Lies, damn lies and politics: restraining political porkies

Flying-PigsTo an even greater extent than previous election campaigns, this one seems to consist almost entirely of lies and grossly misleading mischaracterisations of opponents’ policies and performance. Kevin Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion Coalition black hole, his claim that Abbott has a secret plan to increase the GST, Abbott’s long-standing claim  of Labor debt and deficit (when in fact our debt is quite low by OECD standards and our economy one of the strongest in the world), and so it goes on. Rudd’s attempt a couple of days ago to justify his ridiculous Northern Territory Special Economic Zone policy by asserting that Territorians are doing it tough and don’t have a level playing field, when in fact almost the opposite is the case, is a relatively minor but amusing example of the political porky phenomenon.

Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes wrote an interesting article on Fairfax yesterday in which he drew attention to the relatively new phenomenon of “fact check” organisations (mostly associated with mainstream media groups) dedicated to uncovering and analysing political lies and distortions. Of course, Holmes’ former TV vehicle Media Watch, and another ABC program Gruen Nation, have also fulfilled that function to some extent over a considerable period of time.  But PolitiFact (associated with Channel 7), ABC FactCheck and a similar service now run by the G8 universities’ site The Conversation, have a specialist focus on uncovering and analysing political lies. They certainly have their hands full during the current campaign.

This is a welcome development, at least if you accept that the truth might be a useful thing to know when exercising our democratic choice at election time. Nevertheless, as Holmes points out:

But the campaigns will go on using their talking points, because they’ve been honed to cut through to the voters who decide Australian elections – people who the mastermind of the Kevin 07 campaign, ad man Neil Lawrence, described recently as ”disengaged and hard to get to”.

Ironically, that description was fact-checked on The Conversation website in July by political scientist Sally Young of Melbourne University. She finds it is accurate. She quotes an internal Labor report from the 1980s that described swinging voters as ”basically ignorant and indifferent about politics. They vote on instinct for superficial, ill-informed and generally selfish reasons.”

Nothing has changed since then, writes Dr Young, except that in the digital age these people are harder to reach than ever.

They may well prefer their Facebook pages to the Daily Telegraph/ Herald Sun. But very few swinging voters will be poring over PolitiFact.com.au, or The Conversation, or the ABC’s FactCheck website.

So the simplifications and exaggerations, the three-word slogans and the outright lies will keep on coming.

Our politicians have always had a bipartisan determination to resist the imposition on them of the rules of honest communication that apply to everyone else …

However, Holmes’s conclusion  conntains an implicit assumption that the law will never be changed to outlaw misleading and deceptive conduct in political advertising and marketing, in the same way that such conduct is prohibited generally in trade and commerce. Our politicians have always had a bipartisan determination to resist the imposition on them of the rules of honest communication that apply to everyone else, and they have some points in their favour. Nevertheless, the unremitting porky avalanche of the current campaign surely indicates that something serious needs to be done if Australian democracy is to avoid degenerating into nothing more than a contest about who can tell the most lies and get away with them with the biggest proportion of ignorant voters.

I wrote about the need for extension of misleading and deceptive conduct laws to the political arena last year, but my suggestion generated very little debate and sank without trace. No doubt Troppo readers concluded  reasonably that such a policy has very little chance of ever being adopted. It certainly doesn’t suit the major political parties, nor harried journalists working on a tight deadline, nor their editors who need to fill  vast quantities of pages and pixels with enough content to satisfy the voracious 24-hour media cycle. What better way to achieve this cheaply and painlessly than uncritical coverage of the endless parade of political spin and counter-spin?

However, you would think there might be some enthusiasm for the concept from Independents and minor parties like the Greens or Katter mob. Some combination of them will certainly hold the balance of power in the Senate after the election unless Labor’s two party preferred vote descends significantly further than currently seems likely. There might even be a hung Parliament, although I doubt it.

The problem is that no concerted movement to impose prohibitions on misleading and deceptive conduct on political advertising is going to occur unless some reasonably influential organisation/s  sponsor it. How about The Conversation? Or Crikey and other alternative online outlets like Matilda?  What about think tanks like the Lowy Foundation?((I thought about mentioning the IPA for some political balance, but associating it with the concept “truth” is too much of a stretch even for a mild-mannered centrist like me. ~ KP))

Come on guys! Surely restoring at least some measure of truth-telling and integrity to our political process must interest you just a little bit? I live in hope…

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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murph the surf.
murph the surf.
8 years ago

“…nothing more than a contest about who can tell the most lies and get away with them with the biggest proportion of ignorant voters.”
This is an excellent definition of modern day Australian democracy.
“I live in hope ” Many of us don’t and while I can see that the idea of political honesty being imposed on politicians must be appealing the source of the problem is the voters and the compulsory voting system.
Remove the disinterested voters and the pollies will have to engage with those who care enough to pay attention.

Crispin Bennett
Crispin Bennett
8 years ago

Trouble is, Ken, that ordinary Australians don’t give a crap about the truth. Try talking to some. Better still, try listening over fences and on buses (it widens the sample, but, be warned, it’s terrifying). Motivated “cognition” (scare quotes intentional) is overwhelmingly the norm. Facts don’t matter if the electorate isn’t interested in them.

Steve Carey
Steve Carey
8 years ago

Well said Ken. The only hope it seems to me, for necessary but unpopular (or more properly demonised) changes seems to rest with a hung parliament (upper or preferably lower federal house). We are not as bad as the USA but are heading down the road to deadlock in Parliament. Sigh!

