Phony Tony and the Liar's Paradox

'Phony Tony' by Chris JohnstonMany of Tony Abbott's most controversial ideas arise from his particular brand of Catholicism, which seems to be conservative, obedient and moralistic. Generally, media are savage towards politicians who preach their morals, but Abbott's apparent candour has probably disarmed his critics somewhat. When he thought he had discovered a child from an old relationship for example, he sought neither to conceal the fact nor to justify his actions.

His latest revelation however, was not received lightly. Asked on national television about the reliability of his sometimes contradictory policy announcements, Abbott said he often made statements that he regarded as throwaway lines. He hastened to add that when he read from a script, he was speaking the truth.

Discussion ensued about the advisability of Abbott's confession. Predictably, his critics and opponents said this admission showed Abbott was unreliable and untrustworthy. His supporters claimed Abbott was being 'up front' with the people, and Abbott himself claimed he was trying to be 'fair dinkum'.

Two issues are at stake here. First there is the general moral issue around the principle of telling the truth, usually termed 'honesty'. Secondly there is a distinctly political sense in which the people can expect to be told the truth by their elected representatives.

Individuals should aspire to be honest. We all fail in this at times, usually because we fear the consequences of telling the truth. The term 'white lie' has been coined to justify situations where we want to avoid harming others but not ourselves. Clearly, when a politician lies, he or she fears that honesty would incur political penalties such as destruction of image and loss of support.

It is at this point that the politician has the opportunity to demonstrate a sincere commitment to honesty. He or she should let the people decide whether they value the politician's honesty, even if it causes them disappointment or reveals something unpleasant about their representative.

It is not Abbott's prerogative to tell people how they should react to the truth. Indeed, lying to the people shows complete disdain for them. Taking the people for granted is a cardinal political sin. Politicians might get away with deceiving the people sometimes, but the importance of honesty in the operations of a democracy is recognised in the formal requirement that MPs speak truthfully inside parliament.

There is an ancient philosophical problem called the 'Liar's paradox'. The problem usually takes the form of a phrase along the lines of 'I am lying'. The paradox is that the speaker can only be telling the truth if they are, as they have stated, lying; but of course, if they are lying, by definition they can not be telling the truth.

For the politician, a reputation for lying creates its own deep mistrust in the electorate. Abbott's attempt to excuse his dishonesty by distinguishing written from oral statements cannot work. For a start, there is the question of whether Abbott made this pitch while speaking extempore or reading from a prepared script. The electorate can now never know when Abbott is even attempting to be honest. Apparently, he would happily accept electoral support even while knowing that he has deceived the people.

Few keen observers will be surprised that Abbott has been caught in this conundrum. During the 1999 campaign for Constitutional reform, Abbott opposed the compromise republican model in which the parliament would ultimately choose the head of state, by asserting that you cannot trust politicians with such important decisions. Clearly, this claim contained its own paradox, because Abbott proposed this political cynicism while expecting people to take his advice.

Abbott made another attempt to place himself on the side of political honesty when he began a fund and campaign to have the One Nation Party investigated for political fraud. Among his parliamentary attacks on One Nation's organisers, Abbott accused them of being 'chronic and habitual liars'. Now that Abbott has made his possibly true confession, critics will recall a more recent assertion that a man dying of asbestosis was not necessarily pure of heart in all things.

Whether or not Abbott survives the fallout from his gaffe, dishonesty in politics must not be condoned. National moral leadership should be rededicated to honesty and truth because fair dinkum democracy is impossible without it.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney. 

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Phony Tony, Abbott, liar's paradox



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Existing comments

The fact that we must call Abbott's statement of the bleeding obvious a "gaffe" is instructive. A gaffe (in conversation) does not suggest something untrue, but something careless. What makes Abbott interesting as a politician is that he's not particularly politic. It is obvious to everyone, that if one is required to sound off as constantly as politicians are, by the ever-present media, and that one's remarks often need to fit into discursive spaces that cannot accommodate nuance, uncertainty or complexity, that a careful politician is only going to say boring or unremarkable things -- polemical things that avoid real issues, or vague aspirational slogans -- or to say nothing and look uncertain or devious. It is this that Abbott was (impolitically, perhaps) reflecting upon. You can't tell a reporter, or not often, "I'm sorry, there's not a 25-second answer to that." And you can't say nothing. So, what does one say? Not something "dishonest", exactly (and if Dr Smith thinks there are no alternatives between honest and dishonest, well, he needs to get out more), but something partial, subject to revision and qualification. That's what Abbott was saying, though it would've taken too long, and in a TV interview he should perhaps not have bothered trying.

