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Liar, liar, the bush is on fire

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Barnaby Joyce has received scathing criticism over insensitive comments he made about bushfire victims (Screenshots via YouTube - edited)

Has lying become the new normal for our elected officials? Dr Martin Hirst argues that events of this week prove it has.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

There’s an old joke about politicians and porkies and it goes like this:

Q: How can you tell if a politician is lying?

A: Their lips are moving.

Once upon a time, we could laugh at a corny joke like that because it was implicitly understood that most politicians were sometimes a little loose with the truth. We knew that they tended to exaggerate their good points and over-egg their opponents' alleged defects, but we could live with it.

Lying on this level was tolerable because we trusted most politicians to be honest when it came to the big stuff, like budgets and defence spending and taking us into a war halfway around the world.

There was a general acceptance that politicians were genuine, capable and straightforward. We might have voted for the other team, but the consensus was that whoever was in government would generally do a good job and look after the country. We believed in the quaint notion of national stewardship.

But that’s all changed

Lying is the new default position for many politicians. So much so that Scott Morrison has earned the nickname “Liar from the Shire”, at least on social media. Nobody in the MSM has yet had the courage to put this to his face or commit it to the page. We can no longer have an innocent laugh about the truth-defying qualities of our pollies.

In my view, Barnaby Joyce has this week hit the bottom of the lying barrel with a widely quoted statement, made initially on Sky News (of course), claiming that two victims of the fires on the NSW north coast were probably Greens voters:

“I acknowledge that the two people who died were most likely people who voted for the Green party so I am not going to start attacking them, that's the last thing I want to do.”

See what happened here? Joyce has learned the not-so-subtle art of indirect inference in order to cover his tracks. There is no way he would actually know how the fire victims – Vivian Chaplain and George Nole – actually voted but by couching his statement in terms of probability, he can essentially get away with it.

But, more importantly, there was a bigger, more sinister lie embedded in Joyce’s interview with Sky (which of course became a lead story in the rest of the MSM). He basically blamed the Greens for the lack of hazard reduction backburning over winter.

This alarming claim was, of course, quickly picked up by the Murdoch media and noted intellectual and New York-based columnist Miranda Devine was among the first (but not the last) to repeat this lie as fact and use it as the basis for an anti-Greens opinion piece.

Thankfully, The Guardian gave space to ecologist Graeme Redfearn to fact-check Barnaby’s claims and – surprise, surprise – they are false.

Of course they are. The Greens are not in a position nationally or at a State level to impose any anti backburn policy. Nor do they actually have an anti-hazard reduction policy in any council area where there is an overlap between them holding any power on council and where the fires occurred.

Barnaby’s goal was not to stick to the facts but to make an outrageous and half-credible claim and then let the sympathetic Greek chorus in the Murdoch media amplify and solidify the lie into something that susceptible voters are more likely to accept.

Where did the big lies come from?

We can be here all day debating when it changed, but I think we can agree there was one big lie that tipped the scales and it was the “weapons of mass destruction”, the WMDs of Iraq.

In 2003, the United States launched an invasion of Iraq based on the proposition that there were weapons of mass destruction – notably chemical weapons – that posed a threat to global security. Australian Prime Minister John Howard committed Australian forces to the invasion based on the American and British intelligence reporting.

We eventually found out that this was a hoax. There were no WMDs being stockpiled or built in Iraq. The intelligence briefings were phony and the political leaders most closely involved with the invasion decision – UK PM Tony Blair, George W Bush and John Howard – all knew that the documents were fake.

We were duped, but Blair, Bush and Howard got their invasion. The take-away lesson that they and other politicians learned was that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. To this day, John Howard has defended his decision and Australia’s role in the destruction of Iraq and Tony Blair has always stopped far short of admitting his deception.

The rot has truly set in

The Iraq war deception is my marker in the sand for when the decline set in and politicians began to feel that if the lie was big enough and it was propagated through uncritical mass media coverage, they could get away with it.

The WMD incident showed that if you stuck to the lie, repeated it and embellished as you went along, then it became believable. Fast forward to 2016 and this adage became the foundation for Donald Trump’s presidency.

We know Trump lies as a matter of course. He is most likely a narcissist and a sociopath and lying comes easy to him. Deceit is Trump’s modus operandi and his presidency is a testament to his deliberate mendacity.

As of a month ago, Donald Trump had made 13,435 ‘false or misleading’ statements at an average of 22 lies per day over 993 days in office. That is an astonishing fact. Trump lies about everything and anything.

We know about Trump’s incessant and pretty much automatic lying because newspapers like The Washington Post and fact-checking sites like Politifact are keeping track. They both have a team of reporters dedicated to checking every word that Trump utters in speeches, rallies, news conferences, on Twitter and in public appearances and they report their findings promptly.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent in Australia to keep our politicians honest. The closest we have to the U.S. Politifact operation is the RMIT/ABC Fact Check which is a collaboration between the ABC and journalism school at RMIT. There is also a small fact-checking team at The Conversation. It is telling and disturbing that these poorly-funded and essentially part-time outfits are our only sources for checking the veracity of political claims.

It is disappointing that none of the main commercial news providers, or even The Guardian, see fit to put resources into this kind of consistent fact-checking.

The lack of any real-time fact-checking in the Australian media means that political lies can travel a long way before anyone can debunk them. They circulate rapidly through media channels and get rinsed into some sort of approximate truth through repetition and uncritical amplification.

Let’s face it, we are hopelessly outgunned in the fight over political truth and we’re not helped by a largely complicit news media.

Liar, liar, the bush is on fire

Barnaby Joyce has perfected the not-quite-a-lie and he deploys it with ease and barely a twitch of his depleted conscience. He also knows there are few, if any, consequences for misrepresenting reality.

Each time the lie has been defended by his colleagues, including the leaders of both the Liberal and the National parties.

There is no real mystery as to why this is. Morrison is the “Liar from the Shire” because he has consistently misled us on a range of issues; from meeting our commitments to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris Agreement (we won’t) to whether or not his mentor Brian Houston was banned from the White House and how much money is being spent on drought relief.

Morrison’s whole election strategy was based on lies and this has become the Coalition’s default position. Morrison has made it okay for his senior colleagues to lie relentlessly and they do.

Unfortunately, apart from a few brave souls on Twitter, nobody is really keeping track. Like career criminals, they will keep doing it until they are caught and punished.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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