Two great lies were created this week from silly stumbles by senior politicians who should have known better, setting the tone for the looming byelection battles and the federal election.
First came deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, who attempted to neutralise the government’s championing of “aspirational” voters by saying the term “mystified” her.
Malcolm Turnbull pounced on this declaration, twisting it in the retelling to suggest Ms Plibersek had said that aspiration itself was a mystery to her.
“Only the most arrogant and out-of-touch deputy leader of the opposition would say aspiration was a mystery,” the PM said.
“How out of touch do you have to be to be mystified by aspiration?” he asked, suggesting the comment was proof that Labor wanted to keep workers ‘in their place’.
It was no coincidence that Mr Turnbull used the term “arrogant and out of touch”, given this is the epithet that Labor applies to him on a mind-numbingly regular basis. This week the opposition seized on one of the PM’s answers during Question Time to ‘prove’ his silver-tail status.
Labor’s questions usually follow a pattern, asking the ‘arrogant and out of touch’ Prime Minister why he is giving a four-figure tax cut (per annum) to rich people when he’s only giving a two-figure tax cut (per week) to low-income Australians. Note the comparison of a yearly figure with a weekly figure to magnify the difference between the two.
A variation on that theme emerged this week, incorporating the government’s new favourite word, aspiration.
Labor leader Bill Shorten asked the PM: “Should a 60-year-old aged-care worked from Burnie aspire to be an investment banker from Rose Bay so that, instead of their $10-a-week tax cut from the Prime Minister, they can get the Prime Minister’s $7000-a-year tax cut for investment bankers?”
The worker is “entitled to aspire to get a better job, is entitled to get a promotion, is entitled to be able to earn more money”, the PM fired back.
Labor wasted no time repeating Mr Turnbull’s move against Ms Plibersek, pouncing on the PM’s declaration and twisting it in the retelling. By Thursday, Labor was telling the Parliament that the PM “told a 60-year-old aged care worker in Burnie to get a better job”.
With the upcoming byelections now inflated into a leadership test for both Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten, and the major parties showing a disinclination to stick to the actual facts, this week confirms that no truth will remain untrampled in the race to gain a political advantage.
The same ‘rule’ will apply to the debate over tax cuts. Both the government and the opposition claim their own tax reforms are more generous and responsible, while the offerings of their opponents are misleading and dangerous to the economy.
Neither is telling the whole truth.
Many Australians already know the only truth is the certainty that politicians are going to lie through their teeth. So it’s more likely voters will resort to their own gut instincts about the warring parties, rather than try to sort the compelling lies from confusing facts.
While many factors influence a voter’s instinctive response to a politician or party, one factor has featured strongly in modern Australian federal elections: A politician’s or party’s perceived ability to manage the economy.
Importantly, this ability is not just about tax. According to Essential’s opinion polling, even though more voters trust Labor over the Coalition to provide a fairer tax system (38 per cent to 30 per cent), the results are reversed when it comes to the Coalition being trusted more to manage the economy overall (39 per cent to 33 per cent).
Labor may claim its tax package is more fair, generous and economically responsible, but it is going to have to find a way to prove this contention if it is going to overcome the Coalition’s reputation as better economic manager. When you are expected to lie, it is very hard to convincingly deliver a truth.
Voters may indeed find Mr Turnbull arrogant and out of touch, as the Essential poll often shows, but they also see him as more trustworthy and capable than Mr Shorten. It seems you don’t necessarily need to be seen as a good bloke to be a successful PM. (Take note, Albo).
When voters are forced to endure a daily barrage of lies masquerading as facts, they won’t respond by becoming a mini version of the ABC’s fact-checking service.
They’ll be too distracted trying to live their busy lives and working to maintain or improve their quality of life. Instead, these voters will retreat from the political cacophony and set their voting response to default, based not on who they trust – because that’s nobody – but on who they trust to do the right thing by the nation.