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Spin, weasel words and lies - how politicians keep attempting to break promises

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Let's read a story from every politician's favourite book - the Weasel Dictionary.

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Tony, what a big surprise!

Rocco Fazzari and Denis Carnahan present their musical analysis of the Budget. With apologies to Chicago.

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Wresting a straight answer from a politician to the most direct of questions can be like wringing water from a wash cloth – something will inevitably come out but the contents extracted will likely be murky, rather unpleasant to swallow and smell more than a little off.

Brazenly facing down one's inquisitor, offering highly stylised versions of events while ignoring the pretext and premise of the question is a political dark art.

Simply called: weasel words.

Lies come before the election, then come the weasel words.

Lies come before the election, then come the weasel words.

Trickstering and huckstering.

Complex gymnastics of the language designed to avoid fessing up to inconvenient truths.

John Howard had his "non-core promises", a convenient way to wriggle out of iron-clad promises made during the 1996 election campaign.

His successor, Kevin Rudd found himself in a tight spot after yet another failed leadership coup, huffily declaring that there were "no circumstances" in which he would ever contest the leadership again.

A brooding few months spent on the backbench later, Rudd amended the statement to "I don't believe there are any circumstances…" before doing precisely what he had said he would not.

Wayne Swan was fond of parroting he would not "rule anything in or rule anything out" when asked to provide details of just about anything pursuant to his Treasury portfolio.

According to the unofficial political bastardy handbook, to not rule anything in or out, by the way, translates as: we have learnt our lesson in making promises we can't keep and we are too frightened of saying anything that might bite us on the bum further.

Julia Gillard will likely forever regret THAT "no carbon tax" declaration, a clustermuck compounded by the weeks in which Labor – after announcing they would legislate for a carbon tax - insisted on arguing the toss between a tax and a price on carbon, which fooled precisely no one.

(Still they don't learn. Deficit levy not a tax, anyone?)

“Moving forward” and a “good government had lost its way” were similarly weaselly and wordy statements put together in the vain hope the electorate might forget a certain assertion Gillard would “play full forward for the Western Bulldogs” before she would challenge the leadership.

Tony Abbott unwittingly revealed the mindset of politicians faced with accusations of broken promises and their fondness for words of a weasel nature in a now infamous appearance on the ABC's 7.30 Report.

In May 2010, chief inquisitor Kerry O'Brien was quizzing Abbott - then opposition leader - over a promise he had made not to increase taxes - a promise he then broke in a budget reply speech by pledging to fund his paid parental leave scheme with a new tax.

Lathered in sweat and frustrated with O'Brien's relentless pursuit, Abbott uttered the now immortal gaffe:

"I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say, but sometimes in the heat of discussion you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark," he stammered.

"Which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared, scripted remarks."

It was a wrapped and be-ribboned gift for the Labor government, at the time lagging desperately in the polls.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt has spent the week saying there has been no “breach of faith” with the public, despite spending on the government's flagship Direct Action climate policy, was revealed in the budget papers as $1.4 billion less than expected in the first four years.

Proposed expenditure sets out $75.5 million for the fund in 2014-15, $300 million in 2015-16 and $354.5 million in 2016-17.

Mr Hunt had previously said the forward estimates would give initial allocations of $300 million, $500 million and $750 million in the first three years of the fund.

He said on Wednesday the budget papers simply set out the likely cash flow to business for four years and there was "flexibility" to move funds if more money was required.

"Let me repeat this: the policy as it was set out in 2010 established $2.55 billion to be made available for contracts in the first four years. That has been delivered," Mr Hunt said.

Flexibility? As it was set out in 2010? What about as it was promised in 2013? Weaselly in the extreme.

Along with unpleasant tidings for pensioners, anyone born after 1966, motorists, and youths audacious enough to eschew the ranks of the employed for any period of time, the federal budget has, reliably, delivered myriad examples of our elected representatives engaging in ever complex rounds of tongue twisters.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey will be busy for some time, one would suspect, putting on their bravest – and most bullish – faces.

When reminded, during many interviews in the post budget media blitz, of promises Tony Abbott made during the election, to wit, “there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health…” only to reveal $80 billion of such cuts, the Prime Minister reached for the Dictionary Weasel.

Interviewer: How can you justify your broken election promises with this budget?

“This is a fundamentally honest budget. We were upfront with the Australian people about the difficult choices that had to be made. We didn't cook the books. We didn't fiddle the figures.”

Interviewer: “So do you think you have been honest?

