The normalisation of lying in Australian politics


Chris Johnston cartoon image of Bill Shorten and other lying politiciansThe terms ‘lie’ and ‘liar’ have become so completely devalued that there are now far worse sins in modern politics. That is why I can’t get excited about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten choosing to lie on air to Neil Mitchell about his involvement in discussions with Kevin Rudd to unseat Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.

The suggestion that his admission, contained in an apology, means that he can no longer be trusted is ludicrous. His sin, if it is one, pales into insignificance compared to others.

Current tricks include evasion, lack of transparency, broken promises and wilful misrepresentation. This means that the whole question of telling the truth, which should be a serious matter, has now become so murky that knowing how to judge supposed departures from the truth is next to impossible.

Let’s take each of these tricks in turn. Evasion is a stock in trade of modern politics. Professional media trainers actually instruct would be public figures never to feel compelled to answer the question that is put to them by an interviewer. That is, never be led by into territory you don’t want to visit. Shorten actually told Mitchell that he should have answered 'No Comment' and left the listeners to infer the answer. That is hardly an improvement in public discourse.

Both sides of politics have recently evaded the question of whether they have paid people smugglers to stop the boats. This came up with the revelation that a boat crew had been paid to return a boat load of asylum seekers to Indonesia. The public is left to presume that the report was true but the government refused to confirm or deny it.

More generally questions about asylum seeker matters are routinely rebuffed by the excuse that the government will not comment on operational matters. In other areas of public policy the usual phrase is that a government will not comment on matters of commercial in confidence. Either way the public is denied the truth on grounds that are often spurious.

To evade or to seek to hide the truth is common. The professional term is ‘lack of transparency’ but that jargon itself doesn’t help because it lulls us into a sense of business as usual. It is better described as lack of openness or deliberately covering up the truth.

Broken election promises are also now common currency. There are sometimes reasons why such promises end up being broken. Circumstances do change and governments should not be inflexible.

But governments now adopt a cavalier approach to breaking promises, whether it is to bring the budget back to surplus or not to cut education and health spending. Governments make a noose for their own necks by over-promising during election campaigns just to curry favour with the electorate. But they should not be excused for doing so.

Governments now try to excuse broken promises by claiming that some promises are more serious than others. The most notorious formulation was John Howard claiming that broken promises were excusable because there were so-called ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises.

The most famous recent case, prior to the many examples from the Abbott government, of a so-called broken promise, was Julia Gillard’s promise not to introduce a carbon tax. She argued minority government demanded it and that therefore circumstances had changed. Her opponents argued that she had betrayed the electorate and that 'Ju-Liar' had actually lied. Whatever her sin she certainly didn’t lie, which is very different from breaking a promise.

This leads into another common trick which is misrepresentation of what is and is not a lie. A current example comes from American politics but is relevant to Australia. Republican Presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, pointed out that President Barack Obama opposed same sex marriage marriage until 2012. He went on: 'He was either lying in 2008, or he’s lying now'. People in public life can change their minds so long as they are honest about it and explain their reasons for doing so.

Where all this leaves us is that any judgement of an individual’s trustworthiness should take into account the fact that avoiding telling the truth is embedded in public life.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Bill Shorten, ethics, politics, media



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Existing comments

Telling the truth is important. It's important, in the most significant sense, on a personal level. It's important to be truthful to the people we love the most. It's crucial to be honest with those we don't have a strong connection with - no relationship can grow unless trust can be established. Sometimes we forget this most basic rule of authentic interaction with our own sense of right and wrong and with others. Politicians, constantly in the public eye, are under enormous pressure to be 'all things to all people' and this can then place enormous pressure on them to appease. Our dearest relationships can withstand lots of negativity and we still see each other as worthy of love. But for politicians we can sometimes only echo TV detective Kojak's words "Who loves ya baby?".
Pam | 03 July 2015

"should take into account the fact that avoiding telling the truth is embedded in public life." Politics is , in general, disgusting, but thank heavens for those individuals who still show some integrity - Tony Windsor was one, Gillian Triggs is one - having those people around is a reminder, something to measure the rest by.
Russell | 03 July 2015

Interesting. Of course I think John describes the situation accurately. In Gary Will's "Papal Sin", he explains that St Augustine thought lying was a very fundamentally wrong thing, perhaps even more than other kinds of injury, because it was an injury to the respect due to people and to perceived reality (I hope I have articuated GW's explanation correctly). In any case, I think people are generally more heartily sick of prevarications, evasions and related behaviours than of someone stating repulsive views. John Hewson is routinely pilloried for having been too politically honest, but in hindsight we see that, whether or not his policies were best, he was the kind of honest person our democracy needs.
smk | 03 July 2015

Lying and evasiveness by public figures - a legacy of the disregard by the media for truth and impartiality in the pursuit of a sensational headline or a Walkley award.
john frawley | 06 July 2015

Thank you for this great analysis John. You've articulated that sense that we have about many public figures - the one that results in distrust of almost anyone in power these days. Question is how to turn this culture of truth-evasion and spin around? How to hold them to account? Journalism can only do so much being limited by time-slots, word-length etc so the day-to-day reporting is usually very shallow and unsatisfying, and as you pointed out, politicians know how to exploit that limitation.
Anne Marie | 06 July 2015

