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Tim Moore

Lies, damned lies, smears and distortions: the world of dissembling politicians

People never lie so much as before an election, during a war, or after a hunt.

Otto von Bismarck

Let’s be clear: lying has always been a part of life, and we are all guilty of some version of it from time to time. But as Bismarck suggests, there are certain domains of life where lying really comes into its own.

Prussian huntsmen aside, it is a sad state of affairs that lying has become such a part of the way politics are conducted nowadays.

Donald Trump, of course, turned it into an industrial-scale project. By The Washington Post’s tally, the now parted US president issued more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during his time in office — an average of 20 a day.

Mercifully things haven’t got quite so bad here — but the signs are not looking good. In what’s shaping up to be a possible election year, it’s important that as a citizenry we remain vigilant to the deceptions, distortions and outright dishonesty that are becoming such a part of our politicians’ stock-in-trade.

Truth be told

A simple definition of lying is to see it as the opposite of truth-telling. In philosophy, the latter is usually defined as those verbal acts where there is clear correspondence between someone’s words and the state of affairs to which these refer. For lying though, definitions are not so straightforward because the lie is a complex beast, with a capacity to assume a multitude of violations.

Montaigne elaborated artfully on this contrast: “If falsehood, like truth, had but one face we would be on better terms. For we would consider the contrary of what the liar said to be certain. But the opposite of truth has a hundred thousand faces and an infinite field.”

In this three-part series, I seek to narrow the field somewhat. I offer a finite — but far from exhaustive — list of the more wanton categories of lies used by our politicians, and which, as many are beginning to notice, have also become an integral part of the political style of our prime minister.

1. The pants-on-fire lie: ‘I did not have sex with that woman’

This is arguably the prototypical lie, one associated as much with the schoolyard as with public office.

The key ingredients are: a culpable individual act; a bald-faced denial of the act; undeniable evidence of the act having been committed. We may be prepared to cut children some slack in the telling of this type of lie, but not adults.

It was so abject in the case of the Bill Clinton presidency as to lead to impeachment proceedings — although it was clear from the start of his tenure that they were going to get Slick Willie on something. As the late Barbara Bush cruelly put it: “Clinton lied. A man might forget where he parks or where he lives, but he never forgets oral sex, no matter how bad it is.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has become increasingly prone to the igniting-undies lie. All was plain to see, for example, in his account of the encounter with the young pregnant woman in Cobargo at the height of the bushfire emergency.

Here the claim was not that he didn’t do something, but that he did. “We talked about what she was asking for,” he said. The cameras showed something quite different.

2. Achievement hyperbole: ‘tired of winning’

A different political lie involves not trying to conceal a personal act, but rather to let everybody know about it. This is in the area of exaggeration, hyperbole and outright fabrication.

New standards for this type of deceit — and conceit — were set by Trump: “Decision/deal/outcome X is the greatest and biggest X ever made in the history of our country/the world/the universe” etc.

Australian political culture is less tolerant of this personal big-noting, although Morrison displaying his border security memento — a model boat with caption “I stopped these” — breaks new ground.

More common is the endless boasting and inflating of government achievement. This has become a stock routine in virtually all interviews with government ministers — rolling out zombie lists of statistics and superlatives that no one can follow, or has any inclination to believe.

Think, for example, of those Treasurer Josh Frydenberg set pieces, pre-prepared and ready to be rammed into an interview at the first opportunity. The following, from Insiders in late 2019, is notable for also including the unfortunate “back in black” achievement:

When we came to government, unemployment was 5.7%. Today it’s 5.3%. We have a record number of Australians in jobs. We’ve just produced the first current accounts surplus since 1975. We’ve got the lowest welfare dependency in 30 years. We’ve provided the biggest tax cuts legislated through the parliament in more than 20 years. And the budget is back in balance, already delivered for the first time in 11 years.

3. The smear: ‘intentionally barren’

This category concerns not the piling of praise on oneself, but the heaping of calumny on adversaries.

There was a time when the political putdown produced some of the more memorable moments in the Australian parliament (think “feral abacus”, “mincing poodle” etc). The attack of choice these days, however, is a lower form: the carefully crafted smear aimed at impugning reputations.

Bill Heffernan, in the Howard government, set the standard with his false allegations about Justice Michael Kirby and the use of his Commonwealth car. His gendered Julia Gillard slur was a similar low moment.

The smear is now a ready reflex for many, especially resorted to when political pressure is being brought to bear. Thus when Energy Minister Angus Taylor was being pushed to step down as minister after AFP investigations into the false Clover Moore travel claims, Morrison casually remarked that Gillard had been investigated by the police and hadn’t stepped down. He knew the first part of this proposition not to be true.

There are well-developed techniques to dismiss — even laugh off — those occasions when the smearing is caught out. At a National Press Club address in 2019, Morrison was corrected by Michelle Grattan when he falsely claimed that then opposition leader Shorten — among other imputed inadequacies — had never undertaken financial reform. The response:

I must have just found the performance underwhelming, Michelle, and I still find their performance very underwhelming. So I’ll let others, you know, correct the record as they see fit.

Next: ‘These are matters for Victoria’, ‘children overboard’, and ‘sexing up the dossier’

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