Competency, not truth, will decide this election

Guardian Australia’s political editor Lenore Taylor wrote that we’re heading to a post-truth election.

This might have come as a surprise to the many political observers who consider truth to be a quaint artefact from a golden age of politics that may not have actually existed. Truth, or its absence, has not been a deciding factor in politics for a very long time. Nor will it play a definitive role in the 2013 federal election.

The result will, however, pivot on the questions of trust and competency.

Taylor cites as evidence of the post-truth paradigm the Opposition’s current strategy of dismissing Government undertakings as lies or broken promises-in-waiting, while the Government paints its opponent as a bogeyman with manifold hidden agendas.

While “Politicians have always tried to paint their opponents in an unflattering way and cast doubt upon their promises and credibility,” says Taylor, these days “the story politicians tell about themselves and their opponents bears scant relationship to the actual policies on offer.”

But it has ever been thus.

As Laurie Oakes wrote last year “Let’s not beat about the bush. Tony Abbott tells lies. So what? Is there anything surprising about that? After all, he’s a politician”.

This view is supported in the opinion polls. Fourteen per cent of Coalition voters believe Tony Abbott won’t actually scrap the carbon and mining taxes. Twenty-eight per cent believe he’ll bring back WorkChoices. And yet they say they will vote for him.

The sad truth is that we expect politicians to lie: it is simply part of what they do. While we denounce the lies of politicians we’d never vote for, we forgive the untruths of those we support.

This ‘compact of deceit’ saw Prime Minister John Howard re-elected in 2004 even though voters believed he’d lied about the children overboard affair. Newspoll found the proportion of voters who perceived Howard to be trustworthy dipped from 57% in July to 51% in September that year. Nevertheless, Howard defeated Mark Latham just a month later at the October 2004 federal election even though Latham’s trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

That’s because voters considered Howard a competent Prime Minister and the trust they vested in him was to run a strong economy and make the right decisions for the nation. (Granted, there was no discussion of the structural deficit Howard ended up bequeathing to the nation’s future economy.)

So while Lenore Taylor picked the right examples of election strategy at play, she misinterpreted their intent. Both sides joust using the language of untruth, but in reality they’re evoking another thing altogether: the equally emotionally-vested concept of promises broken and expectations dashed through foolishness and incompetency.

Howard campaigned against Latham in 2004 with a strong economic track record allowing him to make a claim for trust and competency. Gillard finds herself unable to communicate a similar advantage over Abbott despite shepherding Australia’s economy through the GFC. Her backflip on the carbon tax, followed by the watered down mining tax and the missteps in dealing with asylum seekers, compounded by the people’s convention on climate change and the littany of strategically dumb decisions like announcing the election date early, has etched the PM’s reputation in voters’ minds as not only an oath-breaker, but a foolish and incompetent one at that.

While 27 per cent of voters currently say the Government is unpopular because people don’t trust Julia Gillard (followed by 19 per cent saying it is because the Government is divided and can’t govern properly), a staggering 71 per cent said the Labor Government will promise anything to win votes. Admittedly only four per cent less think the Liberal Party would do the same.

However it is in the competency stakes that the Liberals have the important edge: they’re seen as being better than Labor in having a vision for the future, understanding Australia’s problems, being in touch with ordinary people, having good leaders and keeping their promises.

Labor may think they’re tapping into voter unease about Tony Abbott by playing the truth card. But truth isn’t the same as trust, and as Mark Latham discovered to his detriment in 2004, even trust is a two-edged sword (see video below). Without competency, neither truth nor trust will win the federal election.