Do you know a con-artist when you see one?

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Sunday, 20 July 2014 19:22 by Ken Wolff
After many pieces about many issues, I’m ready to have my say about Abbott himself. So sit back with a beer, or a glass of your best red, and come along for a short ride. 

I won’t bother going over his broken promises and lies. There are many other people already doing that. The only point to make is that condemning Abbott for deceit is a ‘lay-down misere’. (For those who don’t know that expression, check out the rules of the card game Five Hundred.) 

The people have now seen through Abbott. He gave indications of his real self over the years, with what became known as ‘Abbottisms’, but I think many people simply accepted these as the gaffes that most politicians make at different times. He did give clues that he couldn’t be believed, such as the famous interview with Kerry O’Brien in 2012 when he explained that we should only trust his scripted remarks. 

And at his swearing-in as prime minister he said:
 
We hope to be judged by what we have done rather than by what we have said we will do.
 
That has also registered with the voters and they are now judging what he has done

Abbott says these things because he obviously can’t think on his feet. Someone like Keating always had a quick answer and could turn defence to attack with well-aimed barbs. Abbott is incapable of doing that. His thinking is obviously slower. He does not retain the facts of a situation to draw on quickly when making a reply. He is hopelessly reliant on his preparation — his scripted remarks. I think the lack of retention even creates difficulties when he has been well prepared beforehand. Once he has to leave his script or briefing behind, it appears he can’t remember all of it and still flounders for what he can recall and what words he is supposed to use. That gives rise to the slow speech and the repetition of words and phrases as he tries to dredge something up from what he can remember of the briefing. 

The electorate knows now that they were conned, and they don’t like it. Australians can usually detect bulls**t and know to take no notice of bulls**t artists, or sometimes to be even a touch sympathetic towards them because the poor buggers can’t help themselves. But when a bulls**t artist becomes a con artist, that is an entirely different matter, a major crime because it takes advantage of our egalitarian and trusting nature. 

Australians are used to politicians’ bulls**t and accept some level of it in the context of elections. John Howard said recently, Australians will accept change and reform by government if they can see that it is in the national interest and is ‘fundamentally fair’, even if it was not part of the bulls**t promised before the election. 

Abbott, however, took this to the next level. He said different things to different audiences. He said one thing one week but something different the next. He got away with it because most people heard or read little about the inconsistencies. (Thank you mainstream media for not giving those inconsistencies the prominence they deserved.) On his overseas visit in June, he had the gall to tell President Obama that the increase in the petrol excise was like a carbon tax. When his predilection for telling different audiences different ‘truths’ extends to foreign leaders, then this is a man that even foreign leaders cannot trust. 

His bulls**t includes that he hadn’t even said the bulls**t in the first place; that the electorate had not heard him properly, that it had misunderstood. One of the greatest crimes a politician can commit is to call the electorate ‘stupid’, which is basically what Abbott has done. 

Abbott has lost credibility, not just because he lied to the electorate but because the lies were part of an elaborate con which has now been laid bare and he has effectively told the electorate so by telling voters they weren’t listening to what he actually said. That should make it next to impossible for Abbott to recover. 

However, never write off a con artist. Even when they seem down and out, they will still be scheming, still telling lies, still running the con. And don’t forget, the con is not just being run by Abbott. He is only the front man. The con is part of the master plan of Abbott’s handlers and supporters. 

Even the budget was a con and will likely lead to another con. 

The MYEFO and the budget are basically political documents (which I will explain in a moment). It is only the PEFO (Pre-election financial outlook) that comes out with purely Treasury estimates. The PEFO last year showed a budget deficit of about $60 billion over the forward estimates (four years). But when Hockey put out the MYEFO that had grown to $120 billion, largely from the proposed abolition of the ‘carbon tax’ and other decisions by the Abbott government. By the time of the budget, with the drastic cuts contained in it, and foreshadowed by it, the deficit over four years was reduced to — you guessed it — $60 billion dollars. This is the old ‘sale’ trick: if I increase the price of my $50 item to $100 for a week or two and then ‘slash’ it to $50, I can tell people they are getting a 50% reduction, and I haven’t lost a thing, just suckered in the punters. I think Abbott and Hockey may have learned that from their business mates. 

