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Abbott and Bullshit…

By Niall McLaren

In a considered piece on Tony Abbott and the Peter Slipper affair, John Lord pointed to how Abbott’s statements often appear to conflict. For example, we have his clear statement that his leadership aspirations are “dead, buried and cremated,” meaning the “Abbott era is over.” However, we now read credible reports that he may have another shot at the top job. Lord was unimpressed by Abbott’s apparent lack of principle: “This of course is just further proof that lying comes easily to him.” I want to look at this conclusion more closely.

In a recent piece, I elaborated on the idea of Bullshit as a formal, defined concept in the philosophy of science. The philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, has differentiated between lying and merely bullshitting. Lying is

“…an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship…”

The bullshit artist, on the other hand, has no regard for the truth. Bullshit he defines as an utterance which is neither true nor false, but is designed to create a particular impression in the audience.

This raises a critically important point, that any statement about the future is neither true nor false, just because it hasn’t happened. Concepts of truth and falsity don’t apply to events that haven’t happened. If I say “I will do X,” I don’t know whether X will actually happen. All I am doing is stating my intention as at the time of speaking, in order to create an impression in my audience. Ipso facto, statements about one’s future actions meet the definition of bullshit.

So let’s go to Lord’s assessment of Mr Abbott’s statements about his political ambitions: “This of course is just further proof that lying comes easily to him.” Unfortunately, that overstates the case of Mr Abbott’s honesty or lack thereof. Nobody can lie about the future; we can lie either about the past, or about our current intentions. And it is on this point that we can determine the worth or value of what Mr Abbott has to say, and by extension all politicians and all public figures. Because when a person says something about his current intentions, he will rarely say anything about how those intentions arose.

Without explicitly stating so, Mr Abbott wants us to believe that his intentions are generated by principle when in fact they are generated by expediency. In his case, expediency means saying whatever comes into his head that he intuitively recognises as (a) what his audience wants to hear and (b) that will be to his advantage. As Lord notes, Abbott is a totally political animal with very little experience of the world outside his bubble of hyperactive, self-interested politics. It is second nature to Abbott to say whatever he thinks his audience will like; that’s what he does, that’s the person he is, that’s how he got to where he is. But he’s not alone, of course: Trump, Hansen, Alex Tsipras in Greece, Clinton a lot of the time, and so many others, advance themselves by detecting and capitalising on people’s discontent.

Abbott will say whatever comes into his head that he thinks will sway his audience to his side, but he also wants his audience to believe that the stuff that he spouts is driven by principle rather than a moment to moment perception of how he is moving them. Intuitively and remarkably quickly, he detects his audience’s grievances and fears and plays to them, hoping to create in them a perception of himself as a caring, principled individual whom they can trust to deliver the goods. That’s not the case but he is not thereby guilty of lying. What he says will vary from minute to minute, depending on who is listening. Like all good politicians, he watches his audience closely, instantly detecting the signs that he has correctly divined their fears, and playing to them.

Insofar as Abbott subtly misleads his audience, he is guilty of dissimulation (“to conceal one’s true feelings and intents by pretence”) but, by Frankfurt’s definition, that’s not lying. I’d go so far as to say that at the time he says something, Abbott does feel the same firmness that I feel when I say I would never vote for him. But his firmness doesn’t last, it is driven by a need to be at one with his audience, to give them the feeling that he and they are united, albeit for a few moments. He really does feel for them when they complain about losing their jobs to off-shoring, it just doesn’t last. If he were to address the Business Council of Goanna Creek that afternoon, he might tell them the same thing, or he might tell them the exact opposite. That’s not lying, that’s working the crowd. That’s what politicians do.

So I have to disagree with Lord’s assessment. In his conflicting statements of his intentions, we cannot say that Abbott is lying. He is simply doing what he does best, bullshitting. Nixon was a liar, a serial liar. Tony Blair and George W Bush were liars, or so the Chilcott Report clearly implies. Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is so far guilty only of being a bullshit artist extraordinaire. Small stuff, really. I mean, who would believe a politician anyway?


Niall McLaren is an Australian psychiatrist, author and critic, although not necessarily in that order.


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  1. david1

    Abbotts not a Liar? I think you should have been paying more attention Niall

  2. peter ball

    Bullshit or Lies – both mean the same to me , try to telling that in Court defining the difference between the both and see how far you go – Abbott is an out and out Liar

  3. John Lord

    The word “lying” (in political terms) has been replaced with the more unsubtle reference of “bullshitting””

  4. Annie B

    “Intuitively and remarkably quickly, he detects his audience’s grievances and fears and plays to them, hoping to create in them a perception of himself as a caring, principled individual whom they can trust to deliver the goods. ” AND … ” What he says will vary from minute to minute, depending on who is listening. Like all good politicians, he watches his audience closely, instantly detecting the signs that he has correctly divined their fears, and playing to them.” ….

