When Politicians Lie…er, Misspeak Themselves

“How do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.”—Political joke.

Politicians don’t lie. They misspeak, they overstate, they understate. And the press distorts, takes out of context, twists, exaggerates or does something equally heinous to what they’ve said. Poor dears.

Over the past few months Premier Prentice and ex-Leader of the Official Opposition, Danielle Smith, have been moving their lips a lot. It ain’t pretty, but are they lying?

What is a political lie?

Smart politicians avoid political lies by resorting to politician-speak—the language of un-communication. For example, any sentence that starts with “let me be clear” or “I’ve been perfectly clear about this” will be followed by a load of obfuscation. (Watch for this with Mr Prentice. He’s been perfectly clear about many things).

Happy Ms Smith and Mr Prentice

Politicians who do lie generally resort to exaggerations, lies of omission or contextual lies. Whether we get bent out of shape by political lies depends on who got gored and how badly. If the lie helps our side and hurts the other guys we’re inclined to lay low and move on. If not, we make an ungodly fuss.

Did Smith lie?

Danielle Smith, the ex-Leader of the Wild Rose and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, said she joined Mr Prentice’s Progressive Conservative government because she discovered there wasn’t much difference between his policies, resolve and shared interests and her own. She said Mr Prentice was sincere and had a firm grasp on what needed to be done. She thought he’d “been very honest about the challenges we face.”

A month earlier she said the exact opposite: “The Premier likes to claim that the province is under new management, but the throne speech makes it clear that the new management has no strategic or operational plans. If this were a business, the market would be expressing deep concerns about how the new management has such a poor grasp of the fundamentals.”*

The ruse of politician-speak, let alone exaggeration, omission or the contextual lie were unavailable to Ms Smith given that she joined the man and the party she’d reviled just the month before. Her praise of Mr Prentice rings hollow and she will go down in history as a lying politician who sacrificed her party on the altar of her own ambition.

Lies or a lack of integrity?

In the last two months, Mr Prentice made a political statement and an economic statement that cry out for the Truth-O-Meter.

A Happy Mr Prentice

Defection and democracy: Mr Prentice was asked whether accepting the leader of the opposition and 8 of her MLAs was harmful to democracy. He poo pooed the suggestion: “It’s not a democratic principle that conservatives should fight conservatives for the entertainment of socialists.” Socialists?

If gutting the Opposition isn’t a violation of Mr Prentice’s democratic principles, what is?

Mr Prentice says “to engage in public service is to be a servant of the people of Alberta…We are assumed to be honourable, assumed to be committed to upholding the trust our constituents have placed in us. Serious harm can be done to our democratic institutions when that trust is seen to be violated.**

Apparently crippling the most effective opposition Alberta has had in decades by allowing nine Wildrose MLAs to violate the trust their constituents placed in them does not constitute a serious harm to our democratic institutions.

In fact Mr Prentice justifies his actions as reunification of the conservative party. Others see it as a lack of integrity. Either way, it’s a lie.

The drop in the price of oil: Mr Prentice became the 16th premier of the province just as oil prices took a nose dive. Prices are now almost 50% lower than when he campaigned for the leadership of the party.  The result?  A $6.2 billion hole in the budget.

Mr Prentice says these are “untested” circumstances. He says this economic bust is unprecedented because this dip is more “precipitous” and is creating “more uncertainty” than the previous oil price drops.***

This is not true.

In 2008 oil prices dropped almost 70%. Bitumen prices approached $20 a barrel and we were in the grip of a global financial meltdown. So either Mr Prentice has historic amnesia or he’s scare mongering to prepare Albertans for a slash and burn cost cutting budget that will make Klein’s cuts look like a walk in the park.

If it’s the former, Mr Prentice is not fit to guide this province through the latest iteration of the classic boom/bust cycle. If it’s the latter, Mr Prentice is lying.

What to do about lying politicians

All politicians lie, or at least change their minds. Sometimes we forgive them (compromises must be made in order to move agendas forward) and sometimes we don’t.

An Unhappy Mr Nixon

Research shows that voters will reject politicians who lie to them if there’s clear evidence they lied and the lie is important. The backlash against the Wildrose defectors demonstrates that the political analysts are right—the defecting MLAs appear to be heading for the scrap heap come the next election.

One can only hope that enough voters see Mr Prentice’s lips moving when he says that gutting the Opposition supports the democratic institutions of government and that the 2014 oil slump is something Alberta has never seen before and decide he’s following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Zeigler and is misspeaking himself.

