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Redefining the lie: politics and porkies

The last few years in Australian politics have seen the rise of a new definition of ‘lying’. AAP/Lukas Coch

Lie (v.)

(1) To make a politically unpopular statement;

(2) [retrospectively applied] To make a statement which appears inconsistent with a more recent statement, indicating that its maker has changed his or her position subsequent to the making of the statement in question;

(3) [obsolete] To intentionally convey a false impression;

(4) [obsolete] To deliberately intend to deceive by making a false or untrue statement.

Following recent practice in Australian politics, all future political dictionaries should incorporate the above entry for the verb “to lie”.

The one big “lie” that dogged former prime minister Julia Gillard’s entire term in office was her infamous statement: “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”, uttered on August 16, 2010, five days before the last federal election.

The following February, Gillard announced her intention to introduce a carbon price from July 1, 2012. News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt posted that very afternoon on his Herald Sun blog under the headline “Gillard confirms: She lied about no carbon tax”.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott was initially not prepared to go that far. But by the time he addressed the “No Carbon Tax” rally in August 2011, he was also confidently calling Gillard’s “promise” that there would be no carbon tax a “lie”.

The charge that Gillard lied in August 2010 is presumably based on definition number two, as above. There is no evidence that Gillard lied according to either of the now-obsolete definitions (three and four). On August 20, the day before the election, she said:

I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism. I rule out a carbon tax.

When she announced the market-based carbon pricing scheme on February 24, 2011, the government’s press release said:

The two-year plan for a carbon price mechanism will start with a fixed price period for three to five years before transitioning to an emissions trading scheme.

Only later did Gillard and the government begin referring to the pricing scheme as a “tax”.

It should be said that Gillard was probably quite consistent about wanting to implement some kind of carbon price, though it seems that she did not successfully enough ensure that her distinction between a “tax” and a market-based “price” on carbon was communicated to journalists.

The issue with Gillard’s statements was always one about political acumen rather than honesty. In hindsight, if she was always intending to price carbon – and it seems clear that she was – there was no need to utter those fateful six words in the first place. Once the government itself began to use the term “tax”, its fate was sealed.

On definitions three and four – the now-obsolete definitions – the lies which were told about the carbon pricing scheme and what exactly Gillard had said about it were told almost exclusively by her political opponents. In News Limited tabloids and on commercial radio and television, Bolt, Alan Jones and Piers Akerman repeated Gillard’s “there will be no carbon tax” while saying nothing about her pre-election promise to introduce a pricing mechanism.

Abbott, meanwhile, deliberately set about distorting the government’s policy by emphasising its pricing side while remaining silent on its associated compensation package. But because the definition of a lie is now politically contingent, most Australians now accept that on the issue of the carbon price, Gillard lied and Abbott told the truth.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott often accused Julia Gillard of ‘lying’ over the reversal of her position on a carbon tax. AAP/Dan Peled

The politically-contingent nature of the definition of lying in Australian politics can also be seen by examining other policy areas, including asylum seekers and economics.

It is now common for senior politicians and commentators to describe people who seek asylum by boat as “illegal immigrants”. On the obsolete definitions, that description would be a rather bald-faced lie. Under both Australian and international law, it is far from illegal to seek asylum from a well-founded fear of persecution. It is the right of every human being.

Most of the politicians and commentators who describe asylum seekers as “illegal” would know that. They would also know that since 1997-98, the vast majority of the people who have arrived by boat and sought asylum have come from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Of their claims, more than 90% are regularly accepted.

Many of those who refer to “illegal immigrants” also refer to the concept of a “queue”, within which deserving refugees wait patiently for their protection claims to be assessed, and which is illegitimately “jumped” by undeserving refugees who cannot wait their turn. This is despite knowing that there is no “queue” when it comes to asylum claims. Protection claims are assessed on a triage, not first-come-first-served, basis. And even then, the average time spent in refugee camps is 17 years.

On the obsolete definitions of “lie”, then, anybody who talks about “illegal immigrants”, “jumping the queue” and “no-disadvantage tests” when referring to asylum seekers is lying. On the new, politically contingent, definitions, of course, they are not.

Further evidence that the new definition of “lie” now apply can be seen when observing the current Australian debate about the national economy. The rest of the world views the Australian government in high esteem for avoiding the continuing economic shocks which brought every other western economy to its knees in 2008.

But according to Tony Abbott, the Australian economy is a basket-case because of the high levels of public debt and the new “taxes” on mining super-profits and carbon dioxide emissions. On the obsolete definitions above, such claims would once upon a time have been considered lies. On almost every main economic indicator, Australia has bucked the international trend and is in a better position than it was when Labor won office from the Coalition in 2007.

Of course, lying, on the old definitions, is hardly new to politics, as attested by political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 1971 analysis of the Pentagon Papers in Lying in Politics. But much of the exasperation expressed toward those who talk about “illegal immigrants” and high levels of public debt appears to come from those who have not accepted the new usage of the verb “to lie”.

To save continued confusion in the contemporary analysis of Australian politics, then, the new definitions of “to lie” that I have proposed should be adopted forthwith.

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