The worst thing a government can do in a democracy is lie to its people, and when a government is elected, it is given a mandate to carry out its pre-electoral promises to the best of its ability. Australia’s two most recent governments, the Tony Abbott Liberal government of 2013 to the present, and the Gillard-Rudd government of 2010-2013, are both good examples of governments plagued by promises made immediately before the election, and then repudiated thereafter. In the circumstances of both, it is childish and pointless to simply declare the leaders of these governments to be liars. Many more factors are at play.
The intersection of political promise and political reality dominates party politics in Australia. This has become ever more true as our system has experienced an increasingly ‘presidential’ style of campaigning, with our election campaigns being less community-driven and more focused on leaders, slogans, and ten-second sound-bites. The rise of video-sharing platforms and the viral nature of online videos has made typical election campaigning a dangerous minefield of political gaffes and in some cases downright disasters. Who could ever forget James Diaz’s unfortunate inability to list even two points of his party’s plan to ‘stop the boats’ in the 2013 election campaign? Aware of this, politicians are oft likely to make broad, boring political statements that skirt around too-hard-to-touch issues in order to avoid making concrete statements that could come back to haunt them in government. Perhaps this is why Bill Shorten says little or nothing about policy – because he is wise to the media cycle and refuses to commit. Or more likely, he’s a boring, non-energetic campaigner. This is also the same reason Abbott brings every question asked to him back to his flagship (pardon the pun) ‘turn back the boats’ policy, because it has been a ‘success’ for the Liberal government, and they want to continually drill that into the population: We – have – stopped – the boats. Want us to say it again?
So where does well-intentioned pre-election statement meet blatant political lie? On a case-by-case basis, it is impossible to know for sure. A responsible politician (oxymoron, I know) will firmly know their party’s stance on any issue, and will understand on which issues they can voice a personal opinion, and on which they must toe the party line. However in some cases, genuine political promise is completely trumped by unexpected political reality. In what has been described as the line that doomed her government before it was even re-elected, Gillard stated, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. Unfortunately for her, the reality of a (poorly) hung parliament left the limp Labor party with little option but to ally with the Greens and submit to their request for a Carbon Tax in order to erect a functioning government. Combining this situation with ongoing leadership trauma made a deadly cocktail. The lesson learned from this experience is the way in which Abbott and the Liberals were able to use this to their advantage. It seemed almost every day you would see Abbott or another Liberal decrying Gillard’s ‘lie’ to the Australian people, Placards, ad campaigns, radio announcements, television appearances, all with a singular message: She lied. Though Abbott’s negative campaigning brought him extremely low approval ratings from the electorate, it successfully damaged the reputations of Gillard and Labor.
Abbott’s own record is not clean. The day before the 2013 election, he appeared to shut down Labor’s scare campaign against him. He announced before the nation that there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pension, no change to the GST, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.” I remember at the time feeling that this was Abbott’s ‘Gillard moment’. That was a long list of big promises and not a responsible move for a man who really should have known better. If he had not made that declaration, future cuts might have been more palatable to the Australian public. However, the election campaign is a fierce beast, and those who do not wax hyperbole are often deemed to lack vision.
A fog of war does exist in politics. The space between opposition and government is occupied by not so much clear glass as it is the window of the microwave at your friend’s really dodgy student sharehouse. It is through this lens that opposition parties attempt to spy what they can realistically achieve once they have gained electoral victory. Attempting to discern between political fiction and genuine promises and which of those can realistically be carried out by a government is a difficult task. Frustratingly for Australian voters, it is one that shall exist for as long as parliamentary democracy does.
Words by Brad Griffin