References: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2744068/How-tell-politician-lying-lips-move.html and http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/01/22/why-politicians-get-away-with-lying/politics-is-a-high-stakes-game-and-lies-can-pay.

*Hansard, November 18, 2014

**Hansard, Nov 25, 2014, p 161, 162.

***Calgary Herald, Dec 30, 2014, A4.

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24 Responses to When Politicians Lie…er, Misspeak Themselves

  1. Ted Woynillowicz says:

    I recall that when Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s less than honest VEEP, did not wish to answer a question, he merely indicated that the question was inoperative. Let’s be clear, not much has changed on the honesty index other than things have gone brazenly staged. Prentice has adopted the sidestepping and meaningless short sound bites as practiced by the current pm. Imagine if the press did it’s job by pressing these people to answer the damned questions. Imagine if Canada had a Steven Sackur type of interviewer. How the landscape would change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=815Yfr6gUKI

    • Ted, I just finished a New Yorker article that says the word “misspeak” is a magical word thought to be capable “of isolating a palpable, possibly toxic untruth, sealing it up in an airtight bag, and disposing of it harmlessly.” The sanitizing effect of words like “misspeak” cry out for journalists like Steven Sackur (great HARDtalk clip by the way) who are prepared to do the research and have the courage to hold politicians and high ranking government officials like Robert Gates accountable for what they’re telling the people. If Canadian journalists won’t do it, we have to.
      Here’s the link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/04/21/mr-and-ms-spoken

  2. Jane Walker says:

    Great blog, Susan! My visceral response to Alberta politics could well become life-threatening at any moment … but then your blog comes out and I know our outrage will be more than simply a seven-day wonder!!
    The WRA faithful will have a huge bankroll to manage their affairs come next election. They just need a leader which may be attracted by their financial position as well as capitalizing on the unrest within the party ranks. I have a need for us to follow their money … closely!!

    • Jane, I think calling the backlash to the defections “unrest” is putting it mildly! Wildrose party members have good reason to feel outraged. Here’s how Keith Brownsey, an MRU political science prof, described the defection: “It says that [democracy] is negotiable. It’s a business transaction. It’s a merger. What does it have to do with democracy?” What indeed.
      So let’s keep popping our blood pressure pills and slog on until we topple the one-party state. 🙂

    • Thanks Rick. In my research I came across some great examples of politician speak. One of my favourites was “consultation” which actually means “we’re not going to let the fact that we can’t work out how to do it stop us from announcing what we want to do.” No where is that more true than in Alberta where the government engages in “consultation” aimed at delivering predetermined results that just happen to support the direction the government wanted to go in all along.

  3. Fifty3 Degrees North says:

    Susan. I am not a follow-someone-else’s-opinion-blog-kinda-guy. I’m really more of a frenetic-blog-channel-surfer-kinda-guy. I mention this because when I clicked onto your “Subscribe” button, it was only the second time I have ever done so (in honesty the first time was for my wife’s business-related blog and there was a certain element of domestic survival involved). I caught one of your reposted blogs on Huffington and then read back through your previous posts. To say the very least, you are extremely clear and well-written.

    I am a firm believer in Thoreau’s observation that “Men have become the tools of their tools”. Politicians like Mr. Prentice and Ms. Smith are simply products of a deeply flawed political system. In truth, I think that the parliamentary system of democracy that we inheritted from Great Britain was fragile to start with, depending as it does on the existence of politcal clubs, and the need for an informed, if not enlightened, electorate. Mr. Woynillowicz correctly points out the failed role of the ever-increasingly corporatized media in keeping up its end in maintaining the delicate democratic balance.

    In this respect, Mr. Prentice and Ms. Smith are not holding the “tools”; they are the tools. The system that created them also empowers and sustains them. In this respect, the political players become virtually interchangeable. Despite the wide range of personalities reflected in Alberta’s premiers since Lougheed, what has changed? The Province has been staggering in its consistency. That is no accident.

    There’s really no point in changing the driver, or even the particular crew of passengers when the bus itself is a broken down smoking mess and there’s only one road.

    Despite my sincerely held beliefs on this, and despite never having met you, I would very likely have knocked doors for you in Elbow.

