The peril in promises made to be broken

It's impossible the so-called fiscal crisis was a post-election shock to Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Whether or not their new policies are in Australia’s interest, election campaigns have become destructive.

Some commentators are attempting to paint Tony Abbott’s broken promises as somehow of a different order -- every incoming government inevitably breaks promises they argue -- and therefore politically less toxic than the broken promises of Julia Gillard.

Indeed, they argue that Abbott’s broken promises are brave and in the national interest. He is proving himself to be a prime minister -- surprisingly to some -- of vision and ideological correctness.

Some of these commentators are firm Abbott supporters who couldn’t abide Julia Gillard for ideological as well as personal reasons. Some of those arguing most emphatically that Abbott’s broken promises are in a different political universe than Gillard’s and that Abbott’s broken promises are a sign of political courage and political ethics of the highest order, are the very same people who were fellow travellers with the shock jocks and others who ran the not so edifying Ju-liar campaigns.

Their forgiveness for Abbott’s broken promises is entirely predictable, even if it is slightly disappointing, especially their tone of moral rightness, as if only they truly understand what is and what isn’t in the national interest.

Then again, ideological warriors of every stripe tend to have a sense of moral superiority not only over their opponents, but over the great mass of people not at all engaged in ideological or cultural warfare.

But there are other commentators who are less engaged in ideological warfare who nevertheless reckon that Abbott’s broken promises are of the everyday variety that have been part of the political process for decades and that Gillard’s broken promise on the introduction of a carbon tax was somehow in a different and special category.

Is that true? It is certainly true that Gillard’s broken promise was greeted with a fury and a level of outrage -- if not downright hatred -- that in the literal sense of the word was shocking. Why was this so? In part it was because most of the fury and outrage came from people bitterly opposed to any action on climate change.

In larger part, it was due to the fact that Gillard’s broken promise on the introduction of a carbon tax secured her the support of the Greens -- ironically, she would have had their support without the broken promise -- and the independents and so denied Abbott and the coalition what was rightfully theirs; the right to form a government.

This was a broken promise of major political consequences.

But as far as broken promises go, how big was it really? Labor was committed to  an emissions trading scheme some time down the track and even Gillard, whose political timidity on climate change was stark in the lead-up to the 2010 election,  waffled on about the need for an  ETS which, she argued, could only be introduced when 100 per cent of Australians were on board with it.

The introduction of the carbon tax, indeed a broken promise, was not a broken promise that involved a major policy shift for Labor. Yes, it was a promise broken to secure government in the extraordinary conditions of a hung parliament. Yes it gave Tony Abbott a weapon that he exploited mercilessly, but is doubtful that it was the sole -- or even the major -- cause of Gillard’s and Labor’s demise.

The endless leadership feuding, the lack of clarity on major issues like asylum seekers and climate change, the botched handling of the mining profits super tax and, most of all, the sense that this was an incompetent government were all far more important than the carbon tax broken promise.

Which brings us to Tony Abbott and his broken promises. It is true that broken promises have become a permanent fixture of Australian general elections and their aftermath, when incoming governments suddenly discover that the economy is in far worse shape than they expected or were led to believe by the outgoing government.

That’s how Abbott and Hockey are justifying their broken promises. The economy is in worse shape than they imagined. The budget is in crisis. Australia will be ruined by debt if things go on as they are.  When they made all those promises just six months ago -- on health and education and pensions for a start -- they didn’t know how bad things actually were.

Now it may or may not be true that there is a real budget crisis and that the promises made by Abbott in particular during the election campaign -- sweeping promises, huge promises, to maintain real spending on health and education and pensions for instance, not to mention the ABC -- have to be broken for the national good.

But what is not sustainable is the notion that the so-called fiscal crisis, the need for major structural changes, was a shock about which Abbott and Hockey knew nothing at the time of the last election, just six months ago. This is simply untrue. Both Abbott and Hockey were relentless in arguing that the economy was in poor shape, that Labor’s spending was out of control, and that it was absolutely vital to rein in the budget deficit.

Hockey’s end of entitlements mantra began in the days after the election of the coalition government, though it was never mentioned or even hinted at during the election campaign. Hockey at least must have known that Abbott’s promises would have to be broken. And if Abbott didn’t know, it says something about his level of disengagement with economic policy.

The broken promises are not the sort of run of the mill broken promises that we have come to expect from all political parties. They represent major changes not just to the welfare system but to the way major public services -- health and education will be funded.

The Abbott government is washing its hands of any major responsibility -- over the medium term -- for the public health system and for education which it argues, are state responsibilities and must be state funded. And on top of that, it has begun the process of dismantling Medicare as it now exists and has taken the first -- admittedly tentative -- steps towards a user-pays health care model.

What all this illustrates is the uselessness of election campaigns. They are more than useless, for they promote a deep sense of disengagement by ordinary people in the election process. All this also illustrates a massive failure by the media to expose the fakery of election campaigns and the untruths politicians tell in order to win elections.

What Hockey’s budget illustrates amongst other thing, is that politicians are not to be taken at their word and that no promise, no matter how sweeping and how firm, should be believed. Promises are about being re-elected and nothing more. They are, in the end, a form of lying.