Paul Tankard | 21 May 2010  

Phony tony/gospel tony has become a joke - we need an opposition leader to be effective, not an object of ridicule. Tony go home, and take your hockey stick with you.

jenny martin | 21 May 2010  

We all value the truth. Including and especially Tony Abbott, who is one of our most open politicians ever. The great irony here is that Tony is an experienced politician who is observing what happens in reality and has enunciated upon it. Politicians make claims which sometimes are embellishments because many have the personality type which renders them willing to go into public life accepting that they will have to 'wing it' occasionally -ie say things 'on the run' without being able to check their policy documents, or confer with colleagues or staff.

Should we insist that all such statements 'on the fly' are preceded by a caveat such as: "Subject to formal checking, x, y & z appears to be the case..."? In the court scenario, it is recognised that it is extremely unfair to a witness to cross-examine at length about the contents of a document without permitting him/her to have reference to it.Yet we question our poor politicians relentlessly, on almost a 24/7 basis, about a breadth of subject-matter, of which much is impossible - or beyond what is humanly reasonable - to be across in minute detail. Their mountainous policy papers are often back in their offices.

Tony has simply acknowledged a sad reality, with a candour that has made some other pollies uncomfortable. The truth is not always soothing. What would be amazing and admirable is if other pollies were brave enough to say "You know what? He is telling the truth, it is something we all do, because the exigencies of our jobs and the unrealistic expectations of the media and thus public put us in this ludicrous position." Due to the nature of their work, utterances are obviously only 100% reliable when the speech has been prepared, thoroughly researched and all the detail placed handily in front of them. THEY ALL DO WHAT TONY REVEALED. It is just that he is the only one to come clean and admit it.I would trust him all the more because of his frankness. It is precisely because he values truth that he felt the matter was even worthy of remark. Other pollies, disturbingly, appear to feel no such twinges, and are willing to keep up the pretence that it never happens, except in his isolated case. This scenario is far less believable.

Sophie | 21 May 2010  

If only we could live in a world where politics is honest. Probably not during my lifetime.

Mike | 21 May 2010  

Remember those spin slogans the Liberals have been using to 'sell' Abbott? "Refreshingly honest", "authentic", "straight-talking", etc. His 7.30 Report confession puts paid to those fibs. Here is a Youtube video of Abbott in the 2007 election campaign, "straight-talking" on Lateline and the Chaser. This one's a classic, pass it on ...

Rx | 21 May 2010  

Tony Abbott made the mistake of thinking that he was having a conversation with Kerry O'Brien. He may have felt that he was intellectually superior and physically fitter than this trumped up ABC journalist/reporter who didn't have to venture outside the studio to chase or research a story.

Tony forgot that he was swimming with a shark in the national aquarium.

The first nick of blood - no new taxes - is the time to flee. No new taxes in the broadest meaning of the term is an impossible promise unless a government is going to cut services.

Only Ronald Reagan could get away with saying - "Cut taxes. Increase defence". And he could get away with this because he understood politics in USA.

"Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."
(LA Conference 1971)

But notice Reagan's ingenious use of the media. He can compare politics to prostitution without using the word, knowing that the prostitute's pimp (the media) will promote his undoubted superficial charms to the gullible punters.

Tony Abbott could learn a lot from Ronald Reagan.

Uncle Pat | 21 May 2010  

Tony Abbott light-hearted banter may have been unwise in a world where every word is recorded and interpreted by the media. In Australia where an incompetent and desperate Government tries to get the attention away from the issues of their broken promises, such remarks were outright silly.
If it comes to trust, Rudd has proven that nothing he says can be regarded as the truth. Rudd’s handling of the truth would have him made an ideal candidate as a leader of former East Germany. Abbott may be carried away with enthusiasm and makes some politically incorrect off the cuff remarks. Rudd is misleading all Australians with well-scripted, cold, calculating, populist policies.

Beat Odermatt | 21 May 2010  

Thanks Tony, well written. This episode in Australian political life serves us well as a timely reminder to speak honestly. Being "frankly" dishonest but fair dinkum hardly engenders a feeling of confidence in our politicians!

Jim B | 21 May 2010  

Abbott must not survive the fallout. Period!