    • Thank you Fifty3 Degrees North! You make an excellent point with your comment that the system that created Mr Prentice and Ms Smith also ensures that regardless of who is the Premier, nothing changes. A story in today’s Herald confirms that in spades. The mayor of High River said he thought Ms Smith’s defection would serve High River well because “The more support you’ve got directly from the government that’s in power (ie via your progressive conservative MLA), the better off you are.” This was the approach taken by the PC candidate Gord Dirks who ran in Calgary Elbow. Given that he was a PC cabinet minister he was able to bump Calgary Elbow up in the queue waiting for school portables and promise $200 million in flood mitigation before the government had completed a comprehensive flood mitigation program.

      I agree with you that our parliamentary system is fragile, but it seems to have taken more abuse here in Alberta than in any other province in Canada.

      I would have enjoyed door knocking with you. We’d have had some very interesting conversations.

    • Brent McFadyen says:

      Interesting perspective, never thought of it that way. Let us hope that it is possible to improve.

      • Brent, the next few months will be very interesting. Not only does Mr Prentice get to dig his government out of the hole created for it by Klein’s PC government and made even deeper by Stelmach and Redford’s PC governments but Mr Prentice will have the pleasure of “leading” a caucus that includes Danielle Smith and the WR defectors who will not sit quietly on the sidelines given the “sacrifice” they made in crossing the floor to “make a difference”. I’m really looking forward to Question Period!

  4. Jim Lees says:

    Susan, I hoped, and felt, that the political arena would rise above the Redford ashes…..silly me. Instead it’s taken a sharp turn, and not necessarily for the better. What was I thinking?

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Jim, you’re so right. In researching this post I went through all of the Hansards for the fall session. At first I thought I’d reproduce the best examples of the WR Opposition opprobrium, but there were so many that I had to cut it back to Smith’s exchanges with Prentice. But she and the other WR MLAs had harsh words for all of Prentice’s cabinet ministers. Here’s what Smith said to Health Minister Mandel: “Political manipulation between Alberta Health Services and the Health ministry officials is rampant. Recent reports make it clear that objective evaluations of hospital maintenance priorities are ignored and facility condition scores are routinely lowered for hospitals in government ridings in order to move them up the priority list. Does the Health minister understand that playing politics with hospitals threatens the lives and safety of Albertans?…When it comes to managing health care, the new management is the same as the old management, and that’s no surprise because they are, after all, the same managers.”

      And then in a blink of an eye the “old management” under the “new” manager are just fine, thank you very much. Unbelievable.

  5. GoinFawr says:

    “It’s not a democratic principle that conservatives should fight conservatives for the entertainment of socialists.” wow, that’s a doozy. Translation: A mandate from the masses means little to those working to maintain the status quo.

    I found an excellent example of this sort of prestidigitation on the federal stage. Joe Oliver was recently interviewed by Amanda Lang on the CBC:
    http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Business/ID/2645434226/

    I find Mr.Oliver’s rhetorical ‘style’ typical of what you are outlining in this article. Eg. The minister begins by discounting Norway’s fiscally responsible (literally conservative) mixed-economic strategy by rationalizing that on average Norwegians pay a higher rate of tax than Canadians; because who on earth is crazy enough to wish to pay more taxes?
    The facts:
    Norwegians indeed pay, on average, around 49% of their income to taxes, while Canadians pay ~30%. But Norwegians gross around 89,000 USD/year in pay, while Canucks average about 45,000 USD/year.

    Take home for Norwegians: 89,000-43,610= 45,390 USD/year (net)
    Take home for Canucks : 45,000-13,500= 31,500 USD/year (net)

    So even though Norwegians pay a higher rate, they have more take home pay (14,000 USD); or roughly net 44% more than Canadians, AFTER taxes.

    Hunh. I guess tax rate isn’t everything after all. In addition to this, Norway’s gov’t’s balance sheet is positive (surplus of ~600 Billion USD in the form of a Sovereign Wealth Fund) unlike Canada’s, which is negative (debt) of approx. the same amount.

    In other words, Canucks pay taxes (~60 million USD per DAY) just to cover the interest on the debt they owe to foreign banks; and purported ‘Conservatives’ keep running deficit budgets which makes the situation progressively worse. Norwegians, on the other hand, have a surplus and receive additional revenue income from the investments of their sovereign wealth fund; so every single krona of tax they pay goes directly into providing services/benefits for Norwegians, and not into golden toilets for the heads of new yachts for foreign banks’ CEO’s.

