Liar, liar pants on fire

Aug 20, 2021

It is commonly believed if you are going to consistently tell lies you need either a good memory or a hide like a rhinoceros. These days neither seems to be necessary.

Scott Morrison fails the first qualification, comfortably fits into the second while, fittingly for  a fundamentalist God-botherer simply believes what he says or thinks it serves a higher purpose.

His recent attempts to deny his comments about Labor policy on EVs are in a class of their own. Rather than denying what he said, which would be an outright lie, he accuses his accuser of misunderstanding what he plainly said and justifies his evasion in a way even that a medieval scholastic would be embarrassed about.

It is all reminiscent of a Jonathan Swift pamphlet which, consistent with the subject of lying, may be attributable to him; may have been by someone claiming to be him; or may have been written by someone else altogether.

Sticking to the Swift attribution though, he wrote: “There is one essential point wherein a political liar differs from others of the faculty, that he ought to have but a short memory, which is necessary according to the various occasions he meets with every hour differing from himself, and swearing to both sides of a contradiction, as he finds the persons disposed with whom he hath to deal.”

Swift said his thoughts on the subject stemmed from observing the practice of a great man of 20 years “reputation as the most skilful head of England for the management of his nice affairs.”

“The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else, but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered, whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company, to affirm or deny it.”

The man Swift was referring to was the 1st Duke of Wharton, a Jacobite, who was ironically the son of the 1st Marquess of Wharton known as “Honest Tom”. Many other 18th century statesmen could have fit the bill equally well. But he might as well have been referring to Scott Morrison.

 

Recently Bernard Keane said: “It’s now an established rule of Australian politics that when Scott Morrison is under pressure he tells more lies and falsehoods”. He then proceeded to put together a dossier of 35 of them. That was back in early August thus leaving plenty of time since to add to the total. No doubt the list was also incomplete.

Keane covered just some of the best-known lies including those about the Brittany Hughes case, vessels off Port Botany, vaccine claims, ALP policy on Israel, sports rorts, emissions reductions, the Brian Houston White House dinner invitation and funding for fire and emergency services.

In his new book, Liars, Cass Sunstein looks at lies and falsehoods from a different perspective: why they spread so rapidly: and, what sort of policies and laws we might need to alleviate the problem.

Sunstein, as a legal scholar, focuses on the situation in the US and points to the 2013 Supreme Court case US v Alvarez which held that freedom of speech covers not just truth, opinion and mistakes but also outright lies.

Thus, Donald Trump and his supporter’s claims about the 2020 election being stolen are free speech and protected. Nevertheless, inciting an election official to change an election result is a crime.

Sunstein argues that free societies must generally allow falsehoods and lies and that they should not be banned from democratic debate. In contrast, he argues that governments should be able to regulate falsehoods which genuinely endanger health, safety, and the capacity of the public to govern itself.

He also suggests Facebook and Twitter and others could do more particularly where lies threaten public health. We all wait hopefully for that happening in any meaningful way.

All in all Sunstein’s book is about all sorts of uniquely US assumptions about what is possible in constraining lies and falsehoods. Interesting enough in its own right but the legal framework is not as relevant to us as the example Trump and others have set and been copied by Australian politicians.

The bigger problem for Australia is this Trump example and the way lies are used to underpin policies, political prejudices or poor political performance. These include the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; the claim that Afghanistan had to be invaded to get rid of a sanctuary for terrorists; the lie that we will meet emissions targets ‘in a canter’; the lies about sports rorts, car parks and bushfire compensation; and, all the others Bernard Keane listed.

Most recently the Prime Minister lied to Parliament about Anthony Albanese having made an appointment to talk with the new vaccine rollout head, Lt  General Frewen.

Once a PM who lied so blatantly would be remorseful and possibly apologise. Instead, all that happened was that the Speaker, consistent with parliamentary procedures, required Albanese to withdraw when he called Morrison a liar.

Which all goes to prove we live in a system where telling the truth leaves you with the choice of being thrown out of Parliament or withdrawing.

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