Originally published in The Canberra Times on November 13, 2021

Dishonesty is a trait people loathe in politicians, but thankfully our Prime Minister “doesn’t believe” he has ever told a lie in public life. While the PM should hope the media doesn’t throw to the video referee on that claim, it’s clear that French President Emmanuel Macron’s bombshell comment that Scott Morrison lied to him not only set off diplomatic shockwaves, but created domestic political fallout too.
It’s not clear that Australians actually care about the Prime Minister lying to the French President, but Labor has seized the moment to make this an issue of Scott Morrison’s character. And because the Prime Minister seems to be making a habit of being loose with the truth, it’s a strategy that might have some legs.

Returning home from his disastrous international trip, and straight after being called a liar by Macron, Scott Morrison proceeded to tell journalists that black was white and up was down. Announcing a complete U-turn on electric vehicles, journalists challenged the Prime Minister on his previous comments that EVs would “end the weekend” and can’t tow your boat or trailer. Asked by journalists how he could “honestly spruik electric vehicles”, Scott Morrison flatly denied making any such comments. “But I didn’t. That is just a Labor lie.” As my Dad would say, “Don’t piss down my leg and tell me it’s raining.”

On Channel Seven’s Sunrise, Scott Morrison falsely claimed that Labor’s policy was to force people to buy electric cars. Host Natalie Barr challenged his claims directly, and the Prime Minister simply doubled down with another lie, saying Labor’s policy was to “put up the price of fuel”. You might be surprised to learn that it is perfectly legal to lie in a political ad, so this may be a sign of what’s to come in political-party advertising when the gloves come off during the election campaign. Just a day later, the PM appeared on Channel Nine’s Today and was asked again about Macron’s claim he was a liar. Out of nowhere, Scott Morrison accused Labor leader Anthony Albanese of siding with the Chinese government on an unspecified issue.

To quote a favourite TV show of mine, put it this way: What if Morrison were in the first grade and bit a kid every week? You’d start to think of him as a biter. It’s risky to lie to the President of France, but denying you said things that you are on tape saying, as well as consistently making false claims to the media, is Donald Trump territory. That should concern all of us.
Many of you will remember that Labor once sought to paint John Howard as dishonest, and was caught out when John Howard flipped the issue from honesty to trustworthiness, with his infamous line “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low?”

Honesty and trustworthiness are not the same thing in voters’ minds; this is the gamble Scott Morrison is making. But John Howard’s trustworthiness rested on his consistency over a long time in politics. And no French president ever publicly called Howard a liar.

Scott Morrison isn’t known for his consistency or trustworthiness. Voters remember him saying “I don’t hold a hose, mate” during the Black Summer bushfires. Voters remember him saying the vaccine rollout wasn’t a race during the pandemic. Now he’s done a U-turn on electric vehicles and net zero by 2050, he wants the public and the media to forget he ever said anything to the contrary.

It’s also concerning just how little substance there is to recent government policy announcements. Before Scott Morrison went to Glasgow, he secured a net zero by 2050 target by buying off his own Coalition partners with an additional cabinet position and God only knows what else. But Australia essentially turned up to Glasgow empty-handed, with no more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target (the core ask of COP26), no new policies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, no modelling, and a “national plan” that relies on unspecified global technology trends, and “further technology breakthroughs”.

At Glasgow, all Australia has done is weaken global ambition. Australia failed to sign a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, and rejected a UK-driven pledge, signed by more than 40 countries, to phase out coal-fired power. There are reports Australia is trying to weaken the final text of the agreement to remove references to phasing out coal and strengthening 2030 targets by next year. Not surprising, given that Australia Institute research shows even the net zero by 2050 commitment is a fraud, because the government has more than 100 gas and coal projects in the pipeline which, if they all went ahead, would have emissions equivalent to 200 coal-fired power stations.

Here at home, the Coalition’s Future Fuels Strategy (FFS) was more smoke and mirrors, with some additional money for EV charging infrastructure but no incentives to reduce the upfront sticker price, no mandatory fuel standards, no fleet targets – really nothing against which we can judge the performance of the government.

The most devastating critique of the government’s policy came from NSW Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean, who this week signed NSW up to a COP26 declaration on transitioning to net zero emissions from cars by 2040. Kean nominated fuel standards as the most important policy the federal government had failed to tackle, saying: “Australia has some of the worst fuel standards anywhere in the world. Our fuel standards are worse than China and they’re worse than India, and what that means is that Australia is becoming the dumping ground for the vehicles the rest of the world doesn’t want.”

Perhaps, instead of passing unnecessary and damaging voter ID laws in its final sitting, the public would be better served if the Parliament passed effective truth in political advertising laws. Without them, it is likely to be a long, painful slog to election day.

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