Another nail in the coffin for democracy

In January this year, Scott Morrison announced environmental legislation to protect native species was one of his government’s top priorities, and said “we already introduced and passed legislation through the Senate actually dealing with that very issue, we’ve been taking action on that”. A minor problem though: no such legislation existed, nor was there any legislative schedule to remotely support this claim. Morrison just lied.

It was the middle of the holiday season; perhaps too many senior journalists were still soaking up the sun at their beach retreats but, nevertheless, this factually incorrect claim should have been questioned by the media and corrected, either by the Prime Minister, or the media themselves.

As it turned out, the only media outlet to run the story disputing Morrison’s claim was The Guardian, although the story did briefly reappear on Ten News, one week before the federal election in May.

In hindsight, Morrison’s statement in mid-January was a test run in an election year: could he get away with a complete lie, and what would be the repercussions? As it turned out, there were absolutely no repercussions at all.

Manipulation by politicians, of course, is nothing new and in an election year, truth is a commodity stretched and compressed in every permutation possible, with desperate politicians of all persuasions attempting to extract every possible opportunity and advantage over their opponents.

But outright lying?

This year, the Australian body politic crossed the same Rubicon traversed by Donald Trump in the United States, and now by Boris Johnson in Britain. Agreed facts no longer matter: politicians can now tell any story they wish to and knowingly lie. They know the media is too weak and lacks the intellectual capacity to understand they’re being lied to, and when they’re caught out, they know the public is largely disinterested and not too concerned about a political system that delivers so much trickery and chicanery to them.

Better economic managers?

This is why we have the erstwhile belief pushed by the Liberal Party, and supported by the media, that they are the far superior economic manager, even though this isn’t supported by critical analysis of all key elements of government finances.

In terms of spending as a percentage of gross domestic product; economic growth; management of deficits and surpluses in comparison to the world economy; Labor has been the better economic manager since the early 1970s. There isn’t a significant difference but, in normal circumstances, the analysis would be at least enough to neutralise the argument about which side of politics provides better economic management.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke, with Hazel Hawke and Paul Keating in 1988. Analysis shows the Labor Party have been the better economic managers since the early 1970s.

Politically, it’s understandable why this public perception exists. The Liberals have pushed the ‘better-economic-manager’ mantra since 1996 – who could forget ‘Beazley’s $10 billion black hole’ – and Labor failed to adequately defend its economic legacy. The national economy is complex with reams of statistics detailing government finances but each statistic read in isolation is meaningless. Which is why the Government focuses on the most easily explained statistic – which is also the least meaningful – the Budget surplus.

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The Liberal Party has also successfully convinced large sections of the community that managing a national economy is similar to running a household budget – it’s not – and the pursuit of a Budget surplus is a noble ideal and the only economic value worth pursuing.

Forgotten within this debate is the fact that under Robert Menzies, Coalition governments ran massive deficits between 1958–59 and 1966–67 of up to 3.3 per cent of GDP, under the narrative of “nation-building deficits”.

Deficits and surpluses are neither good nor bad, but do need to be relevant and relative to the state of the economy, and just right now doesn’t seem to be the best time to produce a Budget surplus.

What will be the Government’s narrative when the economy grinds to a halt in 2020, largely because of this pursuit of a Budget surplus?

Also heard within the halls of Parliament last week were the calls of ‘paying down Labor’s debt’, as well as Scott Morrison claiming “net government debt is falling”. Again, there is a problem with this claim: net government debt is not falling; it’s increasing, and based on current trajectories, net government debt will continue to rise. The figure was $209 billion (13 per cent of GDP) when the Liberal–National Party formed government in 2013, and now sits at $373 billion (19 per cent of GDP). And Scott Morrison should be aware of this – the figures were actually tabled in Parliament by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, just five weeks ago.

Now, there is a possibility by the time actual figures are reported in September 2020, there may be a decrease, but there is nothing to suggest “net government debt is falling”, as claimed by the Prime Minister. And amongst a sea of economic journalists reporting in the mainstream media, not one has called him out on this. Not one.