Tony Abbott: “Look, the most fundamental commitment I made was to get the budget back under control. One thing everyone understands, Kochie - you cannot pay the mortgage on the credit card and that's what the former government was doing.”

The last, and most sacred, rule of weasel words: if all else fails, blame the previous government.

The problem, with weasel words is that they, no matter how many pour forth with gusto, at speed and volume, can never camouflage the plain fact that politicians will promise just about anything in circumstances that offer a shot at power.

Inconvenient truths have a way with catching up with us all.

And that is a fact.

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126 comments

  • They do this because the concept of government is in itself immoral and funds itself through theft and the use of force.

    of course it is going to require word play, weasel language and bald face lies to justify such criminality.

    Whats more pathetic than their dishonest pursuit of power and privilege is that now matter how many lies are dished out, how many promises are broken or how much capital the government extracts from the people to waste and misallocate they still keep blindly supporting government like a religion.

    Commenter
    lol
    Date and time
    May 16, 2014, 1:56PM
    • We always knew politics was all about spin and not about substance and yet accepted it for what it is.

      Then along came Tony and told us all that he would restore our trust in politics by telling us his was a Government that "says what it means, and means what it says. A government of no surprises and no excuses" (Victory Speach on Election 2013 night)

      That promised restoration in trust is now in tatters.

      Commenter
      Harlequin
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:14PM
    • It is too obvious what Abbotts game is. The deficit at it current point is going to take a long time to return to normal. This is the fault of global economics and neither party. Abbott has no intention of getting any of these measures through parliament he just wants them blocked so at the next election when the deficit is in the same position he can say well it's not my fault, I couldn't get my reforms through. Give me more power.

      With the senate the way it is he will be a lame duck prime minister until next years senate changes anyway, and after that it wont be easy for him anyway.

      I'm not sure how effective this strategy is but Labour is currently playing straight into his hands.

      Commenter
      paxxy
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:18PM
    • The most dangerous of all are those who tell lies but firmly believe they are telling the truth.

      Commenter
      Peter
      Location
      Kensington
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:20PM
    • 'the concept of government is in itself immoral' ….. does this mean you are an Anarchist, or do you prefer dictators???? You do realise that there needs to be something that raises taxes to make collective decisions, otherwise there will be no roads, schools, etc. Democracy may be bad, but it is better than the alternatives.

      The issues are the way democracy is being warped to suit the interests of the few, over the interests of the many.

      Commenter
      The Woononi
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:24PM
    • Government exists because we decided in the past as a community it needs to. The alternative is either we live under a divine ruler or with anarchy (neither seem all that appealling). This governing body should be designed around providing for the society, for example the services we need (as a society not as an individual), protect the rights of the individuals of the society, support those in need and maintenance of law and order (including defend it). To do this they collect taxes - they don't steal anything as you suggest. If you believe in the concept of a society then you should also believe that you are required to contribute to that society to help it function (i.e. taxes). If you don't believe you have to contribute then the whole thing falls down and we're back to anarchy (the divine ruler will most certainly tax you - assuming they let you even have any income in the first place and didn't just make you work for bread and water).

      Commenter
      TC
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:35PM
    • I am beginning to think that Abbott didn't pay enough attention when in opposition. He might have actually learnt a few things about how a government is run.

      I am also beginning to wonder whether Abbott shouldn't just walk over to Bill Shorten and give him the keys to the PM's office.

      It would save us all a lot of time, and the gigantic expense of an election. At least that's ONE way Abbott could assist the deficit known as "Toney's Grey Matter Deficit". It would also mean he could duck out the back door and not go through the impending "Humiliation Emergency".

      I realise this might take some jiggling, but I am SURE that at least 15 backbenchers would swap sides, right now.

      They say happiness is transient. Abbott proved it to his backbenchers, Our happiness is just beginning

      Commenter
      Axis
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:36PM
    • ... And the media love it this way as it sells subscriptions/adverting! For all of their speculation from the moral high ground, don't be confused about their buy-in on the deception.

      Commenter
      Payback
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:53PM
    • Just as it is true that our government reins through theft and force, its also true you will support them and also probable you will eventually believe them. You may complain today, but tomorrow you will go to work, feed your family all the while supporting them through tax and obedience.

      Commenter
      Payback
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:57PM
    • One thing defeats this - for common folk like you and I to agree on something and get organized - and all governments sleep well at night knowing that human nature will prevent this from ever happening.

      Commenter
      Payback
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 16, 2014, 2:58PM

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