The editor of a major newspaper once told me, “All politicians lie. The question is why they are lying.”
I was reminded of this when I took a dip into the political section of Twitter yesterday, and spotted an ex-politician complaining of lies, saying that Trumpism was coming to Australia.
As they were the author of one of the greatest lies in Australian political history, I thought they were being a bit cheeky in their criticism of others.
The lie, and we’re going back to 2002 here, involved a memoir of a turbulent political career based around leading a moderately significant political party and then defecting to another party. They said swapping parties was so they could play a greater role in politics and have more of an impact, but in reality it was the result of a long-running affair with a senior member of the other party.
The affair was not mentioned at all in the memoir, and the author was called on it by one of Australia’s leading political commentators. “An honest book would have included it,” he said.
I remember meeting, in a very transient fashion, one of the principals of that affair. I was a schoolgirl and there was a political event going on and for some reason I went along, getting to be in close quarters with some of Australia’s most illustrious and infamous, including several past, current, and future Prime Ministers.
This chap struck me as extravagantly handsome, clever, self-assured, and articulate, and when news of the affair broke some years later, I kind of sighed and thought it all rather sweet and romantic. Lovers from different tribes maintaining a secret fling and all that.
In itself, the affair was neither here nor there. I imagine politics is full of passion, and if love crosses party lines, then who cares? Let there be more love in the world, not less, that’s my firm belief.
But this thing had consequences, left a national political party in disarray, and turned into quite a quagmire down the track. Parliament and the public were misled, there were Letters to the Editor, and various pundits opined at length.
It’s like Edward VIII claiming he abdicated the British monarchy because he wanted a quieter life, leaving Wallis Simpson entirely out of the story.
A lie isn’t necessarily the deliberate utterance of an untruth. Language involves communicating information and ideas, and if one intentionally plants an erroneous notion in the mind of another, that’s lying, whether false words are spoken, or true words withheld.
There are times when politicians lie as a matter of convention. Right up to the moment they announce a leadership challenge, the disgruntled deputy will steadfastly maintain absolute loyalty – at least in public – and deny any desire to depose the party leader they have been arranging to stab in the back for months.
And, of course, there are the skilfully engineered evasions and circumlocutions and plausible denials. It’s always worth looking at the precise wording of a political statement on a contentious matter. Often it will be technically truthful, but wildly dishonest in intent.
The hypocrisy is what struck me here. A politician complaining that other politicians lie invites criticism.
George Washington was the (perhaps mythical) model of the honest President. Abraham Lincoln was widely seen as a cynic – he was a lawyer, after all – and he gave at least tacit approval to “fooling all of the people some of the time”, but all told he was reasonably straightforward. To this day, the nickname “Honest Abe” sticks.
George W Bush bent the truth way out of shape in going to war with Iraq, and of course JFK was the very epitome of secret sexual misconduct. Not to mention Bill Clinton’s quibbling over a blowjob and a cigar.
And then there’s Trump. Oh boy. If he says something in public, it’s untrue. The more vehemently he states it, the further from the truth it is. “Believe me” or “Trust me” indicate whoppers of the first order.
Try as I might, I cannot see that sort of dishonesty flying in Australia. The big political lies are exposed and made into scandals. Maybe the rusted-on supporters of a politician or party will believe nonsense easily disproven, but by and large it is a shortcut to political oblivion. As it was in the case of this particular politician.
A politician floating big lies doesn’t prosper here. For one thing, the media starts to fact-check them very closely, and as per the advice I was given, finding out why a politician is lying can uncover all sorts of truths.
And finally, as Honest Abe said, “you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Gaining a reputation for dishonesty means that everything said in public is degraded, even the true and factual. Political leaders are the defenders of national institutions such as the justice system, education, the Constitution. Transparency, fairness, and the rule of law are foundations of our government.
When a politician boots truth down the street and puts on their lying pants, they are attacking the very institutions which give them such a comfortable and prominent job. Hard lying never ends well.