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Abbott: Master of lies, damned lies and statistics

“There were three gradations of inveracity – there were lies, there were damned lies, and there were statistics” (Arthur Balfour, 1892)

You may have noticed that Abbott and other members of the front bench regularly throw around numbers and statistics to back up what they’re saying. Numbers and statistics are quantifiable, so when they are used, they make the speaker sound like they know what they’re talking about. But exactly how reliable are they?

Of course we know that Abbott often contradicts himself – sometimes within the space of as little as half an hour – regularly choosing truthiness over truth. But exactly what is the ratio of truth to truthiness? How much can we rely on what Abbott tells us?

I decided to take a quick look at Abbott’s most recent interview – which was just a short one in Hobart yesterday – to examine the ratio of truth to truthiness. In that interview, Abbott made one quick statement and took only two questions. All up it was no more than half a page of text when typed. But he managed to include quite a few numerical or ‘statistical’ claims.

I’ve taken a look at each of these statistical claims to see what the ratio of truth to truthiness was. Or put another way, exactly how many lies, damned lies and statistics did he managed to squeeze in…

1. Refugee intake

Abbott isn’t the only one who has been throwing this piece of truthiness around. Minister for saying “We’ve-stopped-the-Boats” Peter Dutton put out a press release on Friday with the same information. And Andrew Robb repeated it again this morning on the ABC’s Insiders programme.

As I explained yesterday however, the claim they are making is true if you only look at one small subset (3.1%) of resettled refugees – those resettled by the UN. If you look at all resettled and recognised refugees – the full 100%, which includes refugees who have applied directly to a specific country rather than through the UN – then we are actually 27th on a per capita basis globally. According to the Refugee Council of Australia – this is a far more accurate measure. And if you look at how many refugees we take overall – and not just those who are resettled – well, we don’t even rank – not anywhere meaningful anyway.

2. Business Confidence


According to Abbott, thanks to the Liberal Government’s strategy – and particularly their small business policies, business confidence is high.

But according to the NAB monthly survey of business confidence (shown below) as tracked on the global TradingEconomics site – business confidence has been trending steadily downwards since the Abbott government took office. Now, to be fair – it is not at an all-time low – but it certainly cannot be considered high.


And if you look solely at small business sentiment – which Abbott was particularly focusing on, it’s been in the red for a while now:


3. Jobs created


Treasurer Joe Hockey made a similar claim a few week’s back in question time, saying that the coalition had created 334,000 new jobs since taking office. It was not true then and it is no truer now.

AIM Network journalist Kaye Lee looked into these numbers back in August, and established that according to the ABS:

That’s an increase of 164,900 jobs. Not 335,000. It’s possible that the larger number only takes into account new jobs that are created, and fails to factor in jobs that are lost or where people change jobs. But either way, it’s misleading, and does not present an accurate picture of how the employment situation has changed under the Abbott government.

Further, as Kaye points out in her article – since Abbott and co took government, the number of people employed has increased by 7,495 jobs per month (on average). However under Labor, the number of people employed increased by 15,180 jobs per month (on average) – and that was over the Global Financial Crisis.

(Note: See info at the end of the article for an update to the above numbers released by the ABS this week.)

4. New Car Sales


According to the ABS, there were 1,127, 552 new car sales in the year ending 30 June 2015. Despite Abbot’s claim, this was not a record year.

In fact, the record for new car sales was set in the twelve months to June 2013 – just before Abbott and Co took the reins of government – when 1,141,500 new car sales were sold. Even looking at individual months – instead of whole years – the biggest month was in September 2012, when 97,965 new cars were sold, followed by June 2013, when there were 96,766 new car sales. Both of these months were prior to Abbott and co taking office.

5. New Housing Approvals


In absolute terms, Abbott is actually right about this. In the year to 30 June 2015, according to the ABS, there were a record 219,921 new dwellings approved.

