(Image: Megan Herbert)

Crikey initially planned the Dossier of Lies and Falsehoods for March 2020. Then the pandemic hit and the publication decided it was a bad idea to call the prime minister a liar during a time of national crisis.

Then came 2021, and the challenges facing Scott Morrison and his government broadened to include the Brittany Higgins saga and the vaccine rollout disasters and, as we’ve learnt, when Morrison is under pressure his lies and falsehoods multiply. And so by May the project was ready to be revived.

Little did we know what was to come.

After French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that he doesn’t “think”, he “knows” Morrison lied to him, the dam seemed to break. Malcolm Turnbull told journalists at COP26 that Morrison had “lied to me on many occasions … Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”

Labor got in on the act, with Chris Bowen telling Insiders: “We know Scott Morrison is a liar.” The rest of the media caught on and questions about the PM’s relationship with the truth have become commonplace.

Now Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane has expanded Crikey‘s list into a book. He joined host Janine Perrett and Dr Simon Longstaff* of the Ethics Centre at last night’s Crikey Talks event to discuss the book and the culture that made it necessary.

Morrison, Keane said, is an unusual liar, even for a politician: “Most politicians tend to tell lies about their opponents, or their policies. Morrison is much more likely to lie about himself and his own behaviour.”

He dismissed the idea that Morrison actually believes what he said: “The guy is too smart and too self-interested to do that.”

Longstaff said that the “callous indifference for the truth” had led to a widespread cynicism that “eats away at the bonds of society like acid”.

“You simply cannot have informed consent [from the electorate] if it’s based on a falsehood,” he said. “We spend a lot of time talking about technical infrastructure … but there’s also a kind of ethical infrastructure that a democracy needs to have. The media, particularly journalists, need to relentlessly care about the truth.”

The role of the media in propagating political lies was a recurring theme.

Keane said it was partly due to a tension between the roles a journalist can fulfil: “A lot of journalists say their job is to report what is happening — so X says Y. But now there’s a tension between that traditional journalism and the demands audiences have for something more stringent in applying the truth.”

Looking internationally, Keane noted that lying was no longer seen as “any kind of negative” for politicians, but either a positive — as it was for supporters of Donald Trump — or a “charming feature of their political personality”, as it is for supporters of Boris Johnson.

This atmosphere developed, Keane said, in the aftermath of two events: the lies around the Iraq War, and the collapse of the global financial system. This bred a cynicism and indifference that had been accelerated by the outrage economy and echo chambers of social media.

So what hope is there?

Keane and Longstaff noted the reluctance of oppositions to effectively call out lying given the same accusation can so easily be levelled at them. (Mediscare, anyone?) Thus a huge responsibility falls on the shoulders of voters.

“Progressive voters may dislike Scott Morrison and his lies and may cheer when they’re called out, but what is their attitude towards lies and falsehoods from leaders on their own side?” Keane said. “And if you’re not prepared to aggressively call out the lies of the people you support, it really does undermine your case against the lies of the people you oppose.”

Keane conceded that he was slightly despairing about the possibility of reversing the trend towards callous indifference to the truth.

“I can’t see things improving unless people are willing to start connecting with their communities, making those connections directly, and try to rebuild politics from the ground up,” he said. “And that’s a long-term endeavour.”

Longstaff was more hopeful.

“One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that we should trust the Australian people — they are a lot smarter than even their leaders give them credit for,” he said. “Provided someone steps up and has a conversation with the Australian people about the kind of society we could be, I reckon they would grab it with both hands.”

*The list of attendees would be incomplete without mentioning Kenny the greyhound who spent the entire event lying (on the couch behind Bernard).