So how far is the Government prepared to not just stretch the truth, but push outright lies? The Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor, has consistently made misleading statements about greenhouse gas emissions, more recently claiming the Liberal Government has achieved a 1.1 billion tonne turnaround since 2013, a claim repeated by the Prime Minister and other Liberal Ministers, including former Environment Minister, Melissa Price and Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds. Emissions will have actually risen by 540 million tonnes by 2020, and have increased by 4.3 per cent. Despite this, Taylor continues to say the Liberal–National Government has reduced emissions.

At least this outrageous fabrication has been challenged by journalists on a consistent basis but even though there are agreed facts of rising emissions published by many experts in the field, and even agreed to by the Government’s own figures, the Minister keeps claiming emissions are going down.

When lying isn’t enough: the next step

When the obvious lies and misinterpretations of political leaders remain unchallenged, there’s a great incentive to continue to ply this trade. Just like criminal cartels in those countries ruled by corruption, a lack of sanction coupled with the protection offered by a compliant media means corrupted politicians are encouraged to persist with their egregious behaviour.

But the spoken lie has limitations, and if there are limits to the political impact these can have, what is the next step? If public trust in politicians is so low and so debauched, and there are virtually no checks on parliamentary behaviour, there would have to be a great incentive to fabricate and present official documents as fact. Which is the point we arrived at last week.

In a classic case of wanting to win every single political point while losing sight of the bigger picture – and a case of winning a political point, even if there wasn’t a point to win – Taylor unleashed a political attack upon the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, sending a letter complaining about the increased carbon emissions produced by the City of Sydney Council. He also provided an extract from the Council’s Annual Report, detailing $15.9 million of spending on air travel by Councillors.

And not satisfied with just a letter to the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Taylor conveniently distributed this letter and associated documents to the Daily Telegraph, which duly published an article on 30 September about Taylor’s attack, as well as excerpts from the Annual Report.

The problem for Angus Taylor is the figures in the Annual Report he provided to the media and used as the basis for his attack on Clover Moore were fabricated – it is unclear at this stage who was responsible, but the forged document more than likely originated from Taylor’s office – the actual figures of Councillor’s travel were $5,934, nowhere near the $15.9 million claimed by Taylor.

The City of Sydney Council declared a climate change emergency in June 2019, and Clover Moore informed the Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, of this decision in August. It’s unclear why Taylor, as energy minister would need to be involved, but he was there, and followed up with his attack in September.

There is also a history of antagonism between the Liberal Party and Clover Moore – the NSW Liberal Government created special legislation to force Moore out of state politics in 2012 (she was concurrently a member of the NSW Parliament and Lord Mayor of Sydney since 2004) and even though Moore is not aligned with the Labor Party, the Liberal’s obsession with Moore borders on a pathological psychosis.

But Taylor’s antics have taken politics to a new extreme. He not only lied about the figures, but used figures from a forged document – he claimed he downloaded the figures directly from the Annual Report contained on the City of Sydney Council website, even though the Council has provided metadata from its website indicating there has only ever been the one version of their Annual Report – and that version contradicts the figures provided by Taylor.

A new low in politics and the media

There is now a new phenomenon in federal politics, where not only do Ministers tell unsubstantiated lies, but they present fabricated documents to support their lies. There should be consequences for this behaviour but in that place where there should be sanction and punitive measures, there is a void.

The Government now knows how far it can push boundaries. And it also knows it can depend on most of the mainstream media to provide cover and continue to sow the seed of doubt in the public mind. These obvious lies and fabrications continue to be protected by the mainstream media, with few exceptions.

Within days of the self-centred and misguided ‘Your Right To Know’ campaign, we had two senior members of the mainstream media setting up the protective shields around Angus Taylor.

Network Ten’s political editor and contributing editor to The Australian, Peter Van Onselen, asserted: “I understand [the] frustration … but when politicians tell falsehoods they can’t automatically be deemed liars”.

Political editor with News.com.au, Malcolm Farr, in response to a statement put out by Angus Taylor, claimed “he has admitted [a] mistake but not explained it but I think [it’s] pretty clear on this occasion we go for stuff-up.”

Now, let’s take a deep breath and assess these two statements.

“When politicians tell falsehoods they can’t automatically be deemed liars.”

