This week’s column for The New Daily.
The sorry reality is that lies are one variation of the myriad ways in which politicians bend the truth to scare voters away from the competition.
The Political Weekly: Terror and lies lay at the heart of federal politics this week, as the Government pressed home its advantage on national security issues and Labor leader Bill Shorten made a surprising and potentially lethal admission.
Federal politics has gone all topsy-turvy and I’m having trouble hanging on. It’s an upside-down-world where night is day, black is white, and cats bark at cars driving people.
At least that’s how it seems, with the Prime Minister and his government insisting that things are the opposite of reality.
Trust me. A multimedia post on political lies for ABC’s The_Brief. (Best viewed on a tablet/ipad.)
Pollies, lies and ‘versions of the truth’. Weekly post for The Hoopla.
Labor’s pointless ‘Lie a day’ campaign. Weekly post for The Hoopla.
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.
After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.
While often portrayed in more simplistic terms, as promises kept or broken, the compact sealed between Australian voters and the government they have installed is more fundamentally about the expectations of what values and principles will be upheld. By confusing the two, political observers run the risk of misunderstanding which of the Abbott Government’s “broken promises” will be ignored or forgiven and which could be politically toxic.
Rudd learned that unfulfilled public expectations can bite badly when he squibbed on the self-proclaimed “great moral challenge of our generation“. By postponing any further efforts to establish an emissions trading scheme, Rudd effectively repudiated the need for urgent and effective climate action, which was one of the few principles he’d highlighted as distinguishing himself from John Howard in what was otherwise a me-too election campaign in 2007. The ease and speed with which Rudd discarded the commitment added the public’s concern to those already held by the business community and public service that there was a vast gap between the expectation created by Rudd (that he was a man of vision and action) with the perceived reality (that he was an obsessive micro-manager gridlocked by the unworkable need to make every government decision).
Julia Gillard also fell foul of an expectations shortfall. As deputy prime minister, she was a vibrant, articulate and engaging member of the Rudd government, as well as a beacon to the feminist movement. Yet this credibility was eroded by the apparently inexplicable knifing of PM Rudd; early bumbling on the mining tax, asylum seekers and people’s forum on climate action; an unnerving Stepford PM performance during the 2010 federal election campaign; and the need to go back on a clumsily worded carbon price commitment in return for securing minority government. While much was made of Gillard breaking her “carbon tax promise”, the real damage from this announcement was that it crystallised the public’s growing realisation that she was not the capable and honest politician they had expected.
As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly exploited the public’s fractured expectations of Gillard. But in continually drawing a contrast between her government and his alternative, Abbott constructed a whole new expectations edifice for himself to uphold. However, he’s been much more strategic, creating expectations in broad brush strokes that give the Coalition Government a lot more room to move, including the occasional backdown on promises and commitments.
Hence Abbott’s constant referral to high level descriptors of his government when deflecting questions about backflips and reversals. They will “build a stronger economy”, “do what we said we will do”, and “be a no surprises, no excuses government”. Many sins can be dismissed or ignored under the cover of these generalities: for example, eliminating the debt ceiling can be framed as being in the interests of a stronger economy, and “re-profiling” of funding for the NDIS can be “doing what they said they would” but in a way that is “appropriately targeted and … sustainable“.
Even so, there are limits on the extent to which voters are prepared to have their expectations massaged by the Abbott Government. This was clearly demonstrated when Education Minister Christopher Pyne flouted the voter expectations of school equity under the Coalition’s version of Gonski that he and Abbott had deliberately encouraged during the election campaign. Despite protesting that they were keeping the commitments they had made but not necessarily those that people “thought they had made”, Abbott moved quickly to contain the disillusionment outbreak, forcing Pyne to perform a triple, double backflip with pike to placate the wailing hordes of teachers and parents.
When it comes to asylum seekers, we are yet to see which of the expectations created by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will prevail. Considering that “we will stop the boats” was a core component of Abbott’s favourite election mantra, and that it’s shorthand for the broader principle of “protecting your jobs and your way of life”, it’s fair to say it will take priority over Abbott saying his government will be “transparent and open” and that “the last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people“.
As the billboard says, human rights abuse starts with secrecy, but in the case of boat-borne asylum seekers, many Australians seem prepared to accept being treated like mushrooms, lest they start to feel complicit in the atrocity.
It would be foolish however for the government to think this is a default position. As we saw during the Gonski shambles, voters won’t turn a blind eye to actions that “hurt” them or their nearest and dearest directly. If voters start to sense the government is being silent on a decision that affects them, particularly the hip pocket nerve, there will be electoral hell to pay.
This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum.