Election Countdown: The Ethics Of… Broken Election Promises

What do these two phrases have in common?

there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead

no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS

They’re statements from different governments about different topics, at totally different times, but they have one thing in common; they both turned out to be bullshit.

Every election it’s the same old thing. Every party under the sun promises voters the earth, the stars and everything in-between – but once the campaigns die down, the new government settles into 3-4 years of power and comes to grips with business, they suddenly seem to develop a case of amnesia about all those grand promises.

Ironically, Australia’s longest-serving (and therefore debatably, most-successful) Prime Minister articulated the situation nicely – breaking some of my election promises is ok, he said, because they are “non-core” promises, rather than “core promises” which actually matter. The voters collectively rolled their eyes, muttered a couple of choice phrases about the trustworthiness of politicians, and tried to ignore the pack of them.

But with the 2014 Victorian Election coming up in a couple of weeks, it’s a good time to ask ourselves; why do we put up with this?

That might sound like a daft question when just last week I was pointing out how powerless we usually are to make politicians do stuff, but this is the exception! The one time the public can really be sure that their elected representatives are paying attention to them, is leading up to an election – if there was ever a time to speak up and improve their behaviour, now is it.

Let’s not forget that an election is essentially a giant job interview – parties present themselves to the voters and we choose who we want to run the country for us. Imagine if you were caught out having made totally false promises in any other job interview, or even honest promises that you could keep for whatever reason. It’d be called a breach of contract, and you’d be fired so fast that you’d never see your desk photos again.

How far do you think you would get, stood up in front of your manager and accused of lying to them about your capabilities, if you tried to get out of it by saying ‘but those are just non-core capabilities I lied about!’? My guess is not very far.

So why are we so totally fine with politicians doing the same thing to us? Given that trying it in a normal job would get you a brisk firing and a nasty reputation, you’d think doing the same thing as the governing body of an entire state would be grounds for a firing squad or something.

Well, believe it or not, there are a couple of good reasons to give politicians special leeway with this sort of thing;

They’re going in blind

The thing about being a new government is that you’re effectively taking over the business without looking at the books first. Sure, the outgoing government reported their expenditures and policy initiatives, but that’s hardly the same thing as knowing how everything works – as such it’s no big surprise that many a new government has moved in, set up and realised there isn’t enough cash, the right skills, or the political support for their prized flagship project they’ve been going on about all through the election.

A government in this position basically has two options; they can find a new way of getting the project off the ground (like raising taxes, making deals with other parties, or outsourcing the work overseas), or they can slash the idea entirely. Neither of these options is exactly going to make them look good to the public, and the opposition has an absolute field day, harping on about how the new government clearly wasn’t ready for power, that they’ve betrayed the voters, that they’ve lost their mandate, etc, etc, etc.

The “no carbon tax” promise in particular was a great example of a government being between a rock and a hard place. Against all probability in the 2013 federal election, the Labor Party finds itself forced to form a coalition with The Greens to hold on to power. A condition of this coalition is that the government introduce a carbon tax – something Labor had explicitly promised not to do. But what are the options at this point? Either Labor can refuse to break their promise, which effectively loses them the election, or they can make the compromise and spend the next 4 years being heckled as liars. It’s lose/lose either way, and not really their fault.

Honestly, the government has sweet bugger all control over things

If there’s one thing every government can get behind, it’s a healthy economy. Nothing looks better on a government’s record than that the economy improving during their watch, and they are mighty quick to tell you all about it.

All of which is hilariously ironic, given they have sweet bugger all control over said economy. Forget the state level, not even the federal Australian government has much control over our economic performance, at least in the short-to-medium term. Sure, Australia has been performing extremely well over the last decade or so, weathering the GFC with barely a scratch (though you’d never know from the whining). But whatever out various governments might have to say about this performance and their hand in it all, there is only really one reason we’re doing this good: China.

The Chinese economic boom and their massive demand for our resources are the one and only reason we weathered the storm so well, and nothing any government did even comes close. You can finagle all you want with income tax reform, make the nation as business-friendly as you like, and ‘streamline’ the public service down to the bone, and it won’t even come close to the demand 1.3 billion people discovering capitalism can generate.

Our current PM can go on all he wants about ‘shirt-fronting’, but at the end of the day the federal government is a slave to international commerce and he knows that. If, sometime in the future, China and the USA were to politely ask us to introduce a carbon tax as part of our ongoing economic relationship, you mark my words – our PM would very suddenly find it in his interests to do exactly that.

On a Victorian level, this is equally true. The new government may well promise a big fat stimulus package, a raft of public transport upgrades, and free wi-fi to every citizen, but if the international economy were to shift downwards, we would follow and promises be damned.

Excuses, excuses.

That’s very nice and all, but do these excuses really begin to cover ever half of the broken promises that government after government throws at us after the election is safely secured? Not by a long shot.

And how would we even tell? Probably the bigger problem here is that, even when we do call out a government on lying to us during the election run-up, they can say “it was out of our hands!” no matter what the situation and there’s really nothing we can do about it. Unlike any other job, you see, Members of Parliament don’t have position descriptions. That means there’s no criteria to track their performance against, no way for them to officially fail, and therefore nothing you can sack them for.

All we have to keep the bastards honest is elections; an event every 3-4 years where we have to cram every issue we care about into a single choice. An event so soaked in paid political advertising (which, incidentally, doesn’t have to be factually true in Victoria) that it’s hard to tell what’s going on at all, let alone who to trust. Big surprise then that so many of us tune out and wait for it to be over.

But unlike political donations, there is something we can all do about this – stay informed. If Party A promises us the moon, check out their past moon-retrieval history before buying what they’re selling. More practically, if Party B is promising a big boost in police numbers to ‘combat growing street violence’, then it might be worth checking the stats on said street violence before you lock up your daughters and have a rant about ‘the youth of today’. And if Party C claims that their super transport plan will eliminate congestion for all time, it might be worth seeing what some experts in the field have to say about that before you get too carried away.

This might sound like a lot of work, but in the Information Age, all this is just a few mouse clicks away – anyone with even the most rudimentary Google-fu should have no problems getting the facts (or the Wikipedia equivalent to them at least).

I harp on a lot about accountability in these articles, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the same key message as every other ethical concept: be right. Find the information, ferret out the truth and apply that truth to the world around you.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for a government breaking a promise to its people, but ‘thinking they can get away’ with it is not one.

One thought on “Election Countdown: The Ethics Of… Broken Election Promises

  1. Pingback: Election Countdown: The Ethics Of… Choosing Who to Vote For | The Ethics Of

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