In a meeting about Liz Morden, Judge Collins tells Ralph, Major Ross, Captain Campbell, and Governor Phillip that the convict declined to speak on her own behalf at her trial. This, he explains, was interpreted as “an admission of guilt,” and so she was sentenced to death. “The evidence against her, however, is flimsy,” Collins admits, and though Ross points out that she was seen with Kable near the food supply, Collins says that the soldier who supposedly saw this was intoxicated and far away. “My only fear, Your Excellency, is that she may have refused to speak because she no longer believes in the process of justice,” Collins says to Phillip. “If that is so, the courts here will become travesties.”
Judge Collins demonstrates his desire for a just society by pointing out that any successful community has to have a well-functioning judicial system. This, he says, depends not only on the people who run that system, but on the citizens, too, since they have to “believe in the process of justice” in order for that process to work. This sentiment recalls Phillip’s previous assertion that he wants to forge a social “contract” with the convicts so that they can work together to build a productive society. In this case, however, Liz hasn’t even tried to prove her own innocence because she thinks the guards won’t listen to her.
Ralph says that Liz did tell Harry Brewer she was innocent, but Harry is dead and was never able to relay her message in court. Although Ketch gave an account of what Liz said to Harry when she was getting measured for her hanging, Collins notes that his testimony didn’t do much in the trial because Liz “wouldn’t confirm what he said.” As this conversation continues, Ralph, Phillip, and Collins insist upon finding out the truth, but Ross disparages them for being too kind to a convict like Liz. “Truth is indeed a luxury, but its absence brings about the most abject poverty in a civilisation,” Phillip tells him. Ross upholds that the colony isn’t a “civilisation” but a “hateful” “outpost.”
Yet again, Phillip finds himself arguing for the fair and humane treatment of the convicts, this time insisting that it’s worth it to diligently investigate whether or not Liz is guilty of having stolen food. By saying that the “absence” of truth “brings about the most abject poverty in a civilisation,” he encourages his colleagues to consider the fact that no well-functioning society—or judicial system—can operate without a genuine respect for and interest in finding the truth.
Judge Collins sends Campbell to fetch Liz, whom he gives one last chance to defend herself. Explaining that they’ll be forced to hang her if she doesn’t say anything, he tells her that Governor Phillip can “overrule the court” if he thinks she’s innocent. “Did you steal that food with the escaped prisoner Kable?” he asks, but she doesn’t respond. To encourage her, Ralph tells her that nobody will be angry if she speaks the truth, but Phillip contradicts this, saying, “Tell the truth and accept the contempt. That is the history of great men, Liz, you may be despised, but you will have shown courage.” Collins, Ralph, and Phillip try to encourage her to speak by telling her that it’s for “the good of the colony” and for the good of the play. Finally, after a long pause, Liz says, “I didn’t steal the food.”
When Phillip disagrees with Ralph and says that telling the truth often means upsetting other people, he shows his willingness to treat Liz as an equal. Rather than talking down to her and assuming that she can’t handle the stress of deciding whether or not to tell the truth, he levels with her, acknowledging that Kable might get mad at her if she tells them that he stole the food on his own (though this is a moot point, since Kable is already gone). By treating Liz as a “rational human being”—in the same way that Socrates treats Meno’s slave—Phillip encourages her to be levelheaded about her situation, which is likely why she finally decides to speak up for herself.
Having gotten the truth out of Liz, Governor Phillip asks why she didn’t advocate for her innocence earlier. “Because it wouldn’t have mattered,” she says. “Speaking the truth?” Phillip asks. “Speaking,” she replies. Cutting in, Ross says that Judge Collins should listen to the soldier who claimed to have seen Liz by the food stores, but Collins points out that this soldier was drunk and “uncertain of what he saw.” Ross ignores this, saying that the soldier is still a soldier and thus deserves to be listened to. “You will have a revolt on your hands, Governor,” he says, to which Phillip replies, “I’m sure I will, but let us see the play first. Liz, I hope you are good in your part.” Liz tells him that she’ll do her very best to deliver her lines with “elegance and clarity.”
Liz’s initial decision not to speak up for herself proves that Collins was right when he said that she didn’t believe in the efficacy of the judicial system. Thankfully for her, though, Phillip’s kindness helped her see that her voice would be heard. When she tells him that she’ll speak her lines with “elegance and clarity,” the audience sees that the play has also transformed her, since she was originally so brusque and short-tempered but now is interested in presenting herself as a cultured actor.