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago

At least you can aim to die in hope, beats despair!

I’m not that much of a fan actually, I would only expect such a body as could be charged with enforcing this to be in turn captured by it’s own (or it’s members’ own) biases and thus become the worst political football going around.

I can’t imagine the courts would want a bar of it, unless the standard was set at something as low as fraud.

I think NG’s public budgetary office, or even mandatory independent and published cost-benefit analysis of programs over $5bn would all be more useful and more robust solutions.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
8 years ago

The responsibility for exposing political deceit and pointing out porkies once rested with members of the Fourth Estate. However, those former public guardians (particularly the ones in the employ of Mr Murdoch) have more recently decided that their job is to propagate lies themselves. We seem to be in a post-Truth world.

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago
Reply to  Mr Denmore

I’m yet to be convinced in either Australia or America that Murdoch journalists are more likely to make it up to suit their priors than any other.
I did read the Age for a number of years but I gave up, reading news shouldn’t be as much a cognitive cross word as that was. Le alone the dreck on the opinion/editorial pages!

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago

Ken,

of course I agree with the sentiment of the post though I think Patrick is right that there is no group outside of politics you can turn to. Its also the price of not having much real history and international awareness in the school curriculum.

I am not sure things have gotten worse since i arrived though. I remember the 2001 campaign on the children overboard and the scare campaign the following election on the supposed interest rate hike that labour was going to inflict on voters. The current crop of nonsense doesn’t seem any worse than that. Seems to me thus that the ‘happy country’ has been happily free of serious open political discourse for a while, except here on troppo of course. One might surmise that if life is easy, talk is easy!

john r walker
8 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Over the past two weeks Nicolas Rothwell has published a umber of long articles detailing the damage the gov has done to Art. The department of the arts weekly news summary has not reported any of Nicholas’s articles at all. Abbot is simply more in touch.

crocodile
crocodile
8 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

The economic argument put forward by Tony Abbott is full of fibs. However, he is hardly going to go on a campaign and say “Gee the government is doing a great job and our economy is surprisingly robust”.
If Kevin Rudd cannot defend his record then he probably shouldn’t be the leader anyway.

Nic
Nic
8 years ago

The trouble with the fact check sites is that this allows journalists to ‘outsource’ a core area of their jobs, thus allowing them much greater speed and faster ‘mouth to market’ time.
It’s bizarre they exist at all – isn’t this the core competency of journalists?

Jim Rose
Jim Rose
8 years ago

see http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1011/67175_Page3.html for a fact check of factchecking

But while they are all formally nonpartisan and, in fact, drive Democrats in general and the Obama White House in particular crazy, their historical roots are in Democratic outrage, heavily laced with a centrist, journalistic impulse.
… The same political operatives who hate being factchecked love to see their rivals skewered. And the power of the scientific-sounding factcheck label, ironically, makes a powerful tool in characteristically overstated political rhetoric.

too ready to attribute errors to personal moral failings because they subscribe to what Popper called the conspiracy theory of ignorance:

The conspiracy theory of ignorance which interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some sinister power, the source of impure and evil influ­ences which pervert and poison our minds and instil in us the habit of res­ist­ance to know­ledge

The truth is plain to see but for malevolent forces.

The possibility that are ignorance is large in the social sciences and many consequences are unintended is not as an exciting an explanation.

Milton Friedman argued that people agree on most objectives, but differ on the predicted outcomes of different policies and institutions.

There is Christopher Robert and Richard Zeckhauser‘s taxonomy of disagreement. Positive disagreements can be over questions of:
1. Scope: what elements of the world one is trying to understand
2. Model: what mechanisms explain the behaviour of the world
3. Estimate: what estimates of the model’s parameters are thought to obtain in particular contexts

Values disagreements can be over questions of:
1. Standing: who counts
2. Criteria: what counts
3. Weights: how much different individuals and criteria count
Any positive analysis will tend to include elements of scope, model, and estimation, though often these elements intertwine; they frequently feature in an implicit or undifferentiated manner. Likewise, normative analysis will also include elements of standing, criteria, and weights, whether or not these distinctions are recognized.

john r walker
8 years ago

I know I have posted this before …. but It is a fav:

Now many errors consist of this alone, that we do not apply names rightly to
things. For when one says that lines which are drawn from the centre of a
circle to the circumference are unequal, he means, at l east at that time,
something different by circle than mathematicians.
Thus when men make mistakes in calculation they have different numbers in
their minds than those on the paper. Wherefore if you could see their minds
they do not err; they seem to err, however, because we think they have the
same numbers in their minds as on the paper. If this were not so we should
not believe that they made mistakes any more than I thought a man in error
whom I heard the other day shouting that his yard had flown into his
neighbour’s chickens, for his mind seemed sufficiently clear to me on this
subject.

Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Proposition XLVII

john r walker
8 years ago

Sorry do not know what happened with the formatting

Now many errors consist of this alone, that we do not apply names rightly to
things. For when one says that lines which are drawn from the centre of a
circle to the circumference are unequal, he means, at l east at that time,
something different by circle than mathematicians.
Thus when men make mistakes in calculation they have different numbers in
their minds than those on the paper. Wherefore if you could see their minds
they do not err; they seem to err, however, because we think they have the
same numbers in their minds as on the paper. If this were not so we should
not believe that they made mistakes any more than I thought a man in error
whom I heard the other day shouting that his yard had flown into his
neighbour’s chickens, for his mind seemed sufficiently clear to me on this
subject.

Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, Proposition XLVII