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Tony Abbott and the Liberals: Truthiness Down Under

The American satiric comedian Stephen Colbert famously introduced the word “truthiness” into the contemporary English lexicon. Dictionary Merriam Webster named it their Word of Year in 2006, supplying us with two definitions:

1. truth that comes from the gut, not books
2. the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts of facts known to be true.

As Colbert explained in a rare-out-of-character interview, truthiness is a “What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true. It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

Although truthiness has been most strongly associated with former US President George W. Bush, recently the art of truthiness has undergone a revival in Australia with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Abbott, the leader of the Liberal party (the rough equivalent of the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in the US) has made a number of extraordinary comments recently. In particular, Abbott added a new temporal definition to the concept of truthiness in an interview with respected journalist Kerry O’Brien on ABC’s 7:30 Report. The conversation went thus:

O’Brien: “Tony Abbott feels, with conviction, we will not have a new tax, in any way shape or form we won’t have a new tax. In a month later, you do.”

Abbott: “Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks.”

O’Brien: “So every time you make a statement, we have to ask you whether it’s carefully prepared and scripted or whether it’s just something on the fly?”

Abbott: “But all of us, Kerry, all of us when we’re in the heat of verbal combat, so to speak, will sometimes say things that go a little bit further.”

In other words, Abbott, who is notorious both for his “shoot-from-the-hip” style and media gaffes, suggested that we are only take his word completely seriously (“gospel truth”) when it is a carefully scripted media performance, whilst at the same time entering his other improvised statements into a grey zone of interdeterminate truth. Truthy, to be sure, especially according to the second definition, but not the truth, per se.

This admission comes after a flurry of similarly truthy statements from the Opposition Leader and his party. Abbott has gone on record as describing the economic crisis of 2008-2009 as “the recession we didn’t have,” amazingly suggesting that the Rudd government economic stimulus package was completely unnecessary.

In fact, it can be fairly accurately said that the Liberal Party over the past six months has become the party of truthiness. At the end of last year, prior to his ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Party, Abbott allegedly told a small Victorian newspaper that “climate change was crap,” a comment he refused to deny. One wonders which of the scientific research on the subject has found that climate change is indeed “crap,” but then again, truthiness comes from the gut, not books. Indeed, in a colossal irony, the infamously religious conservative Abbott has warned on the 7:30 Report last November that “one of the things which I think has disconcerted a lot of people is the evangelical fervour of the climate change alarmists.”

Abbot has been far from alone on the Liberal benches in his truthy crusade. Former leader of the Senate Nick Minchin, a behind-the-scenes “power broker” influential in Abbott’s rise, suggested on the same 7:30 Report episode that climate change is a fairytale told by the Left, saying “for 10 years the left internationally have been very successful in exploiting peoples’ innate fears about global warming and climate change to achieve their political ends.” Minchin suggests that the Liberals are far from onboard with the climate change message: “If the question is, do people [in the Liberal party] believe or not believe that human beings are causing, are the main cause of the planet warming, then I’d say a majority don’t accept that position.” [italics added]

Minchin’s statement suggests that either global warming is not occurring, or that it is occurring independently of the current world population of 6 and a half billion. It is difficult to tell if this, too, is meant to be taken seriously, though it is indeed alarming if so.

With an Australian Federal election coming up later this year, the truthiness of Abbott and his party will be of ever-greater importance for the Australian people. The electorate will have to wait for confirmation as to whether this was an instance of truthy truth or gospel truth. Each policy statement, each comment to the press will have to be interrogated with the all-important question: did Abbott have a set of notes with him?