Lying to or misleading parliament has long been the one capital offence for politicians – one for which far too few “swing”. It is recognised and extended in the Commonwealth Ministerial Guidelines to cover lying to or misleading the public as well. It is based on the fundamental accountability of ministers to parliament and through it to the people. The enforcement mechanism is fundamentally deficient because the PM is hopelessly conflicted and, where their utterances are challenged, is a judge in his own cause (hence flouting the Rule of Law as well).

Some might argue that truth in politics is an oxymoron or that lying and misleading is an exercise in free speech or ‘just part of politics’? The results made public in Australia Talks indicates a profound rejection of such views: “89 per cent of us are confident that ‘most politicians in Australia will lie if they feel the truth will hurt them politically’, which is awkward, because 94 per cent of us also believe that a politician should resign if they lie.”[i]

Unfortunately, lies appear to be contagious, generating positive feedback loops making the perpetrators of lies famous rather than infamous.

In the past there were, at least to an extent, negative feedback loops. The weaker the argument, the more criticism would come from and through the media. By the time a politician got to outright lying, he or she would be exposed and become an example of what not to do.

The challenge is to establish negative consequences for lying. This may be done by:

  • Independent investigators of parliamentary breaches (with an ethics adviser[ii] available to give prior advice);
  • Support for independent fact checkers (note that, while it is hard to prove the truth, it is generally relatively easy to uncover false statements and invalid conclusions);
  • Truth in political advertising laws (such as that adopted in the ACT, as a starting point);
  • Application of laws that apply to corporations in competitive markets for goods and services. It is an offence for any corporation to engage in misleading and deceptive conduct in consumer markets. Corporations have a duty of continuous disclosure to markets. ART argues that politicians, parties and supporters should have the same duty in the ‘market of ideas’;
  • Greater media diversity so that the favoured candidate of major media companies are not given a free ride;
  • An exception to the rule that journalists protect their sources. If an MP or a staffer lies to them, then they have a right, perhaps duty, to report it.
  • Requiring that all advertisements be endorsed by a senior elected member of the party and subject to the expanded ministerial code for lying and misleading.

Australia’s goal must be to increase the risks of lying and misleading the population until that risk is too great for a rational politician to take.

That still leaves the irrational politicians but they are generally not so great a threat

[i] Crabb, A, ‘Australia Talks reveals we have very little faith our politicians will do the right thing’)

[ii] Recommended Benchmarks for Codes of Conduct Applying to Members of Parliament.

Recommendation 17

Truth in political advertising legislation: It is an offence for to corporations in competitive markets to engage in misleading and deceptive conduct.  ART argues that politicians, parties and supporters should have the same duty in the ‘market of ideas’. More generally there needs to be negative consequences for lying and misleading.

Share This