Lies, Broken Promises, and Tony Abbott.

Okay, so I’m going for the low-hanging fruit a bit with that headline. Sue me.

I don’t need to talk at length about how Tony Abbott is, by a country mile, the most dishonest leader in Australian, if not Western, history. Documentation exists all over the web, from rant pages such as this steadily-growing catalogue of porkies to the ABC’s legendary Fact Check website. (No wonder one of his litany of broken promises concerned cutting funding to the ABC, if they’re going to spread facts. God, what sort of journalists do they think they are?)

There is, however, a related matter I would like to talk about. The one excuse generally accepted for a politician’s broken promise — and therefore, the one usually trotted out on the rare occasion the politician actually admits that he is breaking a promise — is that facts have come to light that weren’t, or couldn’t have been, known when the promise was made.

This seems reasonable on the surface. When we learn new facts, we ought to change our minds to reflect the new facts. Something that seems reasonable now might turn out, six months down the road, to be a Very Bad Idea™. If our policymakers were too inflexible to handle this, they would be doing us all a disservice.

But that’s not what’s actually going on. Almost always, it’s merely a convenient excuse. And even when it isn’t, it still shows the politician to be untrustworthy. (I know that’s a bit like something showing the sky to be blue, but that’s a rant for another day.) Because from an epistemic point of view, the politician had no right to make the original promise. If new information is capable of making you change your mind by such a degree, then you shouldn’t have been so confident in your old information as to make promises based on it. That, needless to say, goes especially for promises that involve public policy or the use of public funds.

I can understand certain changes because truly unexpected information comes to light, but this happens rarely. I can be fine with others because I was never fine with the original promise in the first place (Julia Gillard’s imposition of the carbon tax, for instance), although that doesn’t do the politician him/herself any favours in my books. But promises like a budget surplus in X years (both unnecessary and impossible to forecast with sufficient precision), or a freeze on tax rises (ditto), don’t come under either category. If you don’t know how much something will realistically cost, it’s not OK to put a figure to it just for the sake of doing so. (That’s what we have Treasury costings for.)

In the vast majority of cases — certainly, if you’re finding yourself having to break promises because of new information on a regular basis — the problem isn’t the new information. It’s that you’re making promises you have neither the epistemic, nor the moral, right to be making. You’ve still done the wrong thing — not by changing your mind, but by prematurely making it up in the first place.

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