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(Why) (Do) Politicians Lie (?)

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 14 November 2012


I apologise for the apparently jumbled heading. It is trying to do a number of things: make the point that politicians do sometimes lie, make another point that their lies are rather careful ones, and try to answer the question - why do they do so? One of the readers asked make to have a go at this topic, and it interested me.

We ought to start with some definitions. A 'lie', in my language, is an untruth, and a deliberate one. The liar is saying something that he or she knows not to be true, and is asserting that it is true. More, he or she does it in order to achieve some purpose. The Shorter Oxford defines a lie as 'a false statement made with intent to deceive'. That'll do for me.

Now in ordinary life all of us tell untruths from time to time. Some of them are venial, and we excuse them as 'white lies'. Or we lie in order to protect someone, or (perhaps at work) to protect our position ('great speech, boss!'), or to achieve some other end we think is worthwhile. Politicians are no different. As we grow up we learn that lying comes with real risks of discovery, and can be deeply damaging to us. Most of us then learn not to do it. It is much, much easier in the long run to tell the truth, or to say nothing.

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In politics there are some occasions in which a politician can lie in good standing with his or her conscience. A Treasurer caught on the hop and asked about a decision that is pending could lie where telling the truth would not be in the country's interests. In my opinion Treasurers in such a position should simply shut up. But that is not always easy. Indeed, Ministers like Treasurers ought at the beginning of their term make clear that they will not answer questions about impending government decisions where to do so would benefit or harm (or both) people in advance of the proper date for announcing the decision.

And politics produces a murky area that involves promises, which the unwary can define as 'lies'. I'll give two examples, one from each side of our politics. John Howard made a number of promises in his 1996 campaign that later on he dismissed as not being 'core promises'. This was a new distinction to everyone, since he had not used it in the campaign, and he copped a lot of stick for it. Since he won that election he could bear the infamy. He was accused by many opponents then of being a 'liar'. More correctly, in my view, he broke a promise. Anyone who believes in the promises made during election campaigns should go on a course of serious reading. Such promises are aspirational, and mean little more than 'we will do what we can to advance the interests of [insert your favourite disadvantaged group here] during our term in government, always providing that we have the money to do so'.

My second example: in her 2010 campaign Julia Gillard said '"There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead …' and was branded 'Juliar' when she did introduce such a tax. If I were the judge here, I would say that this was not a lie, but another broken promise. She could have justified it later by arguing that the circumstances changed. She had assumed that she would be leading a government which had a Labor majority in the House of Representatives. That didn't happen. She found herself over a barrel, having to agree to what the Greens wanted if she wanted to remain Prime Minister. Of course she didn't say anything of that kind. She could also have said that the full quotation of her remark went like this: 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead, but let's be absolutely clear. I am determined to price carbon.' What that means is unclear, but a reasonable reading of it is that she hoped to do something about the price of carbon when she could.

Politicians learn how to say one thing and mean another, or how to say something that means different things to different people, or how to say something that is a sort of truth, if not the whole truth. The best example I can think of is President Clinton's statement 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman', where the ambiguity surrounds what is meant by 'sexual relations'. The same ambiguity surrounds a politician's claiming that he had done nothing wrong. What is 'wrong'? He and you may have different understandings of that means - or he may have lied (knowing that he had indeed done something wrong). We probably will never know.

Finally, we ask a lot of politicians. We expect them to be honest and truthful and well-meaning and firm and compassionate and reliable. Actually, their job is to compromise, to find a way forward that works and causes the least trouble. That is not an easy job. We ask a lot of them, and we hope that they will do the right thing. The trouble is that we have different understandings of what the right thing actually is. They know this, and find the words to placate us all. That's not lying, at least in my book.

I've met a couple of real liars in my time, but neither of them was a politician.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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