Both him and 'the banker' are contemptuous of the people

Greig Williams | 21 May 2010  

Dear Mr Greig Williams

On what is your accusation based? Have you ever met Mr Abbott? Have you talked to his long-standing staff? Talked to any person who genuinely knows him or has had real-life dealings with him? Even if your knowledge of him is limited to the occasional media soundbyte or interview, I would gently suggest your conclusion is not supportable. He is far from contemptuous of people. On the contrary, he is renowned for treating people, of all varieties, ages, occupations and stations with a great deal of respect. Even where it is not given in return. Please do not confuse a robust defence of a viewpoint with lack of respect. It is precisely because Tony Abbott respects the human status of the person who holds the opinion that he meets it head-on, rather than dismissing it. Putting him in the same category as 'the banker' when they are completely different people is unfair to both of them - and a misleading categorisation. How would you like this to be done to you? Have you put your hand up for public office in our democracy? If so, good on you. If not, why not? Because you might have people have a nasty 'go' at you? Why not try and BE the change you seem to want to see in the world?!

Sophie | 21 May 2010  

It's a generous thing to forgive deception, whether it is spontaneous or planned; it is foolish to justify it as a feature of contemporary political life and thereby expect it. If leaders in politics (whether in Government or Opposition) can choose when they want to use deception, then so can leaders in industry, business, unions and churches. Some TV interviews are not entertainment and leaders use them to advance their case. Other interviews may be friendly chats. Leaders need to know the difference and respect the public and their own colleagues.Joe Hockey was caught out at the Journalists Club and with Kerry O'Brien as a result of one of Tony Abbott's true paper predictions in the Budget Reply in Parliament. How about we insist on our leaders in all contexts telling the truth or saying nothing? It is about leadership, not about managing affairs to one's own advantage.I'm sick of spin. I want to vote for a leader that I can trust.

alex | 21 May 2010  

The liar paradox simply demonstrates that language, though grammatically correct can also be logically nonsensical. This has nothing to do with Abbott's media gaffe.

Tony Abbott, bless his soul, was making a hash of trying to state that in the end the written word always trumps the spoken word, even when they contradict one another. That in itself is no paradox. He was not stating that all Cretins are liars.

To willfully misrepresent that has no intrinsic moral value at all. It is only political point-scoring and says nothing about Abbott's ability to tell the truth.

Nathan Socci | 21 May 2010  

It's interesting that the longer and more reasonable responses here are sympathetic to Abbott, and that those against him are shorter and consist of cliches. This demonstrates, I think, what Abbott was in fact suggesting in the original interview: that being thoughtful and accurate often requires more space and time than the confrontational sound-bite culture of the media is able to accommodate.

Paul Tankard | 21 May 2010  

It's strange -- I may not be very bright but I did not hear Tony Abbott say anything about telling a lie. In the NT News an article of destruction has been published where the News journalist in ridiculing Tony made two disgraceful statements. The first declares him to be obsessed with the importance of female virginity and the second he considered becoming a Priest before he made the late discovery of women. It is being attacked by media representatives like this that prompted Tony's remark.Maybe a biff on the nose might be safer than a verbal response.

John B | 21 May 2010  

It's interesting that the longer and more reasonable responses here are sympathetic to Abbott, and that those agin him are shorter and consist of cliches. This demonstrates, I think, what Abbott was in fact suggesting in the original interview: that being thoughtful and accurate often requires more space and time than the confrontational sound-bite culture of the media is able to accommodate.

Paul Tankard | 21 May 2010  

When Tony Abbott or any other member of Parliament is interviewed by Kerry O’Brien or Tony Jones or indeed by some other notable ABC journalist such as Jon Faine or Fran Kelly only the unsophisticated among us would see this encounter simply as the ABC giving politicians a platform to argue their case.
These cameo performances with political celebrities have the potential to greatly influence the interviewer’s personal career within the organisation whether ABC or commercial media. Peer recognition is meat and drink to the ambitious political journo who is always striving for the “gotcha moment”…and the early morning congratulatory phone call “from someone who matters” is worth more than any pay increase.
Reflect on this snippet from a piece by Jonathan Green (ed The Drum) on Tuesday May18
“…Kerry O'Brien leaned back at this point, a widening of the eyes indicating the first strainings of belief. The backward tilt of the head had the quiet calculation of a toying cobra.
The past week has offered a master class in political interrogation. First lesson, that the tempo and tone of the interview needs to be adjusted according to the character of the subject.
Rudd's "mate" moment last week came under provocation, the climax of a mutually belligerent exchange that ended when the PM tipped into either near-homicidal rage or forthright self defence, the difference being in the eye of the beholder.
Last night was different, not so much sweaty sparring as a stern, slightly avuncular, head masterly, chat. Tony would be lured inevitably to his stumbling demise, …”
Hmm…there is written English, including both prose and poetry, and spoken English, which includes rational argument and debate. More commonly, we all use conversational English, which may be “measured” or “less well measured”… depending on context and personalities.
Tony Abbott is very intelligent, and by reason of his scholarship and inclination his conversation is likely to be nuanced and creative.
I choose to see this contretemps between Abbott and O’Brien as much ado about not much, but let’s have a good look at the players who have flocked on stage, full of moral indignation, and ask ourselves is there more to this than we might at first have thought!

