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May 21, 2014

Porkies: the biggest broken promises in Australian politics

It is possible for a politician to survive a broken promise, but sometimes they come back to haunt. Here are 10 of the most memorable broken promises ...

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Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd address the UN on climate change in 2009

As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.

*This article was originally published on May 21, 2014.

It’s not fair to say that Tony Abbott joined the list of Australia’s biggest broken promises with his budget last week. Why not? Because he was already on it.

Crikey has compiled a top 10 of the most memorable occasions when politicians broke key promises, dating back to 1943. The most common chestnut is to promise tax cuts that don’t happen (remember L-A-W?). Another popular option is to claim you won’t cut welfare, then cut welfare.

Some broken promises are strategic; politicians may make pledges they know might not be achievable in order to get elected. Others are thought bubbles made in times of emotion before a supportive crowd that haunt the MP for ever more.

This list shows that it is possible for a leader to survive a major broken promise — look at Bob Hawke and John Howard. In other cases it’s terminal (Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard). It’s noteworthy that Liberal leaders seem more likely to get away with a broken promise than Labor’s.

So here’s our top 10, with comments by University of Melbourne political historian Jackie Dickenson, who has written a book on trust in politics. The year indicates when the pledge was broken.

1. Tony Abbott: no new taxes, no cuts to health or education (2014)

“What you’ll get under us are tax cuts without new taxes,” Abbott said in 2012. He later vowed “no cuts to education, no cuts to health”. Abbott won the 2013 election and in his first budget cut funding for schools and hospitals by $80 billion and introduced a new deficit tax, plus a $7 GP tax. Will Abbott survive? The Coalition has taken a big hit in the polls, and Abbott’s popularity is in the death zone.

2. Julia Gillard: no carbon tax (2011)

“There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” This phrase, uttered on TV just before the 2010 election, is one of the most famous in recent political history (some Coalition staffers have it as their ringtone). Gillard formed a minority government and introduced a carbon tax (her words). This proved terminal; the opposition and media hounded her until she lost the leadership in 2013. The carbon tax backflip added to perceptions of Gillard that she was untrustworthy because she had “knifed” Kevin Rudd (venomous shock jock Alan Jones dubbed her “Juliar”).

Dickenson said the broken promise “obviously” hurt Gillard, but “the media wanted to destroy her”. Other leaders got away with similar backflips because they had a compliant media and were male, Dickenson says.

3. Kevin Rudd: the greatest moral challenge of our time (2010)

This is how Rudd described climate change before the 2007 election. When he won he couldn’t get his carbon pricing scheme through the Senate, so he shelved it.

It was the beginning of the end for Rudd’s leadership. Dickenson says Rudd “wasn’t forgiven” for the broken promise and it fed into negativity and confusion around what he stood for.

So while Gillard was dumped for introducing a carbon price, Kevin Rudd was dumped for not introducing a carbon price.

4. Abbott’s “cast-iron” pledge on Medicare (2005)

As health minister before the 2004 election, Abbott gave “an absolutely rock solid, iron-clad commitment” not to change the Medicare safety net. After the election the Coalition raised the safety net. “I am very sorry that that statement back in October has turned out not to be realised by events,” Abbott said, “but this is a government which, in the end, has based its whole record … on economic responsibility”. Sounds familiar?

Dickenson says Abbott seemed to get away with it, although it might have contributed to his reputation for not being a great health minister, and fed into general perceptions on Abbott’s trustworthiness. Abbott went on to become PM.

5. John Howard: never ever on a GST (1999)

There would “never ever” be a GST, John Howard said in 1995. In 1999 he brought one in. And Howard got away with it; he went on to win two elections, and the ALP dropped its opposition to the GST. Dickenson says the broken GST promise didn’t really hurt Howard, although his creation of “core and non-core promises” (which was not initially about the GST) did affect his credibility somewhat.

6. Anyone who has ever promised to build a second airport for Sydney

Too many to repeat here.

7. Paul Keating: L-A-W tax cuts (1990s)

Just before the 1993 election then-PM Keating promised and legislated two rounds of income tax cuts, which he described as “L-A-W law”. It might have been a L-I-E; he went on to repeal the law. While Keating lost the ’96 election, Dickenson says it’s not clear how much the broken promise cost him, as Keating had a complex relationship with voters.

8. Bob Hawke on child poverty (1990)

“By 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty.” So said Hawke at his 1987 election launch. That didn’t happen and still hasn’t happened. Dickenson says while Hawke was ridiculed for the bold pledge, he was forgiven. Hawke had built up a reservoir of trust with voters, and the statement was overlooked to a degree because of his characteristic flamboyance of expression. Hawke won the 1990 election.

9. Malcolm Fraser’s fistful of dollars (1978)

The then-Liberal government launched these infamous ads before the 1977 election …

… but the hand on the right was empty. The Liberals won the election, but the tax cuts were wiped out by then-treasurer John Howard’s 1.5% deficit levy on income tax (sounds familiar?). Dickenson says the broken promise made Fraser unpopular and “he didn’t get away with it” (although he did win the 1980 election). Fraser later said he never liked the ad campaign.

10. John Curtin on conscription (1943)

John Curtin passionately campaigned against conscription during World War I and was briefly sent to prison for failing to enlist. But as a Labor PM in 1943, with Japanese forces moving through the Pacific and pressure mounting from the US, Curtin introduced conscription (that is, he allowed for conscripts to be forced to serve overseas). The move was savaged by some within Labor, and Curtin wept over it.

This was a change of heart that the public was ready to forgive. Curtin won a thumping election victory later in 1943 and is seen by some as one of Australia’s best prime ministers. Dickenson says the view was that “it was a war that had to be fought,” and there is little criticism of Curtin in Labor circles now.

*Tomorrow: Crikey’s guide to how to break a promise, looking at the factors that help a politician survive. Why did a broken promise hobble Julia Gillard but not John Howard? And here’s a clue: it doesn’t look like Tony Abbott has gone about it in the right way …

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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