This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Instituteand the Sydney Democracy Network.
“Post-truth”, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year, selected as a hallmark of the times in the US and UK. (Macquarie Dictionary chose “fake news” as its 2016 Word of the Year.)
Yet post-truth politics and “truthiness”, a term Stephen Colbert coined in 2005, are not solely British and American phenomena. “Truthiness” is rampant in Australia too. The debate about the proposed Adani Carmichael mine in central Queensland shows how truthiness has become part of Australian political discourse.
How can a coal mine be subject to a regime of “truthiness”? A decision to build a greenfield megamine would appear to come down to the facts, with the known harms weighed against the potential benefits. Yet we can identify three distinct traits in official discourses around the Adani mine that show truthiness at work.
Appeal to emotion and ‘gut feelings’
First, “truthiness” replaces a reliance on facts with appeals to emotion and a logic of “gut feelings”.
One of the champions of this form of logic is Tony Abbott. As prime minister, he faced criticism from environmentalists after opening a coal mine and declaring:
Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.
Earlier in 2014, he had said that “it is our destiny in this country to bring affordable energy to the world”.
In addition to the feel-good narrative of coal as national saviour, politicians have argued that Australia’s coal will help the world solve environmental problems, rather than making them worse.
An excellent example of this reasoning comes again from the former prime minister on his visit to India in September 2014. There, echoing the Adani chief executive, Abbott argued that the Carmichael mine could improve Indian living standards and cut carbon emissions by providing “clean coal”.
Using this same emotional logic, the government later told parliament that opening the southern hemisphere’s largest coalmine would actually cut carbon pollution.
Create doubt about facts – or make them up
A second component of “truthiness” is the practice of deliberately presenting empirical facts as debatable, uncertain or political – or simply lying. The best examples of lying are the claims of the mine’s benefits to Queensland and Australia.
Most common are references to the number of jobs the Carmichael mine will provide to the Queensland economy, where the employment situation is portrayed as desperate.
For instance, Queensland federal MP Michelle Landry claimed:
The Adani Carmichael coalmine offers up to 10,000 new jobs, mainly in Queensland; A$20 billion of investment in Australia; and power, to build the living standards of 100 million people in India.
In fact, Jerome Fahrer, who prepared an economic assessment of the Carmichael mine for Adani, admitted in court that it will create an average of 1,464 direct and indirect jobs over the life of the project. Yet virtually every mine supporter has since 2014 repeated an incorrect figure of 10,000 new jobs. They include the prime minister, the attorney-general and federal and state Liberal and National Party MPs.
Another prominent tactic used to cast unwanted facts as debatable or doubtful is to generate oxymorons that promote contradictory messages.
Mining corporations in Australia – and globally – use the term “sustainable mining” to describe projects that provide jobs. Politicians have adopted this; Anthony Lynham, Queensland’s minister for natural resources and mines, declared:
This government strongly supports the sustainable development of the Galilee Basin for the jobs and economic development that it will provide for regional Queensland.
Perhaps the most pernicious oxymoron used by mine supporters is “clean coal”. To counter the claim that Galilee Basin coal is “clean”, The Australia Institute cites estimates by Adani and India’s Ministry of Coal that it “is only 10% above the average quality of domestic Indian thermal coal in terms of energy content”. This is because “the ash content of Carmichael coal is estimated to be 26% – more than double the average of 12% for Australian thermal coal”.
The institute also notes that transporting the coal inevitably creates extra pollution.
Smear without evidence
Third, to construct truthiness, statements that are not scientific, logical or fact-based have proliferated in the political debate about the Adani mine. Politicians have constantly reframed the term “activist” to connote an enemy of both the mine and the national interest. MPs have called members of green groups economic saboteurs, “vigilantes”, “terrorists” and “extremists”.
This narrative casts environmentalists not only as economic enemies of Australia, but opposition to the mine as a form of terrorism. In parliament, Queensland LNP MP George Christensen described legal action to stop the mine as “an act of ecoterrorism”. He continued:
Their lies, misinformation, slander and the frivolous legal action attacking a company for the sake of furthering an ideological cause can only be described as terrorism if you look at the criminal code.
The accusations of “eco-terrorism” and “sabotage” had no foundation in fact whatsoever. These claims were not linked to actual illegal activities by environmental groups opposed to the mine.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk summarised perhaps the most pernicious claim by mine proponents when she told parliament:
Queensland taxpayers will not be funding any infrastructure for this project. Stringent conditions will be enforced to safeguard landholders’ and traditional owners’ interests.
To keep Queensland taxpayers from funding the mine’s infrastructure, the burden will fall instead on Australian taxpayers via the Commonwealth government’s proposed $1 billion loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to Adani. This will fund rail lines from the mine to the coast.
Nor have the rights of the traditional owners of the mine site been respected or upheld. The state and federal governments and courts have denied all legal challenges from the Aboriginal people most affected by it.
The primary purpose of dissecting the arguments in favour of the Carmichael mine is to demonstrate the complexity of “truthiness” regimes. None of these discursive forms – gut feelings, spin and the politicisation of unwanted facts, or even outright lies – are enough on their own. Rather, these strategies overlap, intersect and reinforce each other.
The effect is to create an overarching “truthiness” regime that presents new megamines as desirable, inevitable and essential to maintain Australia’s national destiny. In response, a more complex and multi-pronged approach will be needed to convince the voting public that coal mining is not good for Australia, its economy, or the globe.
You can read other articles in the series here.