Robertson’s truth in context

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
4 August, 2023

In Tuesday’s parliamentary questions, Minister of Finance Grant Robertson engaged in some impressive word play.

He had previously dismissed exempting fresh food and vegetables from GST. Now, he had to reconcile his past statements with Labour’s leaked plans to implement just such an exemption.

When confronted about this by National’s finance spokesperson Nicola Willis, Robertson reached deep into the toolbox of rhetorical trickery. That is where he found the concept of ‘context’.

It was ‘context’ that allowed Robertson to stand by all his previous statements, but only “in the context that they were made and undertaken”. 

Ah, ‘context’! There is nothing quite like it to reshape an argument to fit the moment.

In this sense, or ‘context’, Robertson situated himself in a long line of historical figures.

Think of Galileo Galilei, standing before the stern faces of the Inquisition centuries ago.

Galileo had claimed that the Earth moves around the sun, not the other way around. But when context demanded it, he recanted his theory. Just as Robertson has, Galileo (temporarily) put his own survival ahead of the truth.

Robertson was also questioned about the implications of GST removal on supermarkets’ profits. Once again, he reiterated his previous comments “in the context in which they were made”.

He was right, of course. After all, Captain Edward Smith also claimed that his Titanic was unsinkable. And she was – but only in contexts that did not include any icebergs.

Robertson’s ‘context’ was also evocative of Boris Johnson’s Brexit vote strategy. Johnson wrote two opposing columns, one in favour of Brexit and one against it. The ‘context’ would dictate which view he would endorse. Coincidentally, he selected the one most likely to make him Prime Minister.

Robertson should not be accused of inconsistency. Instead, he artfully demonstrated the subtleties of variable truth-telling. And, as we have seen, he is in good company.

After Robertson’s mind-blowing performance in Parliament, we are left anticipating his next move. We can only speculate what it might be.

After 14 October, will he explain that he has changed his mind about wanting to be Prime Minister, but only in the context of leading a Labour, Greens and Te Pāti Māori coalition? Or will he say that in the context of Labour being in opposition, he would rather like not to be in Parliament any longer?

Only time will provide the true ‘context’ for Robertson’s impending decisions. After all, in politics, isn’t everything just a matter of ‘context’?

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