    That comment gives the impression that Abbott ‘detects’, watches closely, divines the fears of, ( intuitively and remarkably ? ) … an audience as he approaches the podium to speak, and then rapidly dispenses what he believes they want to hear. Perhaps you are conveying that he hears snippets of gripe in the audience ( in an auditorium ) … or has read / heard / been told of the gripes of the populace, before making a TV appearance to the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I worked unpaid for a former Democratic Labor Party ( now defunct ) candidate many years back. My sister has done the same very recently for another political party. There IS no intuition, detection, and nothing is remarkable about the approach any politician makes to any audience. … It comes about from long hard ( and at times dirty ), study of demographics, age groups, specific workings or not in an electorate, and a dozen other studies – as to how to * get these people on side *… and it is a very cynical and hard nosed approach.

    The candidate I assisted, took the advice of hardened political been-there-before bods – and was visibly uncomfortable with some of the ways she was ‘directed’ to say whatever, to get her into the Victorian Parliament. … On two occasions she flatly refused, as to have said what was offered to say – went against her better judgement and would have been an outright lie. She had integrity.

    I am no fan of Abbotts’ just as you obviously are no fan of John Lord. … I do not however, wish to think on or analyse that.

    Uttered bullshit is a form of lying, without pre-meditation – at least it is waffle – at worst it is misdirection or an attempt to impress. Then again not all outright lying has pre-meditation or ‘craftsmanship’ behind it either. … Many people, caught on the hop so to speak, will resort to unpre-meditated lying, just to get away from the question, or to cover something they don’t want revealed. And so they lie. … you would know that.

    And so it is with most politicians. !!

  5. Sandra Mae

    But Julia Gillard was branded a liar from one phrase out of a full sentence during an election campaign.The media even made it part of her name.

    A male is a bullshit artist but a woman is an evil lying witch.

    Double standards reign supreme.

  6. bobrafto

    Really, it was only bullshit when Abbott said there would be no cuts to health, blah blah blah before the election only to do the opposite when elected?.

    You have to consult yourself, Niall.

  7. Kaye Lee

    I have heard so many people say Abbott is a hard working politician and many say he was a great leader of the opposition. I cannot agree.

    Tony has always enjoyed inflicting his conservative views on other people right from the days when we were teenagers but I have never heard him express an original thought, or even an original interpretation or original commentary. Tony recites what he has heard others say. He believes what others tell him to believe. He needs the support of a group egging him on, just like he did at uni where he roamed around with a sycophantic gang of bovver boys.

    Tony doesn’t bother ever informing himself – at best he will read someone else’s opinion on something as he did with Ian Plimer’s book which he quoted widely and then admitted he had never read, just like the BHP report on why they were not expanding the Olympic mine site.

    Tony doesn’t so much lie as do what the young marketing people tell him he must do. Tony has “faith”. He believed Peta Credlin knew what was best. People with faith are often open to exploitation. I don’t think Tony is evil – I think he is inconsequential.

  8. Kyran

    Sooo, wait a minute. There is a difference between ‘lying’ and ‘bullshitting’? Seriously?
    The ‘currency’ of a politician is trust. Yet politicians treat us as mushrooms. As a matter of fact and record, less than 12% of Australian’s trust politicians. They rank slightly higher than car salesmen, and slightly lower than ‘public opinion pollsters’.


    Yes, I know, the article cites 17% trustworthiness for politicians. It was written by a pollster.
    “Small stuff, really. I mean, who would believe a politician anyway?”


    Tomayto, tomato. Mere pedantic’s.
    I mean, who would trust a politician anyway?
    Small stuff, really.
    Thank you Mr McLaren. Take care

  9. Annie B

    Kaye – your comment ” Tony doesn’t so much lie as do what the young marketing people tell him he must do”

    Exactly. …. The road to cynicism in politics requires a lot of study … and results in littler bods telling bigger bods, how they should ‘play the game’. … Which in the end, exonerates the purveyor of inane and untruthful comments, speeches that appeal to the populace ( the ‘think tanks’ believe ) … let’s the big boy off the hook.

    Wonderful, ain’t it ?

    Abbott did tell some whoppers, ( the 180° turn around from pre-election to post-election on promises ) and he must have known at least a little of that about-face ??? … most of it all was fed to him, mainly by his COS and maybe others if she let them in !! – because he seriously couldn’t think that deeply or consciously, for himself. … and frankly, he probably never will, ( unless he has some kind of epiphany 😉 )

    This all rendered him ( and still does ) … as you said “inconsequential”.

  10. Ian Parfrey

    Abbott says “…..no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS under a Coalition government” … on air and that’s not lying?

    It is a BLATANT lie and I fail to see either the point or reason for trying to exonerate Abbott for being the thing he is – A Liar.

  11. Harquebus

    Tony Abbott is a horses arse. No bullshit.