Like many others I am represented in Federal parliament by a Labor member who for most of his political career told us that Kevin Rudd was a wonderful PM. Now Mr Swan admits he never believed a word of his positive statements about this man. He stood in the House, as did many of his fellows, and misled the parliament on this issue. I am sure politicians from all parties do the same. Is Mr Warhurst now suggesting this has become acceptable as it is so common? That seems the epitome of postmodernist thought. Unfortunately he is probably right.
grebo | 06 July 2015

Yet Catholics are prepared for such deception by their clerical and religious leaders. They have seen the levels of lying and deception at the highest levels of the Catholic Church in Australia, the Vatican and other countries. The lies and deceptions include protection of pedophiles, misuse of funds (collected for the poor) to defend their pedophile companions; misuse of funds to engage in a lifestyle of power and privilige; and the use of 'mental reservation' to avoid telling the truth about what they knew and do know about criminal activity. Catholics are most fortunate to have this training early and have it continually enforced as they witness these clerical and religious people responding to questions at the royal commission, listen to their calls for protection of children while no one in charge is ever brought to account for abusing them, and keep saying how very sorry they are when they are caught out. Telling the truth is only important to the very nieve those not educated in 'faith' schools aand perhaps journalists!
Laurie | 06 July 2015

"Current tricks include evasion, lack of transparency, broken promises and wilful misrepresentation." There are occasions when complete revelations are neither desirable nor in the best interests of all concerned. But recent trends seem to be designed to escape accountability, which clearly leads to bad outcomes Perhaps we need another non-political body of discreet persons , who have earned popular trust, to whom whistle-blowers could report without fear of repercussions, and to whom politicians were answerable.
Robert Liddy | 06 July 2015

Tact , respect and love with the occasional diverting tactics are sometimes used to persuade very young children from a course of action. Punishment and untruths always come back to haunt those in the shared experience. If trust is broken the relationship may be pretty well doomed. Party politics tries to retain power and control and speak with one voice. The organizational church tries to do the same. When individual people speak with forked tongues to support the ideology , and practice of the organization , in spite of their own individual beliefs they can easily vere towards inauthenticity and untruthfulness. It is really time to declare " the Emperor has no clothes" and demand truthfulness, absence of secrecy and the opportunity to hear a variety of opinions, to engender honest debate. Is dishonesty truly embedded in public life.? Oh Pinocchio have we not learnt anything from your dilema!
Celia | 06 July 2015

Perhaps we could add to the usual manifestations of lying the misuse of statistics and the perception it encourages that all issues can be decided by recourse to them.
John Kelly | 06 July 2015

any wonder there is no respect (in fact outright hostility) for authority in all its forms and that it now represents the normal reflex defence by everyone in society ' not me' 'no idea' etc. Our authority figures are simply VERY BAD role models.
lou | 06 July 2015

If we have normalised lying in politics, why would I teach my children to care about truth. To speak the truth is to begin from behind and learn to stay behind. We have normalised failure.
Graham Warren | 06 July 2015

It used to be that to be accused of lying was a most serious insult. "Lying' was the name of a grave sin, the one which leads to the death of trust, the essential bond between individuals and peoples. Just as a reminder - a person lies when s/he, for some personal benefit, deliberately gives a false version of the facts, or conceals the facts, about a serious matter to a person who has a right to the truth. When did we become so - well, thick! - as to excuse a serious sin by naming it 'lack of transparency' or 'expedient' or 'politically necessary'? Why is lying no longer dishonourable? What is it about ourselves that makes us eager to forgive unrepentant liars?
Joan Seymour | 08 July 2015

Telling the truth is the new black. So what's the alternative for voters? The Greens aren't ready for executive government, the independents are too few in number - or could we get enough independents running for seats to gain on majority to form government indepedent of the ALP and LNP/Coalition? Surely it can't get any worse than that.
AURELIUS | 09 July 2015

"Every lie, whatever its content, is in its essential nature a promotion of error with reference to the mendacious subject; for the lie consists in the fact that the liar conceals from the person to whom the idea is conveyed the true conception which he possesses. The specific nature of the lie is not exhausted in the fact that the person to whom the lie is told has a false conception of the fact. This is a detail in common with simple error. The additional trait is that the person deceived is held in misconception about the true intention of the person who tells the lie. Veracity and mendacity are thus of the most far-reaching significance for the relations of persons with each other. " Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies, 1906
John | 09 July 2015

Sorry John, I don't accept your rationalising of lies as being acceptable. This is perjury in ycourt! We humans have lost all sense of respect for each other. What hope do young people have, when the example of our leaders displays such contempt for the basic principles of life. Typically, the arrogance of the Catholic Church towards helpless, innocent children. We cannot keep excusing this appalling behaviour, particularly from supposedly educated people. As an ex catholic, who sees religions ruled by men as the root of the worlds problems!! I ask, how many nuns have been prosecuted for these rapes and abuse? They are guilty of know and doing nothing, but the fear of the dominant priests and bishops prevented any successful action. It's time women played a major role in guiding and leading man out of this hideous situation, and back to life with respect, humility and care of fellowman. Trish
Trish | 11 July 2015

How is breaking an election promise, not a lie? If a politician makes a solid commitment NOT to do something, and then DOES that very thing, it proves that he/she cannot be trusted.
Andrew | 11 August 2015

Try getting a job without it. Its as if everything is just BS. Glad the media expects a lot from sports people?
Mark | 12 April 2018


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