Is Australia run by compulsive liars?

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Categorising and counting the false statements by Australian leaders over the decades reveals the Liberals have far higher numbers of lies than other parties, writes Alan Austin, who considers honesty in Australian politics.

Part One: When is a porky a sackable offence?

Two new whoppers were added to the list of the Abbott Government’s broken promises and blatant lies this week.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull welched on his pledge to deliver the national broadband network by 2016. And Tony Abbott lied about the Queen having amended the letters patent regarding royal gongs.

In other Westminster democracies – and in Australia, in more honourable times – these offending ministers would be sacked.

If a minister has lied once, how can he or she be trusted not to deceive again?

One major obstacle in Australia to preventing the porkies is confusion over when a statement which is proven false is an acceptable outcome of realpolitik and when it is a malicious lie.

Another obstacle is the view that all politicians, all parties are tarred with the same brush — they are all hypocrites and liars.

The latter is not the case. Evidence shows overwhelmingly that one party in Australia is a serial offender, while the others are quite surprisingly innocent.

But to address this second confusion, the first requires clarification.

There would seem six categories of statements made by politicians – and we will focus here on leaders – which require differentiation.

In order of moral culpability, from the least to the greatest, they can be classed as follows:

Class A: Aspirational commitments

These are broad brush expressions of the leader’s hopes and dreams.

Classics are Bob Hawke’s

“... by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty.”

Then there was Kevin Rudd’s pre-PM determination to

“... ease cost of living pressure for families."

The extent to which those were fulfilled is a matter of opinion rather than conclusive data.

Class B: Genuine promises thwarted by uncontrollable events.

Commitments are frequently stymied despite the government’s best efforts — by a hostile Senate, the High Court, a hung parliament or unforeseen economic events.

Malcolm Fraser had to abandon several genuine promises to improve services when successive budgets turned out disastrously.

Kevin Rudd, in 2007, pledged to introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS), claiming climate change was

“... the greatest moral challenge of our time."

Within weeks, however, the global financial crisis devastated the developing world. The ETS and other promises had to be shelved.

Then there’s Julia Gillard’s notorious pledge in August 2010:

“There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”

Alas, democracy intervened and delivered the hapless PM a minority government. The price of staying was abandoning her promised ETS in favour of what she later described as a carbon tax (in fact, a fixed price on carbon for major polluters).

Class C: Promises abandoned with no pressure to do so

The classic was John Howard’s “No GST, never ever”, which he signalled in the aftermath of the 1995 election defeat. Later, with no-one forcing the about-face, he made the GST a plank in the Coalition’s 1998 election platform.

Earlier, Paul Keating’s L-A-W-law tax cuts, promised before the 1993 election, were abandoned and the money diverted to superannuation. Those were tough times, but there had been no sudden change of economic fortunes — so is this class B or class C?

A more recent example was Julia Gillard dudding independent Andrew Wilkie in 2012 over pokies reform.

There are few others from the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd period.

More recently still, a world record in this category has been set by Australia’s Abbott Government.

At the 150 day mark, 25 specific commitments had been broken — one every six days. That rate has almost been maintained since with promises broken on the NBN, knighthoods, Aboriginal land rights, trades training and emissions targets.

With a clear majority in the lower house, a sound economy and a solid mandate, most of these are without excuse. Most promises were made by Abbott himself.

A class C broken promise may, of course, be ratified by an election.

If this succeeds, as indeed happened with Howard and the GST — then it should become less offensive.

Say class C+.

Class D: Stupid promises that should never have been made in the first place

Among Abbott’s twenty-five or so personal broken promises so far, several fit this category.

They include:

Class E: Statements made in good faith which turn out to be untrue

Kevin Rudd was pinged by fact checkers at The Conversation for this “false” claim at a press conference last August:

“Mr Murdoch is entitled to his own view… he owns 70% of the newspapers in this country.”

Perhaps they were desperate to find something a Labor person had got wrong to balance their ledger. But this seems picky. The Murdoch organisation itself – which distributes about 70% of capital city dailies – has been spruiking its “70% of the market” shamelessly for years.

Similarly, Tony Abbott was found to be “incorrect” by ABC fact checkers over this last in October:

“From time immemorial, in every culture that’s been known, marriage or that kind of solemnised relationship has been between a man and a woman.”

Okay, technically not true. But given what is taught and understood in societies with a Judeo-Christian heritage, he would, no doubt, have believed what he said was true.

A sub-category here is dopey errors of fact made on the run, but which were clearly not intended to deceive.

In a televised debate last August PM Rudd accused Abbott of cutting $1 billion in hospital funding when he was health minister.

The cut happened — but just before Abbott took over as health minister from Kay Patterson.

Abbott did not restore the funds.

Class F: Blatant lies

F for fail. F for fraud.

These are knowingly false statements made with the deliberate intention to deceive.

A modern classic is pilloried hilariously here.

Abbott had visited Cardinal Pell. He didn’t want to be quizzed about it — so he simply lied.

But is this really a joking matter? There was a strong feeling when this happened that this was such a moral failing – to lie bare-faced to the camera – that Abbott was finished as a leadership contender.

That was six years ago. How times have changed.

This leaves one special class which is tricky to categorise:

“The leader of the party has my full and unqualified support.”

Assurances of loyalty to the leader by front benchers perhaps deserve a special category. Say, class I. (I for inevitable? Inbuilt? Inavoidable? ) They seem an inherent part of democracies with a firm tradition of cabinet solidarity. So should they count as lies when the leadership challenge eventuates? Awkward.

Categorising and counting the false statements by Australian leaders over the decades reveals some surprises. The Liberals have far higher numbers than other parties. Among prime ministers, Gillard’s numbers are lowest of all.

So why was she, more than any PM in living memory, pilloried as “Juliar”?

Early in the 2013 campaign, an editor asked a journalist to research the blatant malicious lies – Class F – by party leaders since 2007: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Bob Brown, Christine Milne and Warren Truss.

The journo reported back two disturbing findings.

First, the number was actually quite high – more than twelve – higher than either had expected.

And secondly — they were all from just the one leader. None from any of the others.

Does that sound believable?

Needless to say, the story was spiked lest the journal be accused of horrendous political bias. But it might see the light of day.

Meanwhile, readers are welcome to post evidence of blatant lies in the discussion following — in the interests of honesty in politics.

Coming soon: Is Australia run by compulsive liars? Part two: the greatest liar of them all. Follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing

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John Graham's art is available for purchase by emailing editor@independentaustralia.net. See a gallery of John's political art on his Cartoons and Caricatures Facebook page.

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