And then there were 28.
In January 2019, when asked on ABC Radio what his “number-one priority” was in terms of legislation — given the limited amount of parliamentary time before the coming election — Scott Morrison replied “we want to make sure that we continue the momentum we’ve had with the measures on national security… But there are a range of remaining items that have been outstanding on the legislative agenda for this year and we’re just going to make sure we take them through. There’s some environmental legislation to that end that I know is important for native species and a few other things like this.”
Only, Morrison was lying. There was no environmental legislation awaiting passage, let alone as the government’s top priority, and nothing to do with native species. When asked by Guardian Australia which bill he was referring to, Morrison’s office said he meant a bill adjusting the regulatory processes for agricultural and industrial chemicals.
Realising how stupid that looked, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) then changed its answer and said Morrison in fact was referring to the Industrial Chemicals Bill 2017, which banned animal testing for new cosmetic ingredients — something related neither to environmental laws nor native species.
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You can only imagine the frantic scrolling through bills before the Parliament by some flunky in the PMO, desperately looking for something relating to animals.
During the subsequent election campaign, when asked about what the government was doing, given a major UN report on mass extinction, Morrison claimed: “We already introduced and passed legislation through the Senate actually dealing with that very issue in the last week of the Parliament.”
Again, untrue. And this time, when asked to identify what legislation Morrison was referring to, the PMO simply refused to answer. The Industrial Chemicals Bill 2017 had been passed through Parliament long before the last sitting week before the 2019 election.
The incident — pointed out to Crikey yesterday by the Wilderness Society’s Tim Beshara — had all the hallmarks of what would become a pattern in Scott Morrison’s lying: the complete indifference to facts, however easily checked they are, the doubling down, and the refusal of his office to say anything when he has been caught out.
Morrison Lie number 17, for a total of 28 lies and falsehoods.
“Why so few? Surely they’re the tip of the iceberg,” was the tenor of the response from a number of readers and on social media yesterday.
Leaving aside more than two dozen verified untruths in less than three years as the nation’s leader not being exactly trivial, the reason they are “so few” is that we’ve applied a rigour to this process that is wholly absent to Scott Morrison’s style of political communication.
Morrison is, by traditional criteria, a poor liar. He doesn’t rely on casuistry or weasel words to give himself wriggle room. He doesn’t lie about obscure things that are hard to prove. He doesn’t tell particularly convincing lies. He just glibly comes out with blatantly false statements that are easily shown to be fictions. In short, he appears not to care about the truth — it’s as if something being true is neither here nor there for Scott Morrison when it comes to public discourse.
We don’t have the same luxury. And not, particularly, because of defamation laws, but because if, as we do, you start from the basis that politics and public policy needs a commitment to truth and evidence in public discourse, then calling out a politician’s lies requires displaying that commitment. As veteran journalist Dennis Atkins notes, we’ve applied rigour to the process of testing Morrison’s statements.
There are plenty of comments from Scott Morrison, and every other politician, that are half-true, or ignore key facts, or twist evidence. But they are the fiat currency of politics. We give them a pass. Morrison repeatedly saying that Labor’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 would push up prices and cost jobs — while state governments including conservative ones pursue similar commitments, and while reaping the plaudits of the press gallery for appearing to embrace such a target himself — could be argued to be a lie.
But in fact it’s standard political rhetoric of misrepresenting your opponent and their policies. To start labelling such statements as “lies” would be, to use Michael Herr’s line in Apocalypse Now, like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
As we’ve sought to display in this series, Morrison goes far beyond this. Far beyond where other politicians go, and particularly other prime ministers have gone in the past. Morrison is different not merely in degree, but in kind. Unfortunately, the media has mostly overlooked this core difference.
Even when Crikey did the hard yakka of assembling the quotes and the evidence, other media outlets ignored the extensive evidence that the prime minister is a habitual liar. And only The Guardian has diligently pursued some of the lies we’ve catalogued, pushing the PMO for answers, pointing out the contradictions, refusing to accept Morrison’s glib dismissals.
For everyone else, Morrison’s incessant lying is business as usual. Which, inevitably, it will become.