Taxing the truth: why we must not let Abbott’s dogmas lie

Ian Robinson / 07 July 2012

OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott constantly accuses the Prime Minister of ”lying” when she made a commitment before the last election not to introduce a tax on carbon. But who’s the liar here?

A lie is when you say something is true when you know it is not true. This is quite different from a commitment, which is a promise to do something in the future.

We can be absolutely certain that Abbott, as a former student in a Catholic seminary, knows the substantive and moral difference between a lie and a commitment.

So when Abbott says the Prime Minister told a lie, he is saying something is true when he knows it is not true, so Abbott is telling a lie. Whereas the most the Prime Minister can be truthfully accused of is breaking a pre-election commitment, like John Howard with the GST and ”core and non-core promises”, or Ted Baillieu with Victorian teachers’ salaries.

Or can she? Although in general it is not commendable to break commitments, it is not even clear that this is what has happened.

The Prime Minister’s commitment not to introduce a tax on carbon was implicitly premised on her being in a position to keep the commitment, by leading a majority government after the election.This didn’t happen, so her pre-election commitment was effectively null and void.

Instead, she found herself in a minority government in which she was not in total control of all the outcomes. She therefore had to work out a compromise with the other stakeholders.

Abbott is reported as saying during the post-election negotiations that he would ”do anything” to be prime minister. This implies that he, too, would have accepted a carbon tax as part of a minority government compromise.

Perhaps in hindsight the Prime Minister could have made the limitation to her commitment clearer by saying there would be no carbon tax under ”a majority government led by me”.

But, to be fair, before the election, no one was taking seriously the possibility of a hung parliament. Shared government was not on anyone’s agenda.

However, it should have been obvious that ”majority government” was implied in her statement, because, logically, one cannot make firm commitments on behalf of a possible future minority government, since one does not have the unfettered power to carry them out.

To keep calling what the Prime Minister said a ”lie” is to misuse language, disfigure the debate and debase politics. And it is to be guilty, as Abbott is, of telling a lie yourself.

When I was at secondary school, my English class studied a collection of essays, one of which analysed the methods of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

There were, I recall, three components of this: an element of truth; gross exaggeration; and constant repetition.I have been starkly reminded of this trilogy by the habitual behaviour of Abbott and his opposition colleagues during the past 15 months.

The elements of truth the opposition is exploiting are, first, that the Prime Minister did make an (implicitly qualified) commitment before the last election not to introduce a tax on carbon; and second, that she has indeed had legislation passed putting a price on carbon as an interim measure, before a future carbon-trading scheme is introduced a few years down the track.

Abbott’s exaggerations of these basic facts are distortions of the real situation.As we have seen, and as he well knows, a broken commitment is not a ”lie”.

Ironically, Abbott calling what Australia’s Prime Minister said a ”lie” may itself be an example of what Adolf Hitler called a ”big lie”, that is a lie so ”colossal” it has a ”certain force of credibility” because the populace ”would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously” (Mein Kampf, volume I, chapter X).

For the repetitions, just watch the TV and listen to the radio. Every time an opposition politician gets the opportunity, they repeat the ”lie” claim over and over again. This happens with such predictable regularity it cannot be mere coincidence. There is clearly a conscious, concerted and calculated propaganda campaign of Goebbels-esque proportions under way.

Other aspects of government policy have been given the same treatment: a charge on carbon polluters becomes ”a great big tax on everyone”; a tax that aims to spread the benefits of the mining boom to the rest of the community becomes ”class warfare”, and so on.

By exaggerating a promise that might not have even been broken into a ”lie to the Australian people”, by exaggerating a charge on carbon polluters into a ”huge tax on everyone” and by repeating these exaggerations ad infinitum and ad nauseam, Abbott and the opposition are lowering the level of political debate in contemporary Australia to that of Germany in the ’30s.

No one is claiming Abbott is a Nazi but one has to ask why he, and the party he leads, are so doggedly using discredited Nazi propaganda techniques?

Published in National Times, Saturday 7 July 2012

All the more reason.