What helps make MYEFO and the budget political, rather than just economic estimates of finances, is the choice of forecasts offered to the Treasurer. The Treasury, as with the making of most economic predictions, bases its forecasts for the forward estimates on a number of variables and provides the range within which those variables are likely to operate: for example, GDP may grow anywhere between 2.25% and 3.00% and so forecasts based on 2.25%, 2.5%, 2.75% and 3.0% may be considered. But instead of Treasury economic experts saying 2.75% is our best estimate, it is the Treasurer who decides which set of forecasts to use. 

Just after the budget, there were some financial experts suggesting that the budget estimates were ‘conservative’ or, in other words, on the low side of the potential range of future growth. Why are they low? — because that is the range that Hockey selected. 

Why would he select the lower growth forecasts? — because it helps justify the ideologically driven cuts. They divert attention from the real underlying reasons for the cuts and allow the debate to centre on the ‘finances’: whether or not a commentator believes or contests the figures, they are still debating the figures, not the ideology. 

Also it lays the ground work for the next con. If, prior to the next election, the economy is performing at 3% growth or better, as is quite possible, Abbott and Hockey will claim all the credit, even though this may well be within the range of forecasts originally presented by Treasury. They will say, yes, our first budget was tough but look at what it has achieved. And now because of that, you can all have a tax cut (including big business of course). 

Although I have no evidence, I have a gut feeling that Wayne Swan, when he was Treasurer, made the opposite mistake: he tended to adopt the more optimistic forecasts. Why? — because Abbott had also conned him. The constant Abbott attacks on Labor’s economic management may have conned Swan into thinking he could disprove that by using the upper range of forecasts. In his case, when the real growth did not quite match the forecasts he used (although perhaps still within the Treasury range of forecasts), and revenue was less, he was left open to more attacks by Abbott and the opposition. It was a con that led to a win-win for Abbott. If Swan had adopted the lower forecasts he could have been attacked for ‘slowing’ the economy. Nice con if you can pull it off — which Abbott and his side did with the help of the media. 

I also think Abbott’s whole persona is a con: not just the makeover that was undertaken to make him appear more presentable on television, but take a look at his body language. 

He walks with an exaggerated swagger, a style of walk often described as using more space than is necessary for normal locomotion. The only other world figure I have noticed who walks with a similar style is Putin but I don’t think Abbott is in the same poltical power league — although he may like to think he is. 

The swagger is most often associated with machismo and arrogance, although it has also been linked with narcissism. Abbott tries to play up the machismo but may not realise he is also displaying arrogance. Since the election, Abbott has once or twice tried to suggest that he can be a caring and sympathetic prime minister but people will not hear that message while he continues to swagger. 

One other interesting habit of Abbott’s body language is the use of his left hand in handshakes, when he grasps the other person’s wrist or forearm. Allan and Barbara Pearse in The Definitive Book of Body Language describe this handshake as the ‘double hander’. It is normally a sign of sincerity and closeness and is seen as an ‘intention movement’ towards a hug: the left hand can be placed over the other person’s hand, or almost anywhere along the arm up to the shoulder, and more rarely on the other person’s back. It is usually used between people who are close, not with total strangers. The book states:
 
… if the person who gives you one doesn’t have a personal connection with you, look for the hidden agenda. It’s common to see politicians greeting voters using double-handed handshakes and business people do it to their clients without realising it can be business and political suicide, putting people offside.

The Pearses suggest that it is easier for us to control our hand signals than it is to control the body language signals portrayed by our legs. On that basis, I would suggest that Abbott is deliberately trying to conceal his arrogance (the swagger) by artificially portraying sincerity (the double hander). In terms of body language these could be called ‘contradictory signals’, which may be another reason why people generally have an uneasy feeling about Abbott — they cannot interpret these signals when they offer two conflicting images of the man behind them. 

An opposite interpretation is that Abbott is basically insecure and out of his depth, so deliberately adopts these postures to hide his true nature. The following video may suggest that he is not as assertive and confident as he likes to suggest. 

 

I leave that one for you to consider. 

Either way, his public persona, as well as his public policies, are a con. 

So now, do you know a con artist when you see one? 

What do you think?