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Voters punish those who tell the whole truth

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Like the last, this parliament looks as though it will be obsessed by who lied, and didn't, and just what constitutes a lie.

It's not an obsession that most electors hold.

As the old joke goes – "How do you know when a politician is lying?" "Their lips are moving". We expect our politicians to lie, and we don't generally accept it as being a meaningful distinction between politicians of different stripes, unless we are partisans.


We distinguish on the basis of other factors. Do they care? Are they effective? Do they give me what I want?

John Howard understood this.

When charged with lying by Mark Latham on the basis of his words he pivoted to performance and contrasted lying with trust: "Who do you trust to keep the economy strong, and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to keep interest rates low?"

There is something ritual and unavoidable about the political lie. In a mad world, only the made are sane, and in a world of illusion where people want to believe a lie, only a mad, or foolhardy, person would tell the truth.

Not that most of what happens in politics is dishonest, but election campaigns, are particularly prone to the salesman's wishful thinking.

Sometimes the pitch just shades the truth, "paltering with us in a double sense" and burying the facts in the fine print. Or it directs attention away from the unpleasant consequences of a policy.


Other times the pitch is coloured by the knowledge that there's no personal harm in being reckless, because the chances of winning the next election are non-existent, so delivery of a promise is a non-problem.

Treasurer Joe Hockey is the one having to fess up to breaking promises at the moment, but his opposition number Chris Bowen is only 3.49% of the two-party preferred vote away from having been in much the same position.

Whoever won the last election was going to have to pull things back, and in a tradition going back at least to Malcolm Fraser and the 1977 "Fistful of dollars" election, or Bob Hawke in 1983, find that the cupboard was bare.

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This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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