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Truth and lies and Angus Taylor

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Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, but today it is the first casualty of politics. This is a direct threat to our democratic norms, argues Dr Martin Hirst.

WAS THE AMERICAN writer Naomi Wolf in residence at Oxford University at the same time as the Australian Government Minister Angus Taylor?

Wolf is emphatic that she wasn’t and has several witnesses who attest to the fact that she was actually living in New York at the time Angus was rowing his way through a Rhodes Scholarship.

However, Taylor says she was there, living in the same dormitory as him, “a couple of doors down the corridor”, as he told Parliament in his maiden speech on 10 December 2013. In the relevant passage of his speech, Angus Taylor – then but a less-than-humble backbencher – went on to describe the heroic role he had played defending Christian honour in the annual “War on Christmas” that plays out in the distempered minds of mouthy conservatives.

Taylor said:

Several graduate students, mostly from the north-east of the U.S., decided we should abandon the Christmas tree in the common room because some people might be offended. I was astounded. My friends from Oklahoma, Alaska and Oregon explained this new kind of moral vanity that was taking hold in America. A few of us pushed back hard. In the end we won, because we were mainstream. But we must resist the insidious political correctness that would have us discard those core values that have made us great.

At the time, Taylor’s unremarkable speech went unremarked. He made the obligatory conservative “hail Marys” and disparaged “insidious political correctness”.

It was a speech that had been forgotten as plain, plodding and, ordinarily, we would be happy to let it lie. unneeded and unloved. At least until a week or so ago, when the passage was brought to Dr Wolf’s attention.

The text from the speech mentioning Naomi Wolf and Taylor fighting in the War on Christmas was used in a December 2014 profile of Taylor in the Australian Financial Review. In this piece, Wolf was clearly associated with the Americans who were battling the Christmas tree in the common room.

Taylor likely meant for this inference to be made. After all, Naomi Wolf is a prominent feminist and progressive — just the sort of person who, in Angus’ mind, would be against Christmas.

That he didn’t bother to correct the misapprehension when the profile came out seems to confirm this. But, of course, when his deception was called out, Angus started making all sorts of excuses.

There’s no space here to document them all, but one of Taylor’s hapless office staff had to endure a 30-minute grilling from Dr Wolf (above) which is well worth listening to.

Taylor’s totally out-gunned staffer was reduced to a gibbering wreck. Taylor himself took a giant dose of hubris and got up in Parliament demanding that Naomi Wolf should apologise to him for suggesting his remarks about her were anti-Semitic.

We have come out of the other side of the wormhole into a parallel universe.

As one Twitterist responded, we are having a 'truth crisis'. This is unfortunately true and it’s a crisis that means the very concept of a democratic public sphere is under threat.

To all intents and purposes, we are living in a world where the idea of truth-telling and honesty are no longer absolutes. We have reached a tipping point. The norms of liberal democracy no longer hold. Democracy is at risk on a global scale not seen since the dark days of the Third Reich.

The political lie is now a global problem

We are perhaps inured to the lies told in third-world dictatorships that keep despotic leaders in power long after their use-by date. But we don’t have to be concerned about those lies, told thousands of miles from where we live. The lies of a Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi or a Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, are mostly irrelevant to us.

We might pay a bit more attention to lies that can have some secondary or tertiary impact on us, or those affect countries that our news media chooses to pay more attention to. For example, the lies of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al Sisi may be more relevant to us, because we know more about the domestic political situation and regional implications of events and actions in these countries.

However, most of us can afford to ignore human rights abuses in other countries and have a cynical disregard for corruption in some parts of the world. After all, our mildly racist reasoning tells us, they are non-Western countries and don’t really understand the "rule of law" and all that.

Besides, following politics in distant parts of the globe actually takes a bit of effort. To have any clear understanding we have to go beyond what little – and largely superficial – reporting we see in the mainstream news media.

Nations outside of Australia’s (mostly white) sphere of global interest – the UK, the USA and then on a slightly lower tier, Canada, western Europe, Russia, China and Japan – are only of interest when there is something well out of the ordinary, like Donald Trump’s bizarre antics with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. We know him as “little Rocketman” thanks to Trump, but we know very little about what’s really going on inside North Korea.

Un figures on most of the lists identifying the world’s worst (best) dictators, so he is obviously a bad guy. In fact, Kim Jong-Un tops the Borgen Project’s list of "Top Eight" dictators, ahead of Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, but we should actually look at these lists with caution, as they tend to be developed with a pro-Western bias.

Take Venezuela, for example — its President, Nicolas Maduro, is number three on the Borgen list and this is the entry about him:

'Maduro has continued “chavismo,” the corrupt ideology of Chávez, which has destroyed the economy of Venezuela, causing drastic inflation, food and medicine shortages, high unemployment and economic reliance on oil.'

What this doesn’t tell you is that the United States has – for two or more years – been running an intelligence and terror operation to overthrow the Maduro Government. This has been reported in Independent Australia thanks to global investigative journalist, John Pilger, but it is not commonly covered in the mainstream news. Pilger describes the idea that Hugo Chavez and, now Nicolas Maduro, are vicious dictators a “lie”, and he is right to do so.

Just this week, the American Secretary of State and self-confessed liarMike Pompeo, announced even more economic sanctions against Venezuela. It is these sanctions that are crippling the economy, not the actions of the Venezuelan Government. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this as 'part of diplomatic efforts to push him to step down', not as an externally promoted coup.

You see, some lies are acceptable to journalists if they advance a particular agenda or fit into the narrative that they’ve pre-determined — in this case that Venezuela is a “threat”, not that Venezuela is “under threat”.

Obviously, the willingness to overlook the truth in reporting and in politics is even more of a concern when a similar disregard for the facts is allowed to overwhelm domestic politics.

Democracy under threat

Dictators tell lies; democratically elected leaders tell the truth. At least that used to be true. Donald Trump has single-handedly shifted the goalposts; Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison are gladly playing along with the new rules.

Our whole political culture is now totally compromised by the wholesale retelling of lies, misstatements, untruths and faulty recollections. A democracy cannot function if the basis of political communication is to see how many lies you can get away with.

Angus Taylor has a lot to answer for with all of the scandals he is now embroiled in. But he seems quite capable of ignoring them and even claiming the moral high ground as he did with Naomi Wolf. So far, senior Coalition members have lined up to defend Taylor and he seems impervious to any collateral damage from the mess(es) he’s created across his portfolio.

If Taylor mistakenly recalls Wolf being at Oxford in 1991 (she wasn’t), then he’s not actually lying, he is merely "misremembering". And given that his recollection is just a mental impression, there is no actual record to be corrected. Taylor believed it to be true in 2013 when the words were spoken during his first speech to Parliament and that, it seems, is enough to meet the very low threshold of honesty expected by his boss, the Prime Minister of Australia.

When we come to collate the history books of this period in 30 years’ time, we might see Scott Morrison's face adorning the list of the world’s worst (best) dictators.

How good would that be?

Martin Hirst is a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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