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Nutting out the truth of the matter

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari at a Save Medicare rally in Sydney leading up to the 2016 election campaign. Photo: AAP
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The Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, fronted the National Press Club this week to deliver the traditional post-election address.

By virtue of his role, Mr Nutt was the Coalition’s campaign manager for the election, although the Nationals’ Federal Director, Scott Mitchell, also acted as campaign manager for the rural party.

Normally we would expect a similar contribution from Labor’s outgoing National Secretary, George Wright, but the party has not yet confirmed that this will occur.

Such addresses are always an exercise in self-justification, creating or reinforcing a narrative that puts the respective party’s result in the best possible light.

Mr Nutt’s speech was no different. He justified the lack of attack ads in the Coalition’s campaign artillery as a direct response to voters being fed up with the “distraction of political aggression”; said union-bashing was pointless when voters already had fixed views on the labour movement; and said that the Government had already banked any credit it got from voters for stopping the boats and otherwise protecting our borders.

These are all interesting points and they are relevant to how pivotal issues will play out in the Parliament over this term, such as the reintroduction of a union watchdog for the building industry, or what to do about the refugees and asylum seekers still stranded on Manus Island and Nauru.

Much of the media coverage of Mr Nutt’s address, however, focused on his over-egged attempt to paint the Coalition as a victim of Labor’s “Mediscare” campaign.

Calling Labor’s assertion that the Coalition planned to privatise Medicare a “cold-blooded lie” that preyed on the anxieties of young families and the frail elderly, Mr Nutt challenged Labor to “pledge to never again behave in that way and use those tactics”.

Such an assertion might play well at Liberal Party meetings but it did not go down well with the press gallery. Most journalists have witnessed a variety of mistruths rolled out by the Coalition, so it was a foolish move for Mr Nutt to claim the high moral ground.

Accordingly, it didn’t take long for journalists at the National Press Club to take Mr Nutt to task. One challenged him on Liberal efforts during the federal election campaign to paint Labor candidate Anne Aly as “soft” on terror.

Another journalist prodded Mr Nutt on his concern for the effect of Labor’s “lies” on vulnerable old people while equally vulnerable people languished in our offshore detention centres.

And yet another reminded him of one of the biggest scare campaigns of all – Tony Abbott’s “great big new tax” and how it was going to leave a trail of wreckage from the steelworks of Whyalla to the local butcher shop selling $100 legs of lamb.

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Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, at the National Press Club earlier this week.

It will probably be a while before Mr Nutt complains about Labor’s “lies” again. But more importantly, will he and the Coalition commit to the same level of “honesty” they are demanding from their opponents?

The sorry reality is that lies are one variation of the myriad ways in which politicians bend the truth to scare voters away from the competition.

From children overboard to $70 billion black holes and stopping the boats, no truth is safe from political parties’ incessant need to have the upper hand. And the knowledge that if a lie is repeated often enough, it eventually becomes a truth. Just ask Julia Gillard about her no carbon tax “broken promise”.

As another of Mr Nutt’s questioners pointed out at the National Press Club this week, the Federal Director was essentially admitting that dishonest campaigns such as “Mediscare” work. So where is the motivation to give them up?

That is a very good question, and one that probably isn’t troubling many political strategists.

Labor’s shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, wasn’t much concerned with the truth when he said this week that the nation can no longer house its own children.

Nor was One Nation’s Pauline Hanson when she claimed the week before that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Muslims. Or her colleague Malcolm Roberts when he denied the climate was being affected by man-made carbon emissions or that a popular television host condones Islamic terrorism.

While supporters of political parties continue to reward such behaviour with belief, we can expect many more attempts by politicians to manipulate the truth over this parliamentary term.

The trick for voters will be to reject the blarney (which can be hard when it comes from the party we support) and keep searching for any glimmers of honesty that shine through.

Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.