When the truth is inconvenient: how lying allows politicians to propser

Nov 27, 2021
Scott Morrison and Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron accused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying about the submarines deal. (Image: EPA/Yoan Valat)

The truth is becoming increasingly unimportant in our politics and Parliament — and this bodes ill for civilised society and the survival of democracy. 

An increasing number of journalists enabled by their media ownership are focusing on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s penchant to lie. However, lying has been a long-time bedfellow of politics, although in the past political lies were predominantly about the opposition. This modern phenomena finds politicians lying about their own behaviour. His efforts to manipulate his own history and image have brought into full view Morrison’s natural reflex to lie his way through whatever crisis he faces. Why does he continue this practice despite such exposure?

It is obvious that lying works, particularly in the short-term phase of an election. Our recent history of election campaigns is littered with successful lies including children overboard, weapons of mass destruction, the imposition of death duties. And after success in an election most campaign pledges become redundant as they were not “core” promises.

There are plenty of examples of how effective lying has been for leaders in comparable democracies. Donald Trump is the obvious benchmark with a recorded 30,537 documented lies during his presidency as compiled by The Washington Post. As his approval began to fall the lies became increasingly outrageous, culminating in his magnum opus: the election was stolen! A lesser devotee to lying but just as sinister is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has recorded 10 lies in Parliament, an institution where traditionally if you misled the House it required an immediate resignation.

This departure from the requirement never to mislead in a Westminster-style Parliament has allowed Morrison to do what he appears to do best — lie and mislead. Crikey has documented 43 lies and falsehoods yet our prime minister has never contemplated following the honoured tradition and resigning, nor has he demanded the resignation of his fellow liars.

To successfully adopt the practice of continual lying requires training; it is something learned in early childhood. Small children lie for lots of reasons, the most obvious being to avoid unpleasant consequences for their mistakes. They may also inflate their abilities to be accepted in a group or, more rarely, discount their talents for the same purpose. The reason for the lie is always to bestow an advantage for the liar.

However, when people act to deceive and lie, they run the risk of being rejected and this is potentially very frightening. This feeling of fear is generated by the amygdala, the part of the brain that prepares the body to defend against potential attack; there is a natural fear response. This initially makes lying an unpleasant experience for a child. If, however, there are repeatedly no consequences of rejection and the lies are  not exposed, the amygdala will stop being activated and the child no longer experiences fear when telling untruths. Lying becomes a comfortable behaviour and a useful tool to gain a personal advantage.

Another psychological outcome of continued lying without unpleasant consequences is that it becomes an automatic reaction when we are caught out “doing the wrong thing”. Because the result is always the same — no rejection, no punishment — there is no reason not to lie so it becomes a winning manoeuvre. Any successful behaviour that is repeated enough becomes instinctive, because the brain likes efficiency. The effectiveness of lying allows it to become what is known as a procedural memory: when you’re in trouble you don’t even think about what you should do, you just lie!

It must be kept in mind we are not talking about compulsive liars. Compulsive liars do so without any need for an advantage. Psychologists are not sure whether these people are suffering a mental illness or not. The lies that some of our politicians use always have an advantage attached to them but they can appear to be compulsive!

However, lying is not a standalone activity: to perpetuate the lie requires a certain psychological persona in what becomes a supporting cast. Powerful people will support the lie and Morrison has some very powerful co-conspirators. They give this support because the lie gives them an advantage in the acquisition and consolidation of their wealth. There are many who have good reason to invest in the lie. The result is the emergence of supportive, sophisticated interrelational lying groups.

Foremost among these interrelated lying groups is the media. In Australia most of the more popular media outlets are privately owned and work for profit. At the base level, their income is generated by the selling of advertising space, and owners are conscious of the opinions of those who buy their space and so they report what profits their clients. A prime example of where truth is not considered important is talkback radio. Prominent spruikers who attract a large audience will attract a greater revenue stream for the owners. These “tonsils for sale” know where the money comes from and so they give their audience a simple, digestible view of politics that avoids unpleasant truths. In rare cases these spruikers go too far and companies withdraw their sponsorship from the station. If this happens on a significant scale the media company will drop the presenter.

These presenters have become so important that politicians are always willing to be guests on their shows, where they have the opportunity to reinforce their “message”. Along with this access, there is an unspoken understanding that if a media outlet gives complimentary coverage to a political party , it can expect favourable consideration when the media landscape is regulated. Australia has one of the most concentrated levels of media ownership in the Western world and those few wealthy individuals who control the outlets significantly influence the political story.

Business, the inevitable beneficiary of political lies, doesn’t just rely on the media for support. Across Australia there are over 45 so-called think tanks that exist to promote particular viewpoints. These organisations, generally either directly or indirectly funded by big business, are represented by self-proclaimed experts in a particular field. They produce reports and press releases to support their views and establish an image of authority. These “experts” are a convenient source of knowledgeable guests for the media and they distribute well-written opinionated press releases that are easily modified for publication in lazy newsrooms. Allied to these are an army of more than 11,894 registered lobbyists whose only job is to represent a vested interest to the politicians.

Finally, a lie requires an accommodating audience that supports the lie and allows the politician to prosper. These are folk who understand simple messages. At a fundamental level the organisation of a modern society is complex and confusing and when some people try to understand this complexity they become confused and stressed. However, if a lie provides a simplistic “solution” to the problem that does not impact on an individual’s prosperity, it is easily embraced as being the truth. Examples of the potency of these lies is well known to lying politicians. Just look at the statements coming out of the COP26 climate conference. Morrison’s statement that “we have a balanced plan to achieve net zero by 2050, but we’re not going to make rural and regional Australians pay for that” satisfies both criteria for adoption by this simple reassurance. This statement claims there will be no impact on our health and security through global warming, and coal mines will continue to thrive in rural areas. It is also designed to alleviate the fear generated by an imagined threat to reduce cattle farming in order to lower the carbon footprint. This invented statement provides comfort to those who refuse to accept the reality we are facing.

This results in a clear line of dispute between those who want to address the difficulties we are facing and want the government to take action and those who deny those difficulties even exist. This conflicting perception gives rise to the emergence of competing tribes, a phenomena that has been most powerfully illustrated in the US.

Trump’s big lie, that the election was stolen, divided the nation to the extent that an angry mob attempted to overthrow an elected government in the Capitol Hill riots. No matter how often the truth is offered to these “believers”, they will not change their point of view and ultimately this lie had the potential to undermine their democracy. To these demonstrators the truth and all the so-called proof are the lie and evidence is not a consideration. The recent demonstrations in Melbourne displayed a troubling similarity.

The complexity of any definition of truth must take into account the environment in which it is applied. Truth should be connected to fact or reality that provides certainty. However, truth becomes very elusive in a political context. But if we want democracy to survive, we must have a definition of truth, there must be something we can agree on. We need a type of social truth that supports the concept of a shared public knowledge; a set of circumstances where we can agree on what has happened, what it looks like and how it affects us. This doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but we must have a shared basic understanding of what causes what!

At the National Press Club recently, Paul Keating stated that the challenge for the US was to re-moralise its social system, and this challenge applies equally to us. A good start would be demanding the resignation for those who mislead Parliament, establishing independent anti-corruption bodies and increasing the diversity in media ownership. We need to provide the truth in a way that allows all citizens to discuss approaches to problems instead of fighting over whether the problem exists!

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