We're only cheating ourselves

''Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.'' So go the lyrics of the Fleetwood Mac classic song Little Lies, and judging by the variety of news reports last week, New Zealanders are doing just that - in droves. But it also appears the lies may not be quite so ''sweet'' or ''little''.

A survey by market research company Colmar Brunton cast the country's adults as liars, cheats and thieves, raising questions about our morals - and the examples we are setting for our youth. The survey found 36% of adult respondents had been unfaithful in a relationship, 81% admitted cheating of some kind - including 22% in the workplace - almost 25% had lied to their partner, and 60% had stolen something. Despite admitting the bad behaviour, 91% were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, while acknowledging lying, cheating and stealing were character faults.

Last week, a Balclutha couple admitted in court benefit fraud of more than $179,000 over a 23-year period. The summary of facts stated the couple were aware of each other's status as a beneficiary, but failed to inform the Ministry of Social Development they had been living together as a couple since 1989. They had also been in employment. Leslie Patricia Tataurangi (50) apologised for her selfishness, saying she was aware of her obligations but needed more money to pay her bills. Perry Hill (57) said the Government was taking tax off him and giving it to the unemployed.

Also last week, Mosgiel man Murray John Galt (53) appeared in the Alexandra District Court.

He had been employed by his sister and brother-in-law to manage their Omakau farm and used the farm credit card to buy more than $76,000 worth of goods for himself over three years. Judge Roy Wade said the offending was a ''gross breach of trust'' and the family were ''devastated'' by the level of betrayal and the lack of remorse.

And earlier in the month, the Sunday Star-Times reported how 83-year-old benefit fraudster Eileen Farquer had become a ''hero'' to some people for ''ripping off the Government''. She is serving a year's home detention in a rented bach in Little Waihi, after pleading guilty late last year to five counts of benefit fraud totalling $215,000. The money had been gained under an alias since 1987 and she is paying back at $10.50 a week. She admitted her actions were wrong and the payback rate was an ''insult ... to the people I've ripped off. We all know I'm never gonna pay it, I won't live that long.''

Part of her explanation for the offending was ''if somebody is going to keep giving me money, I'm going to keep taking it''.

While such incidents are certainly at the higher end of the dishonesty scale, it appears from the survey results that New Zealanders have more than a casual relationship with the truth. And if 91% of survey respondents were satisfied with their ethics and character, we clearly have a great ability to justify our actions to ourselves - or delude ourselves.

The tangled webs we weave to convince ourselves our actions are justified and we are good people may stem from unhappiness, a sense of injustice or jealousy. Certainly, as the survey results show, we are all capable of dishonesty in various forms - and that behaviour is of course by no means specific to New Zealanders.

Last week the world watched the confessions of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who admitted he had cheated in all seven of his Tour de France wins by using performance-enhancing drugs - and lied continuously about it. The high-profile fall from grace mirrored that of disgraced golfer Tiger Woods, who admitted previously to numerous extra-marital affairs. Woods' redemption is well under way while Armstrong's future is less certain. Whether those in the New Zealand dishonesty cases will be forgiven remains to be seen.

In the case of the Mosgiel man, it seems he has lost the trust, respect and support of his family. But perhaps the greatest irony in the case of the 83-year-old woman who was admired by others for ''ripping off the Government'', is that of course the Government is the taxpayer. So even when we think we are being clever by pulling the wool over someone else's eyes, or justifying our actions in relation to other dishonesty, in reality we are only cheating ourselves.