What could they deemed to be instead? Truth-tellers telling falsehoods in the public interest? Honest brokers attempting to protecting noble ideals for the greater good? No, in this case, Angus Taylor is not acting in the public interest, and is just a seedy corrupt politician with a white face and good looks, using a forged document to attack his political opponents.

“Pretty clear on this occasion we go for stuff-up.”

Pretty clear? On what basis? And where is the substantial evidence to support the claims put forward by the Minister that he downloaded the documents from the City of Sydney Council website? There isn’t any. Where did his version of the document originate from?

More than likely, this is a case where a Liberal staffer amended the figures from the City of Sydney Annual Report, provided the figures to the Minister who knowingly used the figures to attack Clover Moore, a distant political opponent of little relevance to the federal Government.

This is corrupt political behaviour, and while it should be a criminal offence everywhere, at least it exists as a criminal offence in NSW, which is where this fabricated document was prepared and presented.

But what we will see over the next few weeks is most of the mainstream media closing ranks behind this Liberal–National Government, reporting as if nothing has happened and protect the Minister.

And in the case where the media does ask the right questions and gets closer to the truth of the matter, an insignificant staffer will be scapegoated – provided with a short overseas holiday and a new job elsewhere in a few months’ time. And the corrupt behaviour of Angus Taylor’s will continue unchecked.

Annika Smethurst.

So much for the claim of News Limited journalist Annika Smethurst during the ‘Your Right To Know’ campaign: “Essentially, we have journalists to keep the government in line to check on them. If we want a free democracy, we really need journalists to be able to tell the public what’s going on.” A check on government? A check on power? I really don’t think so.

It’s a facile claim coming from a News Limited journalist whose publications essentially obfuscate the truth and attack the opponents of the Liberal–National Party; the Labor Party. Even when confronted with a serious case of a politician telling bare-faced lies and using doctored material to support their lies, they downplay the evidence, cover up, and create new issues to move onto, hoping the public will simply forget.

With the words of ‘your right to know’ still ringing in the ears of the public, the mainstream media had a scandal on its hands and instead of giving true meaning and support to ‘keeping the government in line to check on them’, they squibbed and reverted to form, showing how hollow their ‘Your Right to Know’ campaign really was. Business as usual.

Politics and the media are in a poor shape at the moment. I’ve said this many times before and, like so many people, I don’t know what can be done about it. There isn’t a shortage of ideas to rectify this or positive solutions on offer – there are many excellent ideas contained in Reforming Our Democracy, a joint report prepared by the University of Melbourne, newDemocracy Foundation and the Susan McKinnon Foundation – but the lack of political will to implement these good ideas is the problem.

The political system will never change while we have political leadership provided by a Prime Minister of the calibre of Scott Morrison, or a political system containing ministers as compromised and corrupt as Angus Taylor. And it’s unlikely a future Labor government will be prepared to concede the advantages offered by the current political system, or renovate a Constitution that is well out of date and unsuited to contemporary Australia.

In his speech to Parliament last week, the Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, made this salient point: “Outside of this chamber, people live in the world of facts. If their wages aren’t moving, false claims here won’t change the fact that their wages aren’t moving. If the climate is changing, denial in here won’t change the fact that the climate is changing. If we are not starting with agreed and obvious facts, the relevance of this chamber only declines.”

Forged documents are not new to politics – in the last days of the Labor Government during the 1996 election campaign, Treasurer Ralph Willis, received forged documents claiming the Liberal Party was planning “significant reductions to Commonwealth programs” if they were elected, and tried to make political mileage out of them. We never found out who prepared the forgeries, although there were allegations Liberal Party Senator, Scott Ryan, was the likely author. The media was quickly informed the documents were actually forged and the issue weighed down an already-failing Labor campaign.

But the behaviour of Angus Taylor is something quite different and leads politics into a darker zone.

The electorate understands politicians tell lies and stretch the truth, but manipulating official documents is something beyond the normal scope of politics. This is a new low in Australian politics, and Angus Taylor remaining as Minister and as a member of Parliament is a constant reminder of this newly-acquired nadir and constantly declining political system.

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About Eddy Jokovich 50 Articles
Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.