Truth versus lies — the new political divide?

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With the 2012 U.S. election campaign now highlighting truth vs falsehood, perhaps this may become a focus in Australia in 2013, writes Alan Austin.

U.S. vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan: failed by the fact checkers.

THE MEDIA in the United States has responded with astonishing unanimity to last week’s bizarre speech by Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Even Fox News – cheer squad for the Republican Party – has a headline “Paul Ryan’s speech in 3 words”.

The three words, claims the article, are ‘dazzling’, ‘deceiving’ and ‘distracting’.

Influential website Politiscoop then observed:
“The bottom line is this: When Fox News fact checks you and calls you out for being a liar, then yes, your attempt at winning over America was an epic fail.”

This has brought into high relief the split in the United States evident in Australia for some time — between those in public life who are regarded as truthful and those who are not.

Could this be the new political divide? Could this replace the old conservative versus reformist? Left versus right? Capitalist versus socialist?

Certainly left and right no longer have the meaning they once had. Malcolm Fraser was characterised as a right-wing extremist when he assumed power as Prime Minister of Australia in historic circumstances in 1975. He is now a doyen of the left with his outspoken criticisms today’s conservatism – on both sides of the Parliament – on Indigenous affairs, refugees and overseas aid. Actually, Fraser has actually not changed his position much at all.

In the US, recent Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have arguably been to the right of earlier Republicans, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.

Would it be a positive move in public life if truth versus falsehood did replace the old dichotomies?

A case can certainly be made that civic life is the poorer for having people in positions of power who routinely dissemble and lie. Especially when bolstered by influential media which repeat and amplify the fabrications.

The specific lies told by vice-presidential candidate Ryan in his speech at the Republican convention in Florida are listed in The Washington Post in the column headed “Paul Ryan’s breathtakingly dishonest speech”.

These follow claims that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is himself routinely economical with the truth. Alternative news outlet Mother Jones highlighted this with the article “Mitt Romney sure does lie a lot, doesn't he?”

Incumbent President Barack Obama, in contrast, is generally depicted as a politician who tells the truth. Will this distinction between the two sides be a factor with the voters in November? Time will tell.

The difference in the way the two sides are characterised on this issue in the US is challenging the old cliché “all politicians lie”.

Certainly, Australia can boast many prominent leaders who have been widely respected for their truthfulness. Can anyone recall a direct lie from John Hewson, Tim Fischer, John Anderson, Simon Crean, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Bob Brown, Kevin Rudd or Warren Truss — to name just nine past or present party leaders?

Yes, perhaps a few changes of position and unfulfilled promises from some of them — but not direct lies.

Of course, Australia has its offenders as well. It was a Senator from his own side who labelled former Prime Minister John Howard “the Lying Rodent”. This followed a period when several assertions from the then PM were shown not to have been truthful.

The current Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been characterised in social networks and some sections of the mainstream media as “Ju-liar”.

This seems to be based primarily on a broken promise made in the run-up to the 2010 election:

“There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead …”

Whether or not there are excuses for this based on the election outcome – which did not deliver a Labor majority – is a hotly-contested debate.

The Opposition Leader has his own struggles in this area, as are now well-documented. In 2008, he appears to have lied point blank to ABC Lateline’s Tony Jones in response to a question about a meeting with Cardinal George Pell.

Later, he changed his own position on carbon emissions from what was once clearly in favour of “a simple carbon tax”:


Mr Abbott’s struggles with the truth were discussed at some length in a memorable interview with Kerrie O’Brien in May 2010:

Yet they have continued. Just last week, veteran journalist Laurie Oakes in the Herald Sun commenced his column with the withering opener: “Let's not beat about the bush. Tony Abbott tells lies.

Will this pattern harm the electoral appeal of the Opposition Leader? Will it impact his appeal as party leader to his parliamentary party colleagues? Will the perception that the Prime Minister has lied to the electorate cost her and her party the next election?

With the 2012 election in the US now highlighting truth vs falsehood, perhaps this may be a focus in Australia in 2013. We shall soon see.

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