The best spin I’ve seen about Tony Abbott’s disastrous 7.30 Report interview is the fact he’s willing to admit he lies reflects a commendable honesty, much better than most politicians who lie without ever acknowledging it. Abbott has boldly broken down the fourth wall of politics, turning to the audience and pointed out that he’s just working to a script, not actually saying what he means.
In short, Abbott is authentic and honest because he admits you can’t believe him. Nice.
The “all politicians lie” theme is a distraction — especially given Abbott’s claim a script is a guarantee he’s not lying hardly stands up to the reality that politicians deceive a whole lot more when making speeches than when answering questions. All politicians might lie, but prime ministers are held to a different standard. Like treasurers, their words have to be carefully chosen. They speak with the authority of national leadership, and their words have impact — economic and financial impact, for starters, but impact even beyond that. The idea that any words not uttered in the course of a scripted speech — does that include ad libs in speeches? — come with an asterisk can’t apply in that role.
But Abbott’s more pointed problem is that twice in the space of four days he has been subjected to mild pressure by journalists and both times he has lost control. Talking on Friday with Neil Mitchell about being rolled by shadow Cabinet over his handout to stay-at-home mums should have elicited “I don’t discuss what happens in shadow Cabinet” — a legitimate answer at which he eventually arrived — but instead he ummed and ahhed and said yes, and no, and maybe.
And when grilled by O’Brien on the juxtaposition between insisting he’d have no new taxes, and his paid parental leave levy, instead of emphasising the temporary nature of the levy and the long-term benefits to business of lifting the participation rate and the need for it because Labor had sent the Budget into deep deficit, he decided to confess that when he’s pressured in interviews, sometimes he says things that aren’t true, or goes too far in his statements.
Dead set, Tony? We’d never have guessed.
Getting carried away in the heat of the moment was also Abbott’s explanation for why he didn’t really mean it when he described climate change science as “crap”, although his climate action policy seems to suggest he was being pretty honest.
What would Abbott be like representing Australia in international negotiations? What would he be like dealing with business? It’s not only the media that subjects political leaders to pressure.
The other issue is that there is long-term context to Abbott’s remarks. In my follow-up piece today, I refer to John Howard’s remarkable capacity to backflip on beliefs he’d held for decades, but still be perceived by voters as a bloke who stood for what he believed in. I was going to include Abbott in that, as one who had learnt well from his mentor. But the difference is that while most of Howard’s back flips took place over a period of years, Abbott’s take place over weeks, as if by being younger and subject to an ever-faster media cycle, Abbott had accelerated the process. While he took several years to change his mind on parental leave, his reversal from dogged advocate of the Malcolm Turnbull ETS strategy to die-hard opponent happened over a matter of months, and his no-new-taxes promise barely last a few weeks.
But Abbott also has long-term form in struggling with the truth in interviews. In 1998, he — commendably — undertook a personal mission to destroy One Nation, partly by funding a disgruntled member, Terry Sharples, in legal action. Trouble was, he later denied to the ABC ever funding Sharples — a blatant lie he was sprung on in 2003. Then there was his curious denial of meeting George Pell during the 2004 election campaign, until Tony Jones jogged his memory and Abbott suddenly recalled that he’d met him the previous week.
Other Abbott credibility gaps haven’t been his fault — such as when his “rolled gold” Medicare safety net election promise was overruled by Cabinet (which would appear to disprove the idea that scripted remarks will always be honoured).
But the impression remains: when put on the spot by the media, Abbott makes stuff up to get himself out of trouble. Stuff that eventually gets found out.
Maybe we’re all so jaded and post-modern now it no longer matters to us. In which case, we should stop lamenting about how “all politicians lie” and look at ourselves instead.