But this is a meaningless number unless you factor in our current population. Our population grows every year, and therfore so does our need for housing. Once you factor in our current population, and you look at the number of new dwellings approved on a per capita basis, then the record over the last 35 years was set in the 12 month period to June 1989, when 11.13 new dwellings were approved for each 1,000 people living in Australia at the time. This compares to only 9.23 new dwellings approved for each 1,000 people living in Australia for the year ending 30 June 2015 (which ranks only 9th in the 35 year period).

6. New Business Registrations


In absolute terms, again Abbott is right – the number of company registrations is at record levels. But again the number of companies tends to be tied to the size of our population. And just like our population, the number of companies registered has increased every year this century – even during the global financial crisis. What is more relevant is looking at the level of growth in new business registrations from one year to the next.

When looked at from that angle, it is the year to 30 June 2007 that has the highest growth rate – at 6.2%. That said, the year to 30 June 2015 has the second highest growth rate, at 6.0%, so Abbott is not completely out of the ballpark.

Other Claims

During his brief interaction with the press yesterday, Abbott made two other ‘factual’ claims….

Taking 4400 refugees from Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria

Abbott stated yesterday that “we made a decision last year that we would take about 4,400 people from Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria”. I’m not going to question the veracity of that decision – but what I am going to question is that it suggests that they made a decision to increase Australia’s total intake of refugees. This is not true.

In fact one of the first things the Abbott government did after coming into office, was to drop the total number of refugees Australia is taking by 30% from just over 20,000 refugees per year to just 13,750 a year (or less than 0.1% of the world’s current refugees). This number has not increased since then, although there is talk of potentially increasing it in 2017/2018. So if we have taken more refugees from Iraq and Syria, it has arguably been at the expense of refugees from South-East Asia – which has the largest share of refugees globally.

Increased number of business registrations and lower numbers of bankruptcies

The final statistical claim that Abbott made was that “we have got bankruptcies at record lows”. I’m going to stay on the fence on this one. Certainly according to ASIC data shown on TradingEconomics, the number of bankruptcies has continued to grow – as is seen below. But since the number of companies has continued to grow as well – and the rates of growth are fairly similar, I’m going to fence-sit.


Conclusion: Abbott is a Master of lies, damned lies & statistics

There was not a single statistic that Abbott used yesterday which isn’t ‘on the snout’ in one way or another. Not one of his claims stands up to scrutiny without having a bit of credibility knocked out of it. Many of them ‘stretch’ the truth, by making the truth appear to be something that it isn’t. But not one of them stands alone as an accurate and clearly verifiable reflection of the truth.

I suspect there’s a good chance that you’re not surprised by this. And here’s the problem with that….

Our democracy can’t function without truth

When I started looking at each of Abbott’s ‘statistical’ claims, I wasn’t expecting to find that pretty much every single one of them was at best misrepresenting the truth with statistics and at worst, an outright lie. I know we are all conditioned now to be skeptical of politicians’ claims. But when it’s not possible to clearly verify one single piece of factual information that comes out of our Prime Minister’s mouth in one very short door-stop interview – you have to think that things have gone too far. You have to wonder whether our tolerance for politicians’ stretching the truth is just too high now – that we have become so desensitised to politicians lying, that we just don’t blink anymore.

This is a truly dangerous place to be however. According to Thomas Jefferson:

An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people. (Paraphrased)

Without accurate information, we can’t make educated and informed judgments about those who govern us and those who would govern us. It’s as simple as that.

The media needs to do a better job

DevineTweet Politicians’ lies should be picked up by the media. But unfortunately, large portions of our media are just taking our politicians’ claims as factual without checking their sources.

There was a great example of this on twitter last Thursday, when Miranda Devine – of Daily Terrorgraph fame – tweeted back at people who were trying to explain to her that Australia does not take the highest number of refugees per capita. In her tweet – shown on the right – Devine actually provides a link to the Refugee Council of Australia’s page which explicitly states that Australia is 27th in the world in regards to its refugee per capita intake. Clearly Devine didn’t even bother to read her own link.

