The value of a politician’s promise 0



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Australia has had 29 Prime Ministers and only one, Sir Edmund Barton, did not blame the previous government for his troubles.

Well, he couldn’t since he was the first.

With Australia heading towards an election, I have been thinking about the promises that politicians make. Of course it is our fault that politicians make promises and it is also our fault that they break them – just ask them. There are times when I am sure some politicians would rather dissolve the people rather than the parliament to start again.

Lots of people want to be members of parliament and as soon as they get there they start complaining about how onerous the duties are, how impossibly long the hours are, how disruptive it is of family life, how frustrating it can be when you are only one voice for a cause and why they need higher salaries, infinitely better superannuation, more perks and a larger staff. You would think they only became an MP because they had a gun to their head.

A pal of mine who was an MP for decades once explained to me that it wouldn’t be a bad job except for one thing – the bloody constituents. Voters can be terribly troublesome especially when they want to know why promises haven’t been kept.

How many of these broken promises can you remember?

In 1943, Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, who had argued passionately against conscription in World War I and even went to jail for failing to enlist, changed the existing law and compelled conscripts to serve overseas. The move was savaged by some within Labour despite the fact that the Japanese were on our doorstep and Curtin reportedly wept over it but it was still a broken promise.

In the 1977 campaign, Malcolm Fraser’s governing coalition ran the infamous “Fistful of dollars” advertisements which proclaimed “Liberal gives tax cuts” showing a hand clutching a wad of cash with “Labor gives nothing” showing an empty hand. He won the election and Treasurer John Howard then introduced a 1.5% deficit levy on income tax which wiped out the tax cuts. Fraser said later he never liked that ad campaign although in retirement he liked to pretend that his government did a lot of things he didn’t agree with – and the man ruled with an iron fist.

In 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke got carried away delivering his policy speech and announced, “By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty”. He won the election but too many Australian kids continued living in poverty.

In 1993, Prime Minister Keating promised and legislated two rounds of income tax cuts which, during the campaign which he won, he described as “L-A-W law”. It was more “L-I-E” because after winning the election, he repealed the law. He was thrashed in the 1996 election.

In 1995, Opposition Leader John Howard said there would “never ever” be a GST and in 1999, he introduced the GST although, to be fair, he fought the 1998 election with a policy to introduce the GST and was re-elected. The ALP solemnly promised for years they would roll back the GST before quietly agreeing to it.

In 2004 before the election Health Minister Tony Abbott gave what he called “an absolutely rock solid, iron-clad commitment” not to change the Medicare safety net. After winning the election the coalition government raised it.

In 2007, ahead of the election, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd described climate change as “the greatest moral challenge of our time” and after being elected he shelved it when it failed to pass the Senate. It was one decision that led ultimately to his being deposed as PM.

In 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, “There will be no carbon tax under the government that I lead” and after the election promptly introduced one at the behest of The Greens whose support was critical for her survival.

In 2013 ahead of the election, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said, “What you will get under us are tax cuts without new taxes” adding that there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health…” He won the election and the 2014 Budget broke almost every promise he had made in opposition. Ultimately, that disastrous Budget led to his demise as PM.

It is possible for a leader to survive a major broken promise – Bob Hawke and John Howard did – but the odds are against survival; just ask Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot.

Napoleon once observed that the best way to keep your word was to never give it. That may be a bit difficult when a leader doesn’t have the sweeping autocratic powers the Emperor had and has to pander to the bloody voters in one way or another.

Perhaps, nowadays, the best advice for a leader was given more than sixty years ago by US President, Harry S Truman, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them”.

Share your thoughts below.

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

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