    And that’s not even the best part, that occurs when Mr.Oliver defends all and any ‘fracking’ about 7 mins into the interview,

    “…hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled, and not a single instance, not one, of the …uh uh uh, contaminated drinking water; not a single one.That’s a perfect track record…”

    Really Joe? Not one instance of contaminated water? Even when the industry was working on shallow coal seams? Not one?
    Perhaps Mr.Oliver meant “not one instance” settled in court; because, after all, once a property is poisoned and subsequently rendered essentially worthless, the resident owner and their family have little choice but to accept any out of court settlement that gets them potable water immediately, usually supplied by the ‘fracking’ company, provided that company doesn’t have to admit culpability and the residents sign a binding agreement to keep their mouths shut. Alternately the affected property owners have the choice of bankrupting themselves in court standing alone fighting against a monstrous industry and every politician its ever pocketed; bonne chance!
    Apparently this dearth of enforcement/convictions gives Mr. Oliver license to state that drinking water contamination has NEVER, not once, happened in Canada as a result of ‘fracking’.

    That’s a neat trick! Hocus Pocus!

  6. GoinFawr says:

    correction to my previous comment,
    “In other words, Canucks pay taxes (~60 million USD per DAY) just to cover the interest on the debt they owe to foreign banks”

    That should be 160 million USD/day. One hundred and sixty million. USD. Every. single. day.

    • GoinFawr: thank you for the excellent example of how the government twists the facts in order to support its position. As you point out, it’s easy to pick a fact and use it out of context to support your ideology. Here the “Norwegians pay higher taxes, heaven forbid” argument is used to obscure the fact that they have higher take home pay. Add to that the quality of life benefits that flow to all Norwegians from well funded education and healthcare services and Joe Oliver’s argument falls to bits. As part of the effort to condition the public to accept devastating cuts in social services the Calgary Herald (why do I read that newspaper, it just infuriates me) ran an article headlined “No sacred cows when oil prices tank, experts say”. The so-called experts included Stockwell Dav, the mastermind behind the deregulation of electrical markets. He argued against getting rid of the flat tax and said both Brad Wall (Sask) and Christy Clark (BC) understand that raising taxes to get through tough times is a bad idea. This is hardly comparable given that both Sask and BC have a progressive, not flat tax regime.

      The $160 M USD/day number is shocking and further evidence that the Conservatives (provincial and federal) have done a great job of convincing citizens that they are “fiscally conservative” without telling them the true cost of such “prudent financial management”. Where is the Opposition? Why aren’t they shouting this information from the rooftops?

      • Liz says:

        Let’s not forget that Stockwell Day was a big supporter of AB’s flat tax, under Klein’s banner. I have never been able to stomach his diatribe and I fail to understand why CBC Newsworld have him on the panel of commentators on Power and Politics most afternoons. (Day’s educational credentials are severely lacking and it’s often evident that, like Klein, the Peter Principle applies.)
        Thankfully the mute button works on the remote though, and it is the perfect antidote to needing blood pressure pills!!

      • Liz, your point about Stockwell Day’s education is particularly relevant given Prentice’s announcement that he wants to enhance the quality of our public service. The provincial public service was, at one time, staffed with content experts who would provide apolitical advice to their political masters. But all this changed under the Klein government (by God that man has a lot to answer for). Klein assumed that the content experts wouldn’t support his political agenda and replaced them with political operatives. It’s no wonder morale suffered–if your value as a senior public servant depends on your ability to read the political tea leaves, not your education, skills and experience, it’s time to pack it in.

      • GoinFawr says:

        “Why aren’t they shouting this information from the rooftops?”
        Susan, there was a time…

        heck, .there’s still time yet. Good year for it too!

      • Fascinating video. I’ve seen Matthews’ One World video as well. It never ceases to amaze me how smart this kid is and how he manages to pull off interviews with top level politicians. So what do you think it will take to get the main stream media to ask questions like “Where does money come from?”

  7. Ted Woynillowicz says:

    Agree with you, GoinFawr, Also used to be that politicans serves in the hallowed halls of our legistaure buildings. No it’s more like hollowed out halls of their buildings.

  8. Carlos Beca says:

    I cannot make any comments this week. One never knows, I may get a death threat from our friend Anderson. 🙂
    I have a good article to suggest.

    http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2015/01/09/Death-of-Medicare/
    Enjoy and have a great weekend

    Carlos

  9. That was funny Carlos 🙂 Thanks for the healthcare link. I’ll be writing about this topic as soon as we see what Prentice plans to do about it–likely more privatization, god help us.

  10. Judy J. Johnson says:

    Keep blogging Susan! You’re doing a lot to thaw the permafrost in the right-wing political culture of Alberta.

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