Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Truth and lies in politics

Graham Steele asks what would happen if a law against politicians lying, within in the Conflict of Interest Act, was enforced?

This week's column examines the deep distrust with which many citizens approach politicians

"The reality is that it's actually really difficult to catch a politician in a lie," says Steele. (CBC)

During my first election campaign, in 2001, I knocked on a door in the constituency I was vying to represent.

I did not know the lady who opened the door, and she did not know me. But that didn't stop her from pointing her finger at me, before I could utter more than a few words, and say "You're all liars, and I'm not going to vote for any of you!" 

Then she slammed the door.

This brief job interview opened my eyes to the deep distrust with which many citizens approach politicians.

It's the Law

I was reminded of that incident last week, as economic development minister Michel Samson found himself in the soup over what he said, or did not say, about public funding for the Nova Star ferry.

His case would not be helped by the fact that all politicians have a fearsome reputation as liars.

All of us faced the same obstacle. But did you know that lying is against the law?

The Conflict of Interest Act says "ministers … shall be truthful and forthright and not deceive or knowingly mislead the House of Assembly or the public …"

So there it is, in black and white: it's illegal to lie. And in fact, Progressive Conservative house leader Chris d'Entremont filed a complaint with Merlin Nunn, a retired Supreme Court judge who administers the conflict of interest law, asking him for a ruling on whether Minister Samson violated this "tell the truth" rule.

But if there have been other complaints since the "tell the truth" rule was first written down in 1999, they are very few.

I can't think of one.

If politicians lie all the time, as their reputation suggests, why so few complaints?

Politicians don't like to lie

The reality is that it's actually really difficult to catch a politician in a lie.

For one thing, there are degrees of truth.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.com, for example, rates statements by American politicians on a five-step scale: True, Mostly True, Half-True, Mostly False, and Pants on Fire.

Few end up in the Pants on Fire category.

For another thing, we all tell little lies in our daily lives.

We tell little lies to our bosses, our co-workers, our families.

In the movie Liar Liar, Jim Carrey has to tell the unvarnished truth for 24 hours, and the movie's central gag is how unusual that is.

My experience, after 15 years in politics, is that politicians don't like to lie, any more than anybody else. But they do learn a set of techniques to shape the truth.

Perception is Reality

Most politicians buy into the idea that "perception is reality." And that idea, which is at the root of all evil in politics, is just another way of saying that the truth matters less than what people believe.

Politicians learn, usually by observation or experience, all kinds of ways to manipulate what people believe:

  • Media training that teaches politicians to avoid answering questions they don't like, and to stay "on message." 
  • Unverifiable statements, like "People in my constituency are telling me …".
  • Shut-down lines, like "I can't comment on a matter that's before the courts," which isn't actually a rule.
  • Words with slippery meanings, like the word "plan" in "I'm planning on an October election." Plans change. 

Timing, too, is important.

Bad news can be timed to coincide with good news. Controversial news can be timed to be released when it is least likely to be noticed.

The things that politicians overlook is that all of this "make believe", which they see as part of their job, is understood by the public to be deception.

What if the law were enforced?

And that brings me back to the law that already exists.

What if the law applied to all members of the legislature? What if it were more vigorously enforced? What if the punishment were tougher, up to and including a prohibition on running in the next election?

I guarantee that would smarten up our elected officials, very quickly. More importantly, it might reassure distrustful citizens like that lady on the doorstep, who called me a liar before she knew my name.

So let's get it done.

Who could possibly object?

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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