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Why politicians tell lies

November 17, 2014

Politicians lie to avoid telling the truth.

There seems to be a consensus that politicians lie in order to get elected. Those who tell the truth tend to lose elections.

The consensus theory says the electorate wants to be lied to because it does not want to hear the truth.

I challenge this theory. I can’t imagine anyone thinking ‘I want you to lie to me. Tell me there will be no income tax increase because I’ll vote for you and if you win and then increase my income tax that will be just fine. Thank you very much.’

How has the theory arisen, evolved and been accepted as the truth? I suspect it is because – like a lot of theories – it has been adopted without being questioned, is a cliché and has passed into legend.

It is more likely that a majority of the electorate votes for one person or party simply because they are fed up with the other lot.

During my childhood and schooling the importance of telling the truth was stressed as being important and valued. Lying was a sign of weakness, cowardice and disrespect. Lying was ultimately self-destructive.

I can imagine my experience was common for children then and still is today. Why would children brought up with these beliefs expect their peers to lie – especially if those peers were politicians?

If you were caught lying as a child there was always a punishment – the naughty corner, or worse. Politicians lie because they can get away with it – there is no punishment.

Another clichéd “theory” is that used car salespersons cannot be trusted – they are liars. I have seen surveys that put politicians, used car salespeople and journalists at the bottom of the pile of trustworthiness. That may be the general opinion of the majority, but is it based on personal experience or scientific testing? Are these beliefs valid, or are they clichés?

Consumer laws have been devised to protect people from shonky business practices, such as false or misleading advertising, shoddy goods, phony guarantees and warranties and the return of goods. No such laws exist to protect voters from a politician’s false promise – or lie.

Polly liars

The issue of politicians’ lies has been tested in USA courts. Earlier this year a US federal court struck down a 19-year-old Ohio state law that outlawed misleading election campaign advertising. In a 5-4 decision, the bench ruled that lying was an expression of a politician’s religion. Freedom to exercise your choice of religion is protected by the USA constitution.

There are various versions of the outcome of the hearing and ruling, but it seems the judges were of the opinion that politicians have the right to lie and it is up to the voters to sort out the truth.

This puts the voters in a difficult position, especially if their only source of information is a biased news media that pushes a particular party line and denigrates the opposite point of view.

The reference to religion is interesting and absurd. A parallel would be the case of a professional house painter. Say I contracted him to paint my house and he made a mess of it. I would not be able to sue because the painter was practicing his religion and suing him would amount to religious persecution.

In Australia there is no law that I am aware of that provides relief, compensation or penalty for a politician’s lies. The only recourse is to extract revenge at the next election, three or four years away.

The situation is not good, not reasonable or fair and is in conflict with another important democratic principle, that of “misleading the parliament”. This principle is one that politicians take very seriously, or I should say once took seriously. The penalty, for a minister, is resignation and the backbench. For a member it is resignation from the party and a move to the cross bench. Today, however, it is more often steadfast denial, stone-walling and closed ranks.

The conflict in the situation is that a party or politician may freely lie to the electorate during an election campaign but, upon being elected or re-elected, is under an obligation to always tell the truth to the people’s elected representatives in the parliament.

Finally, there’s a well-written and informative article on the subject by Warwick Smith, research economist at the University of Melbourne, in The Guardian. He can be found on Twitter: @RecoEco.

Smith’s article includes reference to Politifact findings on promises made during the 2013 Australian federal election campaign. Look for further Browse the Truth-O-Meter links in the right-hand column.

Update, 22 November, 2014

Geoff Heriot, director Heriot Media & Governance Pty Ltd and former journalist, has written a more learned piece on the problem for Inside Story. Heriot deals clearly with the comparison of consumer protection under commercial law. He proposes a solution.

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