Peter Smith

Pants on fire

The Prime Minister disavowed the Greens’ agenda in a speech at the University of Western Sydney last week. Bob Brown later smiled wryly on TV and said he would have a word. Bedfellows having a tiff? It all had a stage managed look intentionally designed to create a false impression of a fiercely independent Labor government beholden to no-one, least of all the Greens.  

According to my dictionary a lie is an intentionally false statement; it includes presenting a false impression. The operative word in this definition is “intentionally”. Consider some famous misstatements to use that euphemism that appears to have taken hold in the United States.

In 1988 George H W Bush told people to “read my lips: no new taxes”. He raised taxes in 1990. Did he lie? Most fair minded people would say no. The situation evolved. He compromised with Congress. It was unfortunate but there is no basis for thinking that he deliberately misled people in 1988. Both George W Bush and Tony Blair have been accused of lying about there being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They were mistaken. However, at the time, so was most everybody else. There has been no compelling evidence that they lied.

Bob Hawke in 1987 pledged that no child would live in poverty by 1990. Foolish and utopian though it most certainly was; it did not bear the character of a lie. Prior to the 1993 elections, Keating emphasised that promised tax cuts were already L-A-W law. He repealed the law once elected. Misleading it might have been but did Keating deliberately hide his intention to repeal the tax cuts? Nothing compelling says that he did. Howard consigned the possibility of a GST to the dustbin in 1995 only to dust it off in 1998. Again, there is no reason to think Howard was duplicitous in1995; and he had the courage to go to the election in 1998 with a resuscitated GST. 

It is important to distinguish lies from changes of mind and mistakes. Bill Clinton provides a case study in lying to compare with much less egregious and woeful behaviour. It is worth looking again at the video recording of his denial of ever having “sexual relations with that woman”. It is such an emphatic bare-faced lie that it takes your breath away, even now.

Julia Gillard was characterised as “Ju-liar” by Alan Jones on his radio show because of her back flip on CO2 taxation. Placards carried this slur at a recent rally. Is it true, did she lie? Certainly, the reversal of her position on taxing CO2, after a so hard-fought and close election, calls into question the legitimacy of her victory. At the same time, it does not stretch credulity too far to accept that she had no intention of introducing the tax when she made her pre-election commitment. In which case, she did not lie about that. Unfortunately, this seems not to apply across the board.

With her, it is not so much bare-faced lying as slippery behaviour leaving false impressions. This is not a small thing in a prime minister and it would be a mistake to excuse it on the basis that politicians are prone to lying. Lying is more of a rarity than is imagined, once supposed cases are closely examined. Lying or, what comes to the same thing, deliberate deception, is a complete betrayal of trust and should never be brushed aside as par for the course; it isn’t.

The real lie in the CO2 tax affair is that Gillard is now giving the impression that the tax has been forced on her as a substitute for an ETS which she would have otherwise introduced but for the need to deal with the Greens. The problem here is that she went to the election with everything up in the air and in the hands of soon-to-be-established citizens’ assembly. She is not telling the truth and she has form.

She was accused of reneging on a deal with Rudd. Rather than simply denying or explaining it, she took refuge in confidentiality. She was asked whether she’d ever spoke to Rudd or the cabinet about the government “losing its way”; once again confidentiality came in handy to hide the blatantly obvious fact that she had never spoken about it. She denied saying in cabinet that “old people don’t vote Labor”. All of a sudden cabinet confidentiality went out the window and she left that disquieting impression of someone straying from the truth to save their skin. And then, rather than oppose paid maternity leave in cabinet she apparently (or so she told us) just applied that rigorous scrutiny that we would obviously expect from someone who presided over the BER.

Even Peter van Onselen in The Australian (“Excuse me miss, but the Prime Minister’s cheating”, 24 July, 2010) called into question her honesty in effectively claiming credit on the 7.30 Report for particular educational advances which were none of her doing. She didn’t think the ABC would notice the sleight of hand and she was right.

She left the impression that the replacement of the RSPT with her cobbled-together MRRT would reduce revenue by only $1.5 billion without telling us that Treasury had in the interim substantially increased projected resource prices. She let the Dili solution run as a concrete proposal until it came under scrutiny and then took refuge in the fine print of her announcement. Taking refuge in the shelter of confidentiality and false impressions seems to be a forte. This is not edifying behaviour for a prime minister. She must take us all for fools not just the ABC.

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