Our democracy is a very fragile thing. If history teaches us anything, it is that reversion to barbarism and absolutism is a much easier path than progress itself. As it has often been said, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.
However, perhaps another essential element in the protection of our democracy is respect for and adherence to, the truth.
Although lying in the political sphere is as old as human civilisation itself, the events of the past decade – now neatly summed up as ‘post-truth politics’ is alarming. The politics, language and tactics of regressive populism has sought to undermine established democratic institutions and sources of knowledge, by claiming that they are based on ‘fake news’ or that they don’t consider ‘alternative’ facts. For the first time in generations, this new assault on the legacy of the Enlightenment, and the progress it has brought us, is undeniable. Our modernity is threatened, with the very fabric of our society, which is built on tolerance and rationality, under great strain.
Commitment to truth and facts has waned.
In our current litigious society, making a deliberate false statement about another person will most likely end up in the courts. This is, of course, a boon for the legal profession that feeds off a society that cannot live harmoniously – but it is a fact of every day life. In the commercial world, there are laws to restrict what public claims can be made. Specifically, there are laws to protect citizens from being misled about the products and services they buy. Businesses cannot make statements that are incorrect or likely to create a false impression. We accept this as part of our ‘fair trading’ ethos. It is a standard we expect and are prepared to robustly defend.
However, in the world of political advertising, this simple, yet essential rule does not apply. It appears anyone can say almost anything about any opponent without sanction or serious repercussions. Take disgraced Queensland businessman Clive Palmer’s recent claim that a Labor government will introduce a death tax. It is a bald faced lie, yet his advertising is riddled with it. Many will claim it is freedom of speech. That it’s part of the ‘argy bargy’ of politics and electoral campaigning. Surely, some people argue, that ‘rational’ people can see through the claim for what it is (a lie) and reject it for themselves. As we know, this is sadly not the case. The 2019 federal election is a stark reminder that when false claims are thrown far and wide, something will stick. Rationality, it seems, has very little to do with voting behaviour.
Add into the mix, the festering sore that is our mainstream media. In Australia we have a foreigner who influences (and controls) the daily political narrative on a frightening scale. His interference, by supporting the spread of specious claims, has damaged our democratic process, ensuring that one side receives favour well above the percentage of support they receive from the electorate. However, tackling this a slightly different topic, one that former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has so wonderfully brought into the public sphere for much overdue discussion.
However, the refusal to address the scourge of mistruths as part of the political discourse harms our democracy. Indeed it severely undermines it. What we need are truth in political advertising laws. It is a minefield to be sure, but it is a course we must navigate if we believe that decisions made at the ballot box should be done in a manner free from the murkiness of deceptive fabrication and misleading claims. No one should be elected based on the propagation of a lie. The pursuit of truth in all facets of our lives must be sacrosanct. We should demand the truth, if we care for it, and our political system should be no different.