The lying game: Australia’s political landscape to come

Throughout 2016 to 2018, telco giant Samsung Australia advertised a staggeringly expensive “water resistant” mobile phone. The phone could float around the pool, surf a wave and generally stand up to the most rigorous water fantasies any phone fetishist could imagine. Samsung’s absolutely fabulous water-resistant mobiles were marketed across all forms of social media, points of sale, in press releases and, of course, the obligatory news article.

The only problem was – the phones weren’t water resistant at all.

The phone’s charging ports rusted out and, what’s worse, Samsung knew this. By 2019, Samsung’s fantasy water-proof phones were failing and leaking in their thousands. In July 2019, the ACCC promptly took Samsung to the Federal Court under Section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law, which states: “A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.”

In their ruling, the Federal Court ordered Samsung Australia to recall and remove all advertising connected to the faux waterproof phones and pay $14 million in penalties. Ouch.

The Australian Consumer Law, (Sch 2 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, Cth), is a particularly effective piece of legislation that aims to protect Australians from unconscionable, deceptive or misleading conduct that has the potential to greatly affect or diminish the lives of Australians. Essentially, it exists to stop us from being conned and lied to.

Now, let’s compare all those soggy phones with Australian politics, a forum of power and privilege that has extensively more potential to affect the lives of all of us than a rusty charging port.

Throughout 2023, the leader of the federal opposition, Peter Dutton, used his position to tell Australians that Canada is powered by 60% nuclear energy (no it isn’t), that Marcia Langton called all No voters “racist and stupid” (no she didn’t), that since Labor took government in 2022, 105,000 asylum seekers have entered Australia (no they haven’t), and that wind farms kill whales (no they don’t). I could go on forever, but I only have a certain amount of words.

All of these claims by Dutton were deceptive and misleading – bold-faced, dangerous, totally unsubstantiated lies that were deliberately designed to deceive the Australian public. Legally, nothing can be done about it and nothing was done about it. The Australian government will legislate to protect you from a soggy phone, but not from a powerful politician who repeatedly lies about renewable energy or climate change.

The fact is, one of the main strategies of the Liberal party and its step-sibling, the Nationals, is to tell lies deliberately in order to create chaos and confusion, then move on and tell another lie. The deliberate lies are not an aberration or a flaw or an occasional hiccup any more, they’re now a crucial part of the way the Liberal party operates. The lies are now a feature of their re-election strategy.

Dutton and his team know that no matter what he says, it will be reported. Every word he utters will be regurgitated by newsrooms and journalists eager to beat each other to the latest titbit and feed the insatiable maw of the 24/7 news cycle. Content is king and the media desperately needs that content on the hour, every hour. Look at the rolling news coverage on almost all major media sites, they need to feed themselves, and if Peter Dutton says he just spoke to Elvis Presley in a supermarket in Lithgow, they’ll rush to report it.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s called out as a lie – in fact, Dutton loves that even more. What matters is just that it’s reported, commented on, written about, amplified; and that includes people on social media believing they’re helping by calling out the lies. The opposition knows that no matter what they say, however ludicrous and outrageous, it will be blasted in the headlines and discussed and regurgitated.

That’s the whole point.

It’s hard for most of our political journalists to understand that in 2023, the deliberate feeding out of lies to have them reported on is the entire point of the exercise. They believe that a good old serve of fact-checking after the reporting of the lie will negate the lying game. But people don’t read the articles anymore, or listen to the full news piece. In fact, news consumption is a dying habit.

What people tend to do is scan the headlines on their phone or at the local coffee shop. People under 35 rarely watch television news at all, and the front page is a thing of the past. News is consumed in short, sharp bites while people are on the run to everything else that occupies their lives, like trying to keep their heads above water. Whales will die from off-shore wind farms. That’s all they heard, the fact checking just floats around behind them in the slipstream.

Don’t look to Australian political media to wise-up to this strategy. They refuse to accept it. They faff about at the edges, calling Dutton’s claims “inaccuracies” and arguing over whether to use the terms misinformation or disinformation, as if most people know the difference between either, or actually care. They fail to register that their mere reporting of his words – regardless of the added context – is exactly what Dutton is after.

Dutton has managed to weaponise straight reportage (the rule that says journalists repeat word-for-word what a politician has said without adding context or editorialising) and the semi-literate and disconnected nature of much of the Australian electorate. Dutton relies on exploiting the fallibility of journalists who insist they must repeat his every word because he is “the leader of the opposition”*, just as much as he relies on the busy or the disinterested simply scanning a headline or a tweet and moving on. 

(*Just like American media insisted they simply must report Trump’s every action and word.)

Lies in political campaigning work, but only if you’re the one pumping them out first.

In the months to come, in a post-referendum Australia, look for Dutton to also ramp up the war for your values and morals. What that means is that we’ll see less and less of the conservative side of politics working towards issues that are of interest in your electorate (like local hospitals, roads, etc) and more time spent on dividing the nation into little war-zones. Almost all of the issues they pump out into the landscape with the help of their friends at Advance Australia and CPAC, will be issues that aren’t really issues at all.

Hot topics for the Coalition will be: spraying about the idea of electoral fraud (devaluing trust in our electoral system), trans people taking over public toilets and sporting events (demonising vulnerable people for no reason) and TheElites™️ taking everything from you.

These pieces of ammunition, especially the idea of TheElites getting everything you do not and sneering at you, will be hammered home in the 18 months we have until the next election. Given the vulnerability to this messaging for people on low incomes, in outer suburbs and semi-rural areas, Labor should be on the front foot on this because that’s where the Liberal party see their heartland – disinterested people, too busy working to make a living, with minimal critical analysis skills, swallowing the little lie grab phrases from Dutton and co they manage to see here and there.

What Dutton hopes to do with all of this is turn Australia’s daily news cycle into a war-zone. Lie + have it amplified + cause outrage and confusion + have people fight over it and become more disconnected from politics + move on + then lie again. Aaaaaand rinse and repeat.

The news will no longer inform you, it will simply be a tool that politicians like Dutton utilise to amplify their latest lie or their latest culture war head-on-a-stick, so our hearts and minds and our neighbourhoods become divided every moment of every day.

The battleground belongs to Dutton at the moment. The challenge is for our media and our progressive politicians, and every Australian who cares about the future of our country, to come out from behind in this game and get in front.

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