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The normalisation of lying in Australian politics

  • 06 July 2015

The 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