"How do you know when a politician is lying?" the old joke went. "You see his lips are moving."
One rarely needs a polygraph, encyclopaedic memory or deep forensic talent to tell when most politicians are being economical with the verite. Some have big tells, which would forever disqualify them from a serious game of poker. Rates of eye blinking, for example. Shifts to bluster and dissembling, often prefaced by the claim of being very offended by any suggestion of being less than completely straightforward with the public, or the questioner. Running for cover, initial threats (quickly withdrawn) of defamation writs, and efforts to parse old, now embarrassing, statements in a search for a proposition that can be claimed to sit comfortably with diametrically opposing assertions of what was said or done.
In an earlier life, Scott Morrison was a marketer, salesman and spin doctor; steeped in the arts of polishing turds, and of saying black is white and appearing to believe it. And well able, too, at reinventing history and past statements on the run, with different stresses and emphases, discreet omissions and generous borrowings of blather and attempts to avoid questions by making allegations against the other side. Another tell, on most issues, is the pretence of passion for the matter at issue, the suggestion that some matter of morality or principle is involved, or pleading his public character – the well-known fact, as he believes it, that everyone knows him as a dinky-di bloke who would never mislead or deceive – indeed, a man whose word is his bond.
Politicians rarely tell complete lies, least of all on matters that can be checked or for which there were witnesses or records. "Lie" is an unparliamentary word, unless it is contained, in effect, in a motion of no confidence. Far better for the opponent, or commentator, to use words such as dissembling, dissimulating, prevaricating or disingenuous when a politician seeks to convey a wrong impression or avoid answering a question. A shifty or unreliable politician may hide their mendacity behind deceit, fabrication on confabulation, or by rehearsed counter-attack that simply ignores the questions but makes imputations against the other.
A safer tactic can be types of evasion, quibbling equivocation, deliberate obfuscation, being deliberately unclear, or tergiversation. There was a type of misleading impression that Malcolm Fraser specialised in 40 years ago, when he would make a seemingly strong and positive statement with an unstressed caveat. If things did not turn out as Fraser had hoped, the caveat or condition would suddenly be stressed, and the statement made to seem to convey an intention the exact opposite of that originally conveyed and stressed.
Morrison is a professional politician, one who brings calculation into almost everything he says or does. He has never been able to see as far through a brick wall as John Howard, but he weighs, measures and counts almost everything that happens in terms of political advantage, generally of the short term. He enjoys his job generally – except when caught whopping, when his body language almost completely gives him away – but there's not a great deal of emotion in how he does it. Much of the enthusiasm and ebullience is fake, or confected; he seems rarely genuinely relaxed, especially with his colleagues. That is in part because he cannot lead them intellectually, with ideas or general conversation. He is not a reader of anything substantial, and it shows.
On almost any subject, he could – sometimes has – argued the exact opposite proposition with the same outward appearance of self-belief, sincerity and sneering. Even after a bad day, he can sleep well in the hope of a better one tomorrow, bounce back like a blow-up fat controller with sand in his feet, or, after some relaxation, rearrange the facts and persuade himself he had a great victory.
It happens almost every week, with or without Parliament sitting. Every day, he diminishes a little. Certainly, every day since he became Prime Minister, though, in truth, his time as treasurer set the theme for an essential inauthenticity.
This week, it mattered, and he looked much diminished on the national and international stage as he struggled to represent the feelings of most Australians about the appalling tragedy in New Zealand. Morrison was, of course, not in a beauty contest with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Nor was it a zero-sum game. But Ardern's leadership, confidence and humility could not have better illustrated Morrison's embarrassing failure to rise to the task of leading the nation. In another context, the cynic, or the partisan, might have at least been able to take a malicious pleasure from the way he was undercutting and undermining his own claim to his position. In truth, however, he was diminishing and undermining Australia, and most of its decent citizens, with every pompous word.
His want of feel for the task at hand was a natural consequence of his own role, and the role of senior ministers in his government, in dividing the nation around Islam, in race-baiting in elections such as the last Victorian election – strongly repudiated by voters – and in painting boat people on Nauru or Manus as rapists, murderers and terrorists. One cannot unite and embrace while simultaneously demonising and disgracing. Morrison himself has been flinging the mud for so long that he cannot say his hands are clean. Nor does that judgment, or opinion, depend on leaks of what Morrison is said to have said at a meeting seven years ago, though his claim that he said the opposite of what unnamed colleagues told several journalists is hardly convincing.
No one could accuse him of wanting or inciting the massacre in New Zealand, but he and his side in politics must take their share of responsibility for creating the atmosphere that made it possible. His claim that he was in fact a leader in promoting religious tolerance and acceptance of Muslim settlers would be risible if it were not, on his record, so contemptible.
Nor can his predecessors – Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and even Howard – escape their share of the blame. Generally, Turnbull did not stray too far from his decency gene, but he sat comfortably by, even occasionally throwing a stick into the fire, as Peter Dutton, The Australian and Murdoch tabloids tried to whip up a moral and physical panic about African gangs in Melbourne.