  12. brickbob

    A time to live a time to die
    a time to love a time to lie
    a time to bullshit i swear it’s not too late.

  13. MichaelW

    All politicians are liars but our Tones wins the gold, silver and bronze medals in the liars Olympics, the rest of the field are miles behind.

  14. Florence nee Fedup

    Let’s get it straight. Abbott never laid a glove on Gillard. The only thing he stopped was the Malaysian solution. Even that was more Greens than Abbott,

    It was Rudd who bought Gillard down.

  15. kristapet

    I don’t know why you needed to make a distinction about the behaviour of a very destructive man – he may be bullshitting, but, he is lying while he is about it – and his campaigning from abroad is pathetic and delusional – I really don’t know why you wasted your time over him
    I, for one, want him to disappear, disengage, desist, and drop off and the rest of his stablemates with him

  16. @RosemaryJ36

    Julia Gillard made a statement in good faith when she expected to lead a majority government. When she had to modify her plans with a minority government, she was accused of l;ying. A lie is a statement made knowing it is not true. Tony Abbott makes promises which he chose not to keep. The promises were made to help him gain government and he behaved dishonestly in breaking those promises..

  17. johnlord2013

    I took the opportunity to look back over my long list of what I have always interpreted as Abbott’s lies. Having done so I am inclined to the view that there is much credence in what you say. .In particular I agree with you paragraph. ”speaking to an audience”

  18. johnlord2013

    “Bullshitting is bad enough but when someone believes their own, that is intellectual dishonesty”

  19. PopsieJ

    Of course its the first thing that comes into his head, there is nothing else in there,

  20. Barry Thompson.

    That article is a load of bullshit.
    Abbott is a serial liar.

  21. helvityni

    Abbott is a yesterday’s man; I worry about the man we have as our leader today.

  22. Keith

    Abbott, as with his extreme right wing peers cannot be trusted.

  23. Graeme Henchel

    In Abbott’s world it’s quite routine
    To say black is white and brown is green
    In this world of deceit and distortion
    Words get twisted in all contortion

    The climate’s not changing
    The earth is flat
    Bronwyn’s not biased
    Joe is not fat

    Cuts are increases
    Co-payments aren’t tax
    Promises aren’t broken
    Who cares about facts

    Concoct a crisis where none exists
    Standard fare for lying sophists
    With polls all showing a deep malaise
    Give your ministers a bunch of A’s

    When the lying impact starts getting weaker
    Go and bash an asylum seeker
    If that doesn’t work pull out the flags
    Call in a favour from Murdoch’s rags

    Sink deeper into self delusion
    Tell more lies amongst the confusion
    Have a soft session with Jones or Bolt
    If all else fails, it’s Labor’s fault.

    When you finally get the arse
    Simply deny there was ever a farce
    No wrecking, no undermining, no sniping
    Just deluded attempts at historical re-writing

    When your usurper falls in the polls
    Send out your troup of nut job trolls
    A return to the Thug will likely unfold
    Revenge is a dish best served cold

    And for your enjoyment a bonus limerick

    The dilettante versus the dill
    I can hardly wait for the spill
    Because after round three
    Both these losers will see
    The only winner is Bill

  24. helvityni

    Most enjoyable, Graeme Henchel, thanks for laughs 🙂 🙂

  25. diannaart

    Any real estate agent knows:

    “Location, location, location”

    Down at the pub with his mates/cronies, over a few brewskies, it is bullshitting.

    In parliament, addressing a nation, it is lying.


    @Graeme Henchel

    I do hope your final line comes true.

  26. Steve Laing - makeourvoiceheard.com

    I think we are quibbling over definitions. Tony himself told us not to trust anything that he said, only what was written down. This does lead you to concluding that he is a bullshit artist extraordinaire – but also a lying bastard – as even that was a lie! But like Trump, he alerts us to the reality that is that the political process if not entirely broken, is highly susceptible to utter, and potentially highly dangerous, nonsense with apparently very little in the way of firewalls to protect the population from it. It really is not good enough that these rascals either get into power or so very close to it that they command any form of audience.

  27. crypt0

    When abbott got replaced as PM and said there won’t be any sniping, undermining and so on, that was just his way of saying there will be.
    No cuts to education, health, pensions the ABC and so on, that was just his way of saying there will be.
    Call it bullshit, call it lies, it makes no difference.
    It’s just NEVER the truth in abbott’s case.
    Not that he’s the only one in the LieNP; he’s just one OUTSTANDING example.

  28. Alan Baird

    Very true crypt0. The inverse way of putting it is,”He’s very economical with the truth”. In fact he totally abstains from it. He’s also a particularly nasty piece of work with no redeeming features. The article was a little bit of sophistry, trying to create an artificial demarcation between lies and bullshit. Reporters when listening to Abbott should always say to themselves, “This is probably going to be another stream of lies and/or bullshit”. That will create a mind correctly set up for Tony’s latest stream of howlers.

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