Gerard | 21 May 2010  

Good one, Gerard!

Up until now I have never submitted a second comment on a ES article. I regard my first comment as my gut reaction to the article. I am delighted if other comments support my position. I am frequently puzzled when many other comments present points of view that I consider miss the focus (as I interpret it) of the article in question. "Looks like I marching out of step again", I say to myself.

But today I must comment a second time and that is to congratulate Gerard for raising the crucial question: Is there more to this than we might have first had thought?

It is a question I would like to have seen Tony Smith answer rather than the mishmash he presented of his first random thoughts on a very interesting moment in the ever-evolving symbiotic relationship between the media and politics in Australia.

Uncle Pat | 21 May 2010  

Both the Liberal Party and News Limited must be scratching their heads trying to rescue the Mad Monk from committing political suicide. They've managed to wound Rudd, so much so that they were able to divert people's attention away from their vacuous policy. Now that the Mad Monk and his Pancho, Shrek, are revealed as economic dummies, the myth that only they can run this country is busted forever. And if the majority of the Australian electorate still don't know this, we really deserve the government we elect.

Alex Njoo | 21 May 2010  

Imagine Tony Abbott as Prime Minister of Australia in a world leaders forum with Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Putin, et al. And to have the reputation that he now has, of not being able to have an admitted unscripted conversation with any of them. What value could they put on any contribution he might make on behalf of this country.

The Peter Principle is well in evidence with this aspirant to the Prime Ministership of Australia.

A Kavanagh | 22 May 2010  

Yes, Abbott placed himself "..on the side of political honesty when he began a fund and campaign to have the One Nation Party investigated for political fraud..", but you may recall that he also for some time denied having begun the fund, until finally caught out. Thus even in honesty he lied.

John Garrett | 22 May 2010  

I have always been appalled by Mr Abbott.

His treatment of Bernie Banton was the most callous thing I have ever seen in my life.

Marilyn | 23 May 2010  

Tony Abbott, that rare creature: an honest liar. Marry the man.

Eveline Goy | 23 May 2010  

Perhaps the subtle nuances of Abbottspeak disallow application of the liar's paradox and instead allow for the politicians' paradox: Sometimes I am telling untruths, but I am always sincere about it.

Mal Arop | 24 May 2010  

Does Eureka St ever have a nice word to say about Tony??

Every time I flick on to here there is yet another article bashing Tony for some other inane reason. If only the same scrutiny was applied to his equally as deceptive opponent, K Rudd.

Dr K | 26 May 2010  

I enjoyed this article. I have been astounded that the media made so little of Tony's plea to be loved for his failings and his tendency to LIE if the words he utters aren't scripted.

To me the lack of depth in the Liberal team, where three people are engaged to give one response to the Budget, while Julie focuses her steely gaze and can't be trusted to say much, is personified by Abbott. God help us all if he becomes prime minister.

John Dimock | 17 July 2010  

Tony has simply acknowledged the inconvenient truth of an unfortunate reality to embarrass them stiff-necked pollies. Aye, it takes balls! Verbal flippancy is not documentary evidence – hence the term ‘put it in writing’ to hold one accountable. Right? Oh my, what a ‘much ado about nothing’ diatribe! Reality is best served up stark naked! Just tell it like it is and spare us the guessing game. Instead of thrashing Tony’s frank admission, them stiff-necks should own up to the truth of his declaration. Didn’t mummy teach you to tell the truth and shame the devil? Unrealistic expectations of the media - by the very nature of its task - relentlessly breaks down barriers to get at the essence, putting pollies in this invidious position, on the spot. One random word and someone’s out there to make capital of it. Take the words out of context, for example “Shit happens”. Just goes to show political correctness has us by the short and curly! Hence, the less-candid pollie would hesitate to speak his mind, would adhere strictly to the dictates of his scripted lines. But openness of spirit and a clear conscience would have no hesitation, would just go for it! So admit it, you all do the same thing! It is precisely because Tony values the honest truth that he felt the matter was even worthy of remark. I, for one, would trust him all the more for his pure and undefiled candour.

Shrinking Violet | 12 December 2011  

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