One might, however, say of all three that each has been capable of saying gracious and unifying things at moments of local, national and international tragedy, as often as not without the help of a speechwriter. Morrison simply seems to lack an instinct for the unifying, the appropriate and the empathetic. On recent occasions (including Julie Bishop's retirement), Bill Shorten crafted a better, more thoughtful and kinder speech, with an insight or a phrase likely to endure. Like Kevin Rudd, Morrison has a cack ear for an Australian phrase, and the only one he will have as a legacy – the so-called "Canberra bubble" – serves primarily as a vehicle to refuse to answer inconvenient, but perfectly reasonable, questions.
It's an interesting comparison, because Shorten, like Morrison, also has authenticity problems with the electorate. By now, his victory at the coming election seems almost inevitable. Yet it seems plain that this is not so much voters embracing Labor or its leaders as in rejecting the Coalition. The Coalition has tried to run a scare campaign around Shortern's Shorten and the idea that he has some diabolical hidden agenda. That seems to have failed, so far.
Yet even as continuing disunity, signs of arrogance, loss of inspiration and the consequences of policy failures – particularly on climate change, water and the environment – plague Morrison's government, the evidence suggests voters have not warmed to Shorten. Nonetheless, he has led a remarkably united team, which is promoting policies and agendas rather than seeking to make itself a small target. Shorten gives a better stump speech, either in Parliament or from the back of a truck, than a formal one, but has already acquired some of the gravitas, detachment and fire he will need if he is to establish himself as prime minister. He will not arrive, like Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Rudd, as an exceptional messiah leading his troops out of the wilderness, based on his own personal appeal to voters.
The risk that poses is that a Shorten government, dominated by the same style of management as the Morrison (Turnbull or Abbott) government, will succumb to many of the same problems, not least in winning and holding voters' respect and trust. Sooner or later, the government itself will trip up – as likely as not because of some event out of its control. Sooner or later – probably sooner – most ministers will make mistakes calling into question their judgment, honesty or competence. Initially, perhaps, a defeated and dispirited opposition will be unable to capitalise. But a ministry that becomes arrogant, comfortable in power, or inclined, as someone once called it, to treat government as though the party held it on freehold not leasehold, will again show the sort of bluster, deception and obfuscation that we now see. Such bluster is usually obvious. Weary voters will begin to think the new lot are taking them for granted, they will stop listening to the spin and the explanations, and, no doubt, politicians' reputation will fall even further, if that is possible.
I've always thought the key to getting out of the bind in which successive federal governments have found themselves is to loosen some of the discipline; admit or concede that there are differences of opinion and emphasis within the ministry about appropriate policies and programs. Sometimes even admit that cabinet canvassed alternatives – the broad scope of which is disclosed – before settling on one, to which, after extensive discussion, the whole ministry was now committed.
Governments have increasingly tried to control the flow of ideas, and the communication of policies, or potential policies, to voters. They do this even as they proclaim that they lead open, accountable and transparent administrations. Such is the pressure of the discipline that any leak, particularly from within government, is automatically proof of major disunity, any deviation from the standard script in explaining or defending policy is proclaimed as a split.
It doesn't need to be like this, even in a Westminster system of collective responsibility of ministers. In countries such as Britain, Canada and New Zealand, there is a more relaxed approach to the policymaking process, with ministers willing to admit that a policy did not fall from heaven as self-evidently the only thing to do. Ministers can sometimes admit mistakes – even volunteer them before being caught out, without a major scandal looming and without suggestions of a cover-up. A focus on better policy and better administration must admit the notion of learning from mistakes, and the dangers of refusing to admit them, or to make changes, lest one become vulnerable to criticism.
In the early 1980s, the Hawke government was elected, inter alia, with a mandate to challenge the building of hydroelectric dams on the Gordon River in Tasmania. The then attorney-general, Gareth Evans, ordered the air force to fly an F-111 reconnaissance mission over the Gordon and Franklin rivers for photos it could use in the High Court case. The Tasmanian government responded as if there had been an armed invasion of the state, and attacked Evans (now nicknamed Biggles).
Evans could have blocked the ball for days, loyally supported by ministers in both houses denying any wrongdoing, introducing much distraction and bringing orderly government to a halt.
Instead, he owned up to an error of judgment. He pleaded the streaker's excuse: "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Everyone laughed, Evans was forgiven (if never quite allowed to forget) and the government was out of trouble.
Voters might note there seem to have been no such errors under any of the past six prime ministers – at least ones to which ministers or prime ministers will admit. Each crisis is a call to circle wagons and defend the indefensible, ever with a partisan edge. Prime ministers, ministers and now bureaucrats – at least those in the Department of Home Affairs – must sing from the same hymn sheet, unwilling ever to concede that the relevant leader could have been wrong. Great webs of lies are necessary to shroud the guilty and the negligent. In due course, prime ministers are spending all of their credit and credibility defending the indefensible. Ask Morrison.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org