Truthiness is out there – so be alert

So as I’ve said before – and will undoubtedly say again – be alert and alarmed people, our democracy is under threat, not from terrorists, but from the lack of transparent, accountable and truthful government. In the words of George Orwell:

“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.

Update on 11 September

Since originally publishing this article, the ABS have released job numbers for August which also include ‘rebenchmarked data’ back to 2011, which drops the number of employed people in September 2013 by a significant number. They had apparently made an error in the previous numbers following on from a delay in processing passenger cards by the Department of Immigration. If this is correct – and I say ‘if’ because it’s a massive error if it is one – then this reduces the number of employed people in September 2013 to 11,452,500.

Interestingly, the ABS’s link to their released data for the same date, still shows the higher number. If you do accept the ‘rebenchmarked’ lower number, there are now 312,900 more people employed using the August numbers – than there were in September 2013. This is still lower than Abbott’s claimed 350,000, and at the time Abbott made his claim, the number was actually under 300,000 – but it is closer to the mark than the previous ABS numbers suggested. But since these conveniently ‘adjusted’ ABS numbers still warrant further investigation, stay tuned…….

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  1. Audioio

    That there are a million blog posts, Facebook posts and tweets accusing Abbott and his government of being straight-out liars and yet not a single defamation action has been brought is very telling, don’t you think?

  2. Matters Not

    Very impressed. Perhaps there’s a future for ‘journalism’ after all. Just jokin …

    As for Miranda, the Devine, and her output, I am not in the least surprised.

  3. Kate M

    Audioio – well the best defence against defamation is the truth………

  4. Kate M

    MN Thanks.

    Devine’s actually still ranting now – at least she was earlier today – I stopped paying attention a while back, but I’ve seen the odd tweet.

  5. Kate M

    Jim – the attacks on the ABC and the SBS have been extremely concerning. I also suspect they’ve had more influence on programming choices than we know……. Great article. Thanks for sharing. K

  6. Matters Not

    Spot on girl

    Interesting comment Jim ‘boy’.

    Perhaps the reader(s) might remember Bert and that boxer Ali?

    But possibly not.

  7. Rais

    Just one point Kate, don’t get taken in by Lib or Lab Government claims that THEY are creating jobs. They aren’t – except when they actually advertise Government jobs. The rest of the jobs are created through economic activity and and governments have only limited influence, if any, on their creation. Of course really bad Government policies like the present Government’s active hostility to renewables can indeed close off all or part of one area of enterprise and limit the growth of jobs in that area.

  8. David

    Thanks for the comparisons Kate, excellent investigative work. Just one whinge from me….you were too damn nice about the madman Abbott and his thugs. Truthiness? Lies, lies and bloody lies.
    Great post, hope to read more. Will share this one on Twitter.

  9. Neil barr

    For a fair comparison many of these stats should be compared on a per capita basis which makes most of abbots claims even worse than the comparisons you present

  10. Zathras

    There’s no “mastery” involved here, just plain old lies – words chosen to tell his audience what they want to hear.

    It’s the same technique he used to get himself elected and one he hope will keep him in power.

    In a democracy it only takers two idiots to outvote a genius and if the more gullible members of his audience accept what they are hearing it will keep working – until the media decide to take him on.

    I suspect people will just stop listening long before that.

  11. Mercurial

    The truth doesn’t seem to count for much any more.

  12. Brittle (@MissBHaviour)

    Audioio – defamation is deliberate slandering to destroy the reputation of a person, not merely obfuscating the truth for your own purposes. That is why there are no “defamation” claims.

    For instance, the claim that the cost of Medicare has doubled over the past decade may be “true” if you’re ignoring inflation and the increase in population.. but it doesn’t stack up when you look a little deeper than the face-value comment to realise that government revenue has also roughly doubled over the same time frame and therefore the cost of Medicare as a PERCENTAGE of revenue has actually remained fairly steady.

