A few years ago there was a scam where people were promised a tool that could cut their energy bill in half. Strangely, when they were sent a pair of scissors, they felt ripped off.
These days with so many bills coming via email, I wonder if one could get the perpetrators of such a scam for misleading advertising.
Of course, the sellers of the scissors relied on the ambiguity of language and, like politicians, it’s easy for them to argue that they did exactly what they promised.
Language, I’m sure you know, can be a slippery beast. However, it does demand that one pays attention and that one holds people to account for the intent of the words as well as the technical meaning.
For example, when a politician tells us that their party has no plans to cut spending in a particular area and we take them at their word, can we say that they lied when they pick one of the following options:
a) “We have developed a plan now. Prior to the election it was just a vague intention without a clear plan, but now we’ve had time to formulate one.”
b) “We did not cut spending at all. We simply didn’t increase it leaving the program to function on the amount of money it’s received since 1997. Can we be blamed if their costs and wages have gone up since then?”
c) “It was not our intention before we came to office to do this, but owing to the changing circumstances we have had to listen to experts who tell us without drastic action now, we’ll need drastic action at some future date.”
d) “What do you mean? We have NOT cut spending! Look at the overall budget and you’ll see that over the forward estimates we’re spending more than was spent in any single year?”
e) “Yes, we’re abolishing that whole ministry next year but, like we promised, we haven’t cut the spending in the remaining time it exists…”
And while it might be true that nobody is responsible for the incorrect inferences you draw, it is interesting to look at how a concept like the presumption of innocence will slide around depending on who’s not guilty. When a public figure is accused of a serious crime, his or colleagues will blather on about the presumption of innocence and, while there’s a fair point about trial by media and we shouldn’t judge until all the evidence has come out, it’s interesting that it’s often the same people who complain about other innocent people being out on bail when they – allegedly – commit another crime. I say, allegedly, because in some cases, the “guilty” person hasn’t been convicted of either crime, making them as innocent as George Pell. (Go on, unpick that minefield!!)
Of course there is a fundamental difficulty in balancing the rights of a person accused of a crime and ensuring that the community is protected. However, it’s interesting that the presumption of innocence doesn’t seem to apply to anyone apart from one’s immediate colleagues and fellow travellers.
And so it was with Robodebt. The Coalition argument that Labor used income averaging too, doesn’t hold any water for two reasons. The first is that if a behaviour is wrong, the fact that you’re not the only wrongdoer doesn’t lessen your culpability. “Yes, Your Honour, I plead guilty but ask that the case be dismissed on the grounds that I’m not the only one who embezzled money from my employer,” is hardly going to get you off. The second problem with that line is that while Labor did use income averaging to identify potential overpayments, there was an element of checking before it was concluded that the person actually owed money. I used the analogy of it being like one police officer checking the alibi of a person vaguely matching the description of a potential criminal, while another throws them in a cell until they can prove that it wasn’t them.
Listening to the public servants and politicians at the Royal Commission, it seems clear that there was a general understanding that, if they took it to court that it would be found to be an unsound method of calculating a debt so any legal advice should be ignored until it was proven in court and in order not to find out that it was illegal, challenging things in court was to be avoided. In other words, we presume it’s legal and we’ll continue to presume it’s legal and we deserve the presumption of innocence until someone proves that we’re behaving illegally which we certainly don’t believe we are and if anyone suggests that we are, we’ll seek legal advice that says that we’re not sure so can keep going until someone proves that we were taking money from people who didn’t owe it.
Did I say “clear”? Um, sorry, by clear, I meant that the advice at the time was that nobody had received any advice that it was clear that we couldn’t get away with it… No, not get away with it… I mean, there was no proof that any of the moneys we were chasing were not owed and until such time, we felt it was absolutely necessary to ensure that we continued…
Mm, I’ve been listening to too many of the witnesses.
Still, Christian Porter and Alan Tudge will be interesting witnesses. And speaking of interesting witlesses, has Linda Reynolds not followed the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial?
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