tony abbott
(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

This week we’ve been shedding light on the many different types of lies favoured by our politicians. In part one of this series, we explained the pants-on-fire lie, achievement hyperbole and the smear. In part two, we covered the blame-shifter lie, vilifying deceit and calculated misinformation.

Today, in our final instalment, we have four more examples. Plus, some brief reflections on what can be done about all this deceit.

7. ‘Core and non-core promises’: the dishonest pledge

John Howard’s infamous coinage to justify the breaking of his 1996 election promises has the same stunning oxymoronic quality as the “alternative fact”. 

The dishonest pledge is not strictly a lie because it has a future reference, but it nevertheless rates as one of the more egregious forms of political deception. This is because when the pledge is broken, the public come to suspect that there was never an intention to honour it in the first place.

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Keating found this out in dramatic style. His prime ministership never recovered from the reneging on his 1993 L.A.W. law tax cut pledge. And who could forget Abbott’s flagrant breaking of that string of pledges proclaimed on the eve of the 2013 election: “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no cuts to the ABC or SBS.”

In a further surreal moment, Abbott later explained to a stunned Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 what lay behind his policy-breaking habits. 

“The only statements by politicians that should be taken as gospel truth are the scripted ones,” he said.

This was a rare, even commendable, moment of truth telling from mad Tone, though hardly one to assist issues of growing public mistrust in politicians.  

It seems like the current prime minister has absorbed these past lessons. In the 2018 election, his solution to the perils of the campaign promise was to avoid making them altogether. Much better to substitute a policy platform for a parade of caps, footballs and daggy dad capers…

8. ‘No child will live in poverty under my government’: the hyperbolic future deceit

We will never know whether Hawke genuinely believed that this might happen, or whether it was just a cynically concocted line for a gullible public. The emotion with which the pronouncement was made at the time suggests the silver bodgie may actually have been deluded into thinking it could be so.

Politics now, however, is a much more calculated business. No one imagines for a moment that when similar grand predictions are made, there is any belief on the part of the predictor that such objectives might be achieved.  Think here of our climate change obligations and how, as the government line has it, they will not only be met, but come in at a canter!

9. ‘On-water matters’: silence as a lie  

Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, reflecting on the congenital suppression of information in the Soviet era, opined that “when truth is replaced by silence, the silence itself becomes a lie”. And, in an age of increasing authoritarianism, methods to silence debates and shut down public scrutiny are now pursued enthusiastically by governments of all persuasions.  

Our prime minster has become a master of such techniques. We are all familiar with the famous Morrison shutdowns designed to get out of talking about things we doesn’t want to talk about. This started with his “on-water matters” as immigration minister, and the question-killing flourishes have become more and more brazen as his fortunes (and hubris) have risen.

“That’s a bubble question”: about the damage done by the Turnbull ousting. “That’s gossip”: about the PM’s alleged efforts to get Hillsong leader Brian Houston invited to the White House dinner.

Even more insidious in recent times have been the silences created not by rhetorical means but judicial. Think of the manoeuvres of the Attorney-General to keep from the public the dark facts that lie behind the Witness K/Bernard Collaery and David McBride cases.

And in recent weeks, we have seen a new version of the lying silence. In the Brittany Higgins case, the very disturbing details surrounding this incident appear to have been systematically kept from prime ministerial ears — if indeed they were?

10. Gobbledygook

This final category is not technically about the telling of falsehoods. Rather it’s about using a language that makes it virtually impossible for the listener to work out what’s being said. We are thus unable to know whether what’s being proposed is a truth, a lie or something indeterminately between the two. 

In many instances, gobbledygook is a consequence of that hapless struggle all of us experience from time to time: when our words just don’t quite manage to say what we want them to say. In other cases, it can seem like an acquired technique, designed deliberately to obscure meaning and to prevent understanding.

The prime minister has become pretty adept at the latter form, as seen in his notorious response to questions about his office’s involvement in the sports rorts affair: “All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us.”

It is impossible to grasp the reality that this string of words describes.

What can be done?

Writing almost a century ago, the eminent US political commentator Walter Lippmann declared, “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.”

In the age of social media, as many of our information quality control mechanisms rapidly fall away, the challenges for our communities have perhaps never been greater. But what can be done?

There is a growing view that the established media could play a more responsible role. Bernard Keane, for example, is sure journalists could do a much better job of calling out our leaders’ lying ways. They should start, he says, with the reporting of the Prime Minister: “The record of lies is now long enough.”

The great concern, Keane suggests, is that too often the media “merely repeat what Morrison says without analysing it”. In this, they too are “party to the misleading of citizens”.