    This is not “defamation”, but it is using arguably “factual” information in a deliberately misleading way to elicit a certain response to justify certain actions (like charging a co-payment fee to pay for something we already pay for via taxes and the Medicare levy).

    The claim that the cost of Medicare doubling means it’s “spiralling out of control”, on the other hand is a complete and utter load of bollocks when taken in context.

    And it is what our government excels at. They present a half-truth, out of context, and most of the media is too lazy to actually verify the claims or provide the proper context to give people the full picture… which is rather the point this article is making.

  13. Pingback: Abbott: Master of lies, damned lies and statistics – » The Australian Independent Media Network | olddogthoughts

  14. Terry2

    Things are not going too well for Abbott on several additional fronts:

    He discounted the advice that was given to a cruise operator and accused the individual of making it up, will we see an apology ?

    He has lost the support of Queenslanders by reneging on a deal to help fund the light rail Gold Coast contract that is vital to the 2018 Commonwealth Games : this is petty payback for the dumping of the Newman LNP government.
    Also indicates that he doesn’t expect to be around to open the Games in 2018 :

  15. Martin Bryce

    To be a master of something you have to be good at it. Abbott’s not even a good liar never mind good anything else. He’s a small man with a small intellect and an even smaller outlook on life. He has nothing but personal aggrandisement as his life’s work and everything he says is in the service of that end. Nothing matters – truth, honesty, religion, ethics, people, women, refugees, indigenous Australians, honour and respect – they are all there to be used by Abbott to take and keep the job at any cost. There was the statement, made by him to Tony Windsor, that tells us without a shadow of a doubt that his ambition was for himself and not Australia. In his own mind he is the supreme leader, the captain of team Australia. Another notion of his that reeks of sport, uniforms and mindless compliance with some imagined higher authority. Every waking minute must be spent looking for the main chance, every utterance must plant the seed in our minds of his infallibility and power. It has been there from the day he was born and it’ll be with him until the day he dies. He is a lost soul in search of himself; he lies because his life is a lie and he knows it. He’s a fraud. His exposure as such terrifies him so much that he denies it even when he knows he is exposed. He lies about lies and he lies to himself about himself. Hitler wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’, ‘The Great masses of the people… will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one’. I suspect that Abbott was introduced to that notion early on in his seminary days, if not long before, and on it he built his game plan. The problem for him is that he wasn’t looking at, nor is he capable of looking at the big picture. Even in the seminary he was putting his ideas, his way of doing things ahead of those of the Pope and the catholic church itself. They had to change to accommodate him and his ideas, not him theirs. When that didn’t happen he left. His reality has always been at odds with the reality around him. His view of the office he inhabits is self-informed, self-generated and self-serving and lacks any reference to the office of prime minister itself. He paces the carpet in the office of Tony Abbott, it has a front door, a back door and a very small window. He is safe there, but it’s not a place in which he can create the all-sustaining big lie. All he has are tiny voices in his head giving him equally tiny stories to tell us, usually in three, haltingly delivered and repeated words. His page in history is already written. A small lonely man of limited intellect and even more limited vision; he will die in obscurity somewhere in the middle of nowhere. His gravestone will bear the words, ‘The worst ever Australian Prime Minister’.

  16. Ian Parfrey


    What you have written is the most accurate and concise examination of Abbott I have read.
    You have nailed Abbott to the wall with his own ignorance and abject hatred of all things that aren’t ‘him’.

    A stellar piece of work.

  17. lizzieconnor

    I agree with Ian on his praise of Martin’s analysis. Except that the crucial point of the article is in its headline.

    TA (actually his puppet-master) really is a master of lies, damned lies and statistics. He/she knows that the crucial percentage of swinging voters don’t hear anything further than the lie, and then that’s what ‘informs’ their vote. Truthiness always trumps truth with them.

    So I wholeheartedly second (again like a broken record) Kaye M’s plea to ‘be alert and alarmed’. I certainly am . . .

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