From Brexit to ‘tram v hospital’: post-truth politics in the ACT

By Tim Hollo September 1, 2016

This was first published by the Canberra Times

From Brexit to ‘tram v hospital’: post-truth politics in the ACT

It’s been practised around the world for some time now, in forms both subtle and obvious. But in recent months, following startling political events from Trump to Brexit, post-truth politics has finally been widely identified as a specific – and troubling – phenomenon.

More insidious than simply lying or obfuscating, this aspect of right-wing populism describes a form of political campaigning that shows utter disregard for the truth. The facts simply don’t matter. When democracy relies on voters being able to make informed choices, it is a very worrying trend indeed.

And we should not think we’re immune from it here in the ACT. The event that, more than anything, launched understanding of post-truth politics in to the global political mainstream has direct parallels with our current Territory election campaign.

During the recent and infamous “Brexit” referendum campaign, Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers made a big deal of the idea that Britain spent too much money on its European commitments and that these funds would be better spent on the National Health Service. So committed were they to this that they even made a touring bus emblazoned with the slogan: “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead.” However, within hours of the results of the referendum being declared, senior figures in the Leave campaign were already backing away, saying this was never a pledge or a commitment, but merely an example of something else the funds could be used for. More than anything else, this rapidly became symbolic of the extent to which the Leave campaign was conducted “post-truth”.

Objection to a particular allocation of funds and a promise to spend them on health instead – where might we have heard that recently?

Far be it from me to suggest that Jeremy Hanson is lying when he promises to build a new hospital instead of the light rail network. But what we can say for sure is that the promise, like the broader campaign it is part of, is made with utter disregard for truth or facts.

The first indication is the magic pudding approach. The Liberals initially said we couldn’t afford light rail because we have to pay for the Mr Fluffy disaster. During the campaign itself, I’ve received a flyer in my letterbox saying the choice is between trams and “fairer rates”. And we’re also going to build a hospital?

Are these all just ideas, like the Brexit’s NHS promise? Or is it symbolic of the fact that truth doesn’t matter in the Liberals’ campaign against fast, convenient public transport?

If you’re not bothered about the truth, of course, these competing claims serve an important purpose – and that is to support inflated claims about cost. Thanks to the Liberals’ deceitful campaigns, most Canberrans now think the light rail will cost billions, when in fact it is a fraction of what we spend on roads. The point is, in a campaign like this, the numbers themselves are barely relevant. Hanson and his colleagues have created the impression that it is an enormous expense explicitly by spending the “savings” many times over. By bombarding people with messages that we can cut rates, deal with Mr Fluffy and build a new hospital instead of building public transport, they bypass truth and go straight for what US comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – the vague impression that something might be true.

And, when all else fails, you can just outright lie. Nestled among deceptions about cost and trees in the Liberals’ fright night TV ad is the accusation that bus depots will close – simply made up.

Post-truth politics is well and truly here in Canberra.

OK, so nobody is demanding to see Shane Rattenbury’s birth certificate. Alistair Coe isn’t proposing to build a wall along the Barton Highway. It’s not even up to the standards of Australia’s leading post-truth campaign – Tony Abbott’s claims that the carbon tax would wipe out Whyalla and lead to $100 lamb roasts.

But the fact that our politics are generally gentler here in the ACT than elsewhere can lull us into a false sense of security.

There are reasons for distrusting the Labor Party, of course. Their closeness to major developers, for one. Their tendency, after so many years in power, to do what they want to do and check in with the community afterwards, for another. But, while this behaviour from a government is objectionable — and needs a shake-up — it’s not a political threat on the scale of post-truth politics, where the ACT Liberals have form, as everyone who remembers the “triple your rates” campaign four years ago should recognise.

If they are allowed to get away with this, and post-truth politics gets its foot in the door in the ACT, it risks undermining the fabric of our democracy.

Regardless of your opinion on light rail, that is something we should all worry about.


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