If a week is a long time in politics, two months is a geological epoch, during which not just goalposts but entire tectonic plates can move, leaving the landscape changed beyond recognition. I’m not a gambling man but if, on the day I flew out of Sydney in early December, someone had offered me 10-1 on Scott Morrison losing his job next May I would have been sorely tempted. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn on my arrival home last week, that Albo is now the bookie’s election favourite. As with what is believed to create climate, and what is believed to determine sex, and what Neil Young believes about needles, it’s not easy to pinpoint the cause of such a seismic shift – especially if you were 16,000 km away when it happened, in a country whose mainstream media pays more attention to Australia’s shark attacks than its politics. But Janet Albrechtsen’s recent column in the Australian made a pretty compelling case, and if she’s right, Scomo’s dwindling re-election prospects have less to do with events than ego, and more to do with personality than policy. More specifically, they are being undermined in direct proportion to the extent to which his public utterances on a wide range of issues have been labelled dishonest. It’s a song his enemies have been singing for a long time, of course, the ‘Top Ten Bare Faced Lies of Scott Morrison’ headlining the front page of green sheet Independent Australia only last November. Rather disappointingly for IA’s readers, one can’t help thinking, this list ranges from Mr Morrison’s globally significant decision to mislead France about our submarine intentions, to his rather less globally significant denial of ever having referred to disgraced ex-Labor MP Sam Dastyari as ‘Shanghai Sam’. Even so, as Albrechtsen concludes, in recent months those Scomocchio catcalls have elicited what must be, for Mr Morrison, alarming echoes from within his own ranks, a significant number of whom have made it privately or publicly clear that they share the view expressed by Anthony Albanese on the ABC recently that, ‘This Prime Minister has a problem with just telling the truth.’
A pollie telling porkies is not entirely without precedent, of course, and it’s rarely a hanging offence – at least not when the people being lied to are the electorate. Don’t forget it was the allegation of perjury before a grand jury which brought about Bill Clinton’s impeachment, not the ludicrousness of his televised assurance that he ‘did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Don’t forget, either, that he survived that impeachment. In a red-blooded pre-MeToo, pre-woke democracy like France or Italy, a leader’s dissembling to hide his adultery might even have secured his re-election. But standards have changed, and we will have to wait until May to find out if Mr Morrison’s unquestionable observance of his own marriage vows can mitigate his occasional attempts to cheat on the public.
These days, of course, the telling of lies is less damaging to a career – any career – than the more nuanced and sinister spreading of ‘misinformation’, and the difference between the two concepts is easiest to express in terms of consequence. For example, if I posted a clip of myself on YouTube in which I assert that the Earth really is flat, or that I really am Elvis Presley, or that Dolly Parton doesn’t sleep on her back, I doubt it would raise a single eyebrow in the YouTube fact-checking department. But if I merely retweeted someone else’s doubts about the efficacy of experimental gene therapy, or suggestion that the Maldives are not about to disappear, or claim that all human lives matter, I would almost certainly have my account suspended, and quite possibly lose my job. To add to the confusion, the precise meaning of ‘misinformation’ depends on which side of the fence you happen to be standing when you say or hear it. If you are the progressive side, it is more-or-less interchangeable with the word propaganda. If you are on the conservative side, it is more-or-less synonymous with the word opinion.
‘Honesty’, Billy Joel once sang, ‘is such a lovely word, but everyone is so untrue.’ Joel once told me to f–k off, when I mistook him for a homeless person in a New York deli and offered to pay for his coffee. But I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for that.
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