Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Politicians think it's fine to lie

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John Key's Banksian contortion robs him of the right to the high ground.

Paul Ryan won a gold medal in dishonesty. Photo / AP
Paul Ryan won a gold medal in dishonesty. Photo / AP

When the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, gave a speech to the party faithful last month so full of lies and distortions it earned him a gold medal in dishonesty from at least one pundit, it confirmed the new political truth in the US. According to one headline, "It's fine to lie".

Even on the conservative Fox News website, Ryan's speech was described as "an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech".

They were big lies, but Ryan's been caught telling smaller ones, too, though puzzlingly about things so easily debunked by anyone with an internet connection that you wonder what possessed him. Like the fib about running marathons in under three hours. (Actually, just one marathon, in his 20s, and in over four hours, slower than a middle-aged Sarah Palin.)

There was a time when the candidate's cavalier disregard for the truth might have signalled a worrying character flaw, but no longer.

That Ryan expects to get away with such shameless truth-stretching, and seems unembarrassed when called on it, may say more about his attitude to the voting public.

It speaks to an apathetic America that not only isn't bothered about the lies of politicians, but expects to be lied to.

As philosophy professor Jason Stanley has argued in the New York Times, "Public trust in public speech, whether by politicians or in the media, has disintegrated, and to such a degree that it has undermined the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere".

"The expectation is that any statement made either by a politician or by a media outlet is a false ideological distortion".

It was noteworthy that some media pundits were prepared to gloss over Ryan's big lies at the Republican convention and instead talk up his "big ideas". ("Huge ideas," quipped satirist Stephen Colbert, "ideas like, lying is handy.")

Are we headed in the same direction, where lying to the public is no longer as politically damaging as it once was?

The Prime Minister seems to be banking on it.

There are euphemisms aplenty to describe the distortions engaged in by politicians - spinning, obfuscation, being "economical with the facts".

The Act MP and minister John Banks tried the obfuscation-on-legal-advice line to explain his bizarre evasions and "memory lapses" when questioned by reporters about donations for his mayoral election.

If he was less than truthful, he suggested, it was the fault of bad law.

But the overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from sworn statements made to police and the statements Banks made to reporters is less kind. Banks lied to reporters; he misrepresented the truth and misled the public on more than one occasion. All while a minister of the Key Government.

One would have thought this would constitute a fatal failure to "behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards", as the Cabinet Manual requires.

But, no, says John Key. Whether or not Banks lied to the public is a matter of opinion, rather than of verifiable evidence.

On Q&A recently, Key was shown a clip of TVNZ's Jessica Mutch asking Banks, "Did you know that [internet mogul] Kim Dotcom was making a donation to your mayoral campaign?" Banks' reply was a definite, "No, I didn't know."

When interviewer Shane Taurima asked Key whether, in view of sworn statements to the police which say otherwise, he believed his minister "was telling the truth there?", the PM replied, "Well, what I can tell you is there is a range of different views there ..."

Key wanted to argue that this was politically motivated (isn't everything?), that Banks complied with the law (yes and no), that Banks had been trapped by poorly drafted law.

Taurima persisted. "So you believe him even though others say he was lying?" Key: "No, what I'm saying to you is I accept his word ..."

Apparently, the PM doesn't have to believe Banks to accept his word.

Key's Banksian contortion is cynical and insulting - perhaps we'll be too apathetic and stupid to notice.

It also deprives him of the right to claim the ethical high ground.

Was Banks really the victim of bad law?

The evidence suggests he was the architect of his current problems. The Sky City donation that prompted the police investigation was never meant to be anonymous. And it was Banks, Dotcom says, who suggested his $50,000 donation be split in two, to make it anonymous, and so that he, Banks, could "help" Dotcom.

Banks proved to be a fair-weather friend, though. He denied their association to media. And, as Dotcom's lawyer told police, when he called Banks to ask for help in getting an extra mattress for his client while in jail, Banks told him it wouldn't be a good look, given Dotcom's "election support". Even when asked to visit Dotcom in jail, as his MP, Banks stayed well away.

Banks says he's moved on, but I don't think he's moved far enough. The PM should put him out of his misery, for both their sakes.

- NZ Herald

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