One of the things you hear often in political circles is a proposal being acknowledged as a good policy, followed immediately by an assertion that it couldn’t be done because the public wouldn’t wear it.

Broken election commitments are a variation on this, where governments rule out any intention to do something unpopular or controversial, but change their position after the election when they are less vulnerable to electoral damage.

The federal government’s decision to start means testing the private health insurance rebate is long overdue, but it is clearly a broken election promise.  The private health insurance rebate is bad public policy, but it is popular.

In the lead up to its own Budget, the Queensland government is floating the idea of scrapping the eight cents a litre subsidy on fuel.  This is an extraordinarily bad policy which now costs $600 million a year, but it is also very popular with the public – who wouldn’t like the idea of a widely used commodity being cheaper? – and a gift to any Opposition looking for ways to lay hits on the government.

I detest broken election promises – particularly ones that were explicitly unequivocal, such as these two examples.  But these are still good policies in this instance. It’s like a reverse example of the old cliché to ‘love the sinner, but hate the sin’ – I strongly support the actions, but dislike governments deceiving voters.

Governments are often pilloried as lacking in courage or conviction when they rule out making changes that are believed to be good policy, but wildly unpopular. But it is obvious why governments try to minimise the number of unpopular things they do – you could hardly expect otherwise in a democracy. 

In one sense, we have ourselves to blame – often calling for strong action while opposing anything that we feel will make us personally worse off. You can never fully remove the practice of broken political promises, but if more people were prepared to speak out in support of good policies that we know are unpopular, it might slightly reduce the need for governments to make quite so many of those promises in the first place.