Ignore, deny, reframe – but never, ever fess up

We all know our leaders have lied to us, but we’d nevertheless be extraordinarily confronted if one of them ever actually admitted as such.

One of the challenges faced by politicians in the digital age is that it’s just not as easy to lie as it used be. Before the advent of pesky internet search engines and inconvenient fact-checking units, politicians could generally rely on minimal scrutiny from overworked or lazy journalists to get away with audacious claims or surreptitious backflips.

But not these days: now anyone with a keyboard and access to the uber-database that is the internet can pin a lie on a pollie. And it’s ghoulishly fascinating to observe the strategies our elected representatives have developed to cope when they’re caught telling porkies.

Some, like the re-ascendant Kevin Rudd during the 2013 federal election campaign, carry on regardless, blithely peddling the lie even once it’s been exposed. This was the case when the ABC’s Fact Check unit found Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion black hole in the Coalition’s costings to be ‘not credible’ and Fairfax’s FactChecker deemed it ‘false‘. Yet Rudd continued to use the $70bn figure throughout the campaign.

Other MPs, like the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Treasurer Joe Hockey in Parliament this week, appear to prefer the oral sleight-of-hand to fend off any accusations of duplicity.

Challenged by the opposition on a supposed false promise to spend his first week as PM in north-east Arnhem Land, Tony Abbott claimed he actually said the first remote community he would visit for a week would be in that region. That may well be what he meant, but rather than further embellishment, Abbott should have stuck to what he actually said to participants of the Garma Festival at the time:

That’s what I want to do … And why not, if you will permit me, why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me, spend my first week as Prime Minister, should that happen, on this, on your country?

Meantime, Joe Hockey danced around a challenge from Labor about whether he or senior Toyota executives were lying about the role of unions in the decision by the local automotive manufacturer to shut up shop in 2017. Toyota had publicly denied a media story claiming its CEO had privately told the Treasurer that unions were the reason for leaving, while Hockey claimed it was true.

Demonstrating a liberal dose of what he is fond of calling ‘chutzpah’ when he observes brazen behaviour in others, Hockey said both he and Toyota were telling the truth:

The report as it related to the content of the discussion between myself and Toyota was correct, and Toyota’s statement today is also correct … Toyota did not blame the unions because at that time Toyota wanted to stay in Australia, they wanted to stay in Australia.

If unsuccessful with this feint, Hockey may have to revert to the less common response to being pinged when lying: dropping the lie and making it verboten, never to be acknowledged again. Whether based on a lie or just shoddy research, Abbott’s claim that SPC Ardmona was hobbled by overly generous worker entitlements has quickly been relegated to this category.

And then there are the MPs who create an alternate reality to defend their honour, claiming a lie was the truth as they knew it at the time. This tactic has also been known as the ‘John Howard defence’ and the ‘Julia Gillard concession’.

Clive Palmer deployed this tactic at the National Press Club this week, defending his false claim that all officials of the Australian Electoral Commission were former military because he had no evidence to the contrary. Having discovered the AEC returning officer in his electorate was ex-military, as well as the deputy commissioner in Canberra, and some AEC staff in other states, Palmer told the assembled media at the NPC he had not lied because:

That was my understanding, because [in] 100 per cent of the divisions that I checked … that was the case…

Ignore, deny, reframe and obfuscate; the only thing our parliamentarians don’t seem to do when caught lying is to fess up. That’s because the electoral consequences would be dire. Despite many voters thinking politicians have only a passing acquaintance with the truth, they’d nevertheless be extraordinarily confronted by a politician who admitted to lying, and would see it as a breach of faith with the electorate. Admitting to a lie would be a career limiting move for any politician.

So it’s no surprise our elected representatives have developed all manner of ways to wriggle out from accusations of lying.

Perhaps the real surprise, in this world of increasing transparency and scrutiny, is that they still tell lies at all.