Opinion

John Hewson
Scott Morrison’s election lies

It has been a widely held perception that politicians can play fast and loose with the truth. As with those who sell used cars, they manipulate data and events to suit what they think will be to their short-term political advantage. Donald Trump elevated this to an art form, claiming those who disagreed with him or questioned him on an issue were spreading what he called “fake news”.

Scott Morrison, since his sycophantic performance at the White House, has come to be known as “Trump-lite”. He has claimed in recent days that he doesn’t believe he has ever knowingly told a lie in public life. This statement followed the internationally embarrassing accusation from French President Emmanuel Macron during the recent G20 summit in Italy that Morrison had lied to him about the status of the French contract to build our next fleet of submarines. Of course, Morrison denied this, but it was clear that when he’d had the opportunity to update Macron, he simply hadn’t. I assume this is some Pentecostal difference between sins of commission and omission. Morrison then compounded the issue by ditching accepted diplomatic protocol and having his office leak an email exchange with Macron, presumably to create the illusion that Macron might have had a hint that all was not well with the contract.

There seems little point in spending time defining a “lie”, given the many thousands of column inches already devoted to this in philosophy books and articles. I suggest the average voter has a pretty well-honed “bullshit monitor” and can recognise when they are being had. Despite this, both major parties still rely on scare campaigns, which still seem to work. People know, for instance, that the Coalition will not dismantle Medicare, but it’s still a cracking good scare. The claim that Labor will increase taxes is used in the same way.

In my own background I recall a somewhat unusual recommended text in  my first year accounting course at Sydney University, namely Bertrand Russell’s An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. Others soon found Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics.

It’s not as if Morrison sets out to tell a “whopper a day”. To be kind to him, though, it seems he can’t help himself from spinning and overselling his point, especially under the pressure of a press conference. He has also demonstrated a refined capacity for “doublespeak”. Disputing Morrison’s claim of honesty, there are several organisations compiling lists of his main lies and falsehoods in the run up to the next federal election. This work investigating “the liar from the Shire” has gained serious currency in the twitterverse.

Morrison also has lost important ground in terms of his poll standing. He has experienced a big fall in “trustworthiness”, from 57 per cent to 42 per cent, dropping below Albanese, who recorded 44 per cent.

The main area where Morrison has been shameless in his abuse of the truth has been in relation to the billions of dollars of government revenue he has allocated to hopefully buy electoral support. Morrison claims that he won a mandate for this at the 2019 election. This is an absurd premise. I doubt few more than those involved in the organisations that received the grants knew of the initiative, much less voted for it. It certainly wasn’t a nationally significant election issue. It’s not as if the government had declared this as an explicit policy for which they sought specific national approval. The hard evidence of the government’s practice of raiding the Treasury for perceived electoral gain – namely, a colour-coded schedule of allocations to key marginal seats – was irrefutable.

Worse than this has been the more recent concerted Coalition effort, at both a state and federal level, to normalise “pork-barrelling” as ordinary government and political business. To hear this line run by Simon Birmingham, the Finance minister who is appointed to oversee and police all government spending and finances, was most disturbing. Clearly he should not have that job, as he obviously doesn’t understand or accept its responsibilities. Similarly concerning have been comparable statements by then New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian, who is finally being held to account through the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Morrison did try a whopper with the return of parliament this week, in relation to his Hawaiian holiday during the bushfires, playing semantics with the word “where”. He claims he told Albo “where” he was going, which he says was “going on leave with my family”; but he didn’t tell him the location and indeed he had his office denying he was on holidays in Hawaii. In the words of Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

This raises the very important issue of accountability. Morrison has defined himself and his leadership by ducking acceptance of responsibility and failing to acknowledge the need for transparency and accountability. This is most conspicuous in areas of public spending, quarantine and aged care. He has made a mockery of his past electoral commitment to legislate for a national integrity and anti-corruption commission by having Christian Porter table and Michaelia Cash take over responsibility for a totally inadequate exposure draft that would work pretty much as a protection racket for ministers and their staff and wouldn’t catch any of those rorts referred to above. Morrison has also consistently refused to list for debate the integrity commission bill proposed by independent Helen Haines.

I must admit to a long-term scepticism about the positive electoral impact of pork-barrelling. Unfortunately, it has become an acceptable basis for lobbying and influence peddling, driving our governments away from always working to benefit our national or state interests as their priority. This encourages them to corrupt the processes of politics and government by governing for their mates and donors or selected vested interests. Reform of campaign funding and lobbying simply must be a priority for the next government. The major parties should be pursued to make the appropriate commitments in this respect in the run-up to the next election.

To understand Morrison is to understand his obsession with re-election. He is of the Richo school – whatever it takes. He will say or do on any day whatever he thinks necessary to facilitate his re-election. He seriously believes he was chosen by God to do this.

Consider the way he has already adjusted his election strategy. Early last year he was wanting to run on his handling of the pandemic and on the economic recovery process leading to the successful reopening of our economy. His initial exaggerated – if not totally dishonest – claims were that we were leading the world in the management of Covid-19 and the economic recovery. When these claims were contested, he needed to reset that strategy and moved on to a successful vaccine rollout and the pathway to opening our international border and restoring personal freedoms following various lockdowns. His initial claims here were also soon contestable, with Morrison falsely boasting of having secured millions of vaccine doses and having ensured our domestic vaccine manufacturing capability.

When the hubris was cut out of this and the rollout was seen to have been stuffed, he moved his re-election strategy again. Attempting to capitalise on the obvious frustrations of many people wanting to resume some personal freedoms, he has recently settled on drawing a sharp contrast between the Coalition and the ALP. He claims only he can restore freedoms, as the ALP wants to “control your lives”. However, he has already gone too far beyond the claim itself by somewhat encouraging the protesters gathered with nooses outside Victoria’s Parliament House, saying it was time to “take their lives back”.

Despite his focus on vaccination rates to specify the pathway to opening up and restoring personal freedoms, he began to argue that the unvaccinated “should be able to go and get a cup of coffee” if they want one. He is apparently happy to ditch the purity of a policy position to attempt to neutralise the influence of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, and to sustain his almost acrimonious confrontations with the premiers of Queensland and Victoria. He has denied he encouraged the protesters – and in doing so sounded a bit like Trump denying he had encouraged the storming of the Capitol. Morrison is playing a very dangerous game here.

The election will be an important test of Morrison’s unprincipled, marketing-driven approach. Can he convince enough of his now not-so-quiet Australians that he deserves another term? He is particularly exposed in electorates where significant independents may well steal once safe Coalition seats on the substance of needed policy responses.

My major, longer-term structural concern is that Morrison and his government have seriously undermined our democracy with their almost sole focus on winning elections rather than addressing the many very serious and urgent policy challenges that lay before us as a nation, now and into the future.

Politics should be a contest of ideas, of alternative visions for the future, based on evidence rather than exaggerations, lies, fear and clever slogans. Under Morrison, it is everything but.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Captain Trump-lite, or gentleman of the goad".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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