force but that doesn't mean it makes life worth living.

Although no politician today seems willing to risk challenging this assumption, at one time this was not part of our culture. Shortcuts were frowned on and left to the wide boys operating on the fringe of society.

Government operated to a stricter moral code. Then something changed and the marginal became mainstream.

John Howard's initial period as prime minister was marked by actions that today seem perverse.

Four ministers were sacked when they were caught out over issues of integrity and Mr Howard himself introduced gun control; a policy that angered a significant section of his own supporters so much that he felt the need to wear a bulletproof vest when he went to address them.

He took a vital and necessary policy, the GST, to his first election. His vote collapsed and he barely scraped back in. It was as if, from that moment, everything changed.

The political lesson that seemed to have been learnt was never to level with the electorate, never risk doing anything that might be even vaguely unpopular.

And at state level, in NSW, Bob Carr was demonstrating how phenomenally successful such politics could be. Seemingly bereft of ideology after the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Labor learnt its lesson and Mr Rudd insisted he could become all things to all people.

In was as if he was the Host and by consuming him our sins of avarice would be forgiven. The party pandered to lustful desire, But that does not explain his fall.

The previous government's collapse can be dated to one moment: the revelation it was ditching action on climate change.

From the minute it became evident that the party would abandon any ideology as soon as it became inconvenient, the downfall was just a matter of time.

The wrong lesson has been drawn from Mr Howard's first election: self-interest was not the winner. People are prepared to accept difficult policies, but they want to be told the truth and treated like grown-ups.

We will give up a surprising amount as long as we can believe in our community.

Today it's Mr Abbott who's squandering his majority by appealing to our baser natures.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.