Lies, damn lies and elections

Broken promises are nothing new in politics but last year's election set a new bar. Hockey's first budget extends the nation's dismal dance of lies and disbelief.

Australia’s system of democracy has settled into one that relies for its smooth operation on the utmost cynicism by its participants -- politicians and voters.

Broken promises are nothing new -- they have been happening after every election since your correspondent first became a journalist in the early 1970s, and no doubt before that too.

But this time round they are more egregious than usual for two reasons: the extent of repair needed to fix the structural deficit was unprecedented, and as opposition leader, Tony Abbott was more willing than most to say anything at all to get elected, so he made it worse. Abbott was even disarmingly open about the fact that not everything he says can be taken as the truth, and he was devastatingly effective with his simple slogan-style campaign.

The result is that, even more than most post-election budgets, this one is full of broken promises and surprises, starting with the new tax, which Tony Abbott promised would not happen. He also promised not to break promises or have any surprises, which most of his predecessors also promised.

If any new government’s first budget were released during the election campaign, they would not be elected, and this one is no exception. There would never be a change of government if oppositions were required to reveal their first budget before the election. We would end up like Singapore -- a one-party democracy.

The Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook statement from Treasury, issued within ten days of the official start of any election campaign, is supposed to provide the factual basis for election promises against which journalists and analysts can measure them, but it doesn’t work. 

The PEFO is ignored, producing barely a blip in the frantic, minute-by-minute electioneering that’s going on by then. Policies and promises are held back, and dripped out gradually during the campaign and, these days, they are not costed until the last minute. No one is in a position to update the budget forecasts for election promises until election day, and by then it doesn’t matter.

The only Opposition Leader to tell the truth during the election campaign -- John Hewson in 1993 -- thereby managed to lose an election at the end of a recession, which was quite a feat. The only other Opposition Leader to lose a recession election was Labor’s Arthur Caldwell in 1961, and he nearly won it despite being hopelessly unappealing. 

Anyway, it will never happen again: in future all oppositions, and governments for that matter, will lie their heads off in election campaigns, knowing that no one really expects the truth. 

Julia Gillard’s was a different sort of broken promise: she did it purely to get the numbers to be prime minister in the days after the election, not in her first budget. Having said there would not be a carbon tax, she had to break that promise in order to get the support of the Greens after the 2010 election and thereby form government (or so she thought). It wasn’t about being mugged by the reality of the budget, or at least pretending to be as with other promise breakages before and since: it was simply too cynical, even for the cynical modern electorate. 

Australia seems to have settled into a dismal dance of lies and disbelief, of promising anything and then doing what is required in Government.

And in a way, the system works. We change governments every few years, when the old one runs out of puff, and the public servants persuade the new one that they need to break their promises to cut taxes and increase spending, and instead run the country properly.

Perhaps the sole exception to this is Kevin Rudd, or rather the combination of him and the GFC. Soon after he was elected in 2007, having knocked off Kim Beazley in late 2006, the American credit crisis created a global recession. Rudd went berserk, sending out $900 cheques to everyone and, catastrophically, increasing the old age pension by $33, indexed to the higher inflation and average male weekly earnings.

The actuarial cost of that act of post-election generosity was many tens of billions of dollars. Much of the repair required in the 2014-15 budget handed down by Joe Hockey this week -- not foreshadowed in the election campaign of course -- was needed because of that single event. Rudd was soon sacked by his party, but the damage had been done.

The effect on the budget of Kevin Rudd, and his Treasurer Wayne Swan, was so horrendous that the 2013 election had to be the most mendacious in history.

Their spending binge, on top of the disastrous permanent tax cuts that John Howard and Peter Costello introduced in their final two terms, meant that no one could have been elected in 2013 if they told the truth about what would be required to repair the budget. So the time bombs laid by previous governments of both colours, guaranteed that the 2013 election would be based on broken promises. And the Coalition made matters worse by promising increased spending.

Could they have simply refrained from making the promises? Left it at sins of omission, rather than commission? Sure, but where’s the fun in that?

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