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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 ...


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 …



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28 thoughts on “Porkies: the biggest broken promises in Australian politics

  1. Brian Williams

    It’s a bit unfair targeting little Johnny because of his ‘never, ever’ on GST. Yes, he did introduce it later, but at least he had the guts to go to the 1998 election and ask for the publics permission…and OK, he lost the popular vote at that election, but you have to give him credit for putting it out there, and not doing the slimy trick of pulling a ‘Gillard’ or an ‘Abbott’.

  2. JMNO

    You know Gillard said numerous times before the 2010 election that she intended to put a price on carbon and to do so by July 2012(year? perhaps 2011, can’t remember)and this is what she did. Why she made a stupid statement about a tax I am not sure but none of the media ever went back to ponder and discuss her numerous statements about a price on carbon, whether this was different from a tax or whether she was in fact keeping her promise to put a price on carbon. Michelle Grattan, for one, was incapable of writing Julia Gillard’s name for about 2 years without adding the qualifier ‘broken promise carbon tax’ as if it were a macro attached to Gillard’s name.

  3. Venise Alstergren

    You omitted one doozie uttered by Bob Hawke. He said under his government they would plant a million trees. Doubtless they had photographers taking individual shots of these trees?

  4. klewso

    “….. fed into general perceptions on Abbott’s trustworthiness”? Shouldn’t that be “fed into perceptions of Abbott’s mendacity”?

  5. paddy

    LOL You underestimate the silver budgie’s gall Vernise.
    He said they’d plant a BILLION trees.

  6. AR

    Paddy – and whom was the greenest of green Minister’s responsible for all that planting? None other than Senator ‘wotever it takes’ Richardson who also gave us the classic ‘I don’t care if people have to hold their nose when they vote as long as thy give us the 2nd preference.”
    Brian & JMNO – the wickedness of the shoutjocks in constantly replaying that Gillard quote is that they “never, ever” played the 2nd half,”but I do believe that there should be a price on carbon”, as JMNO pointed out, she had often advocated for it in the past.
    The evidence (currently reading McKew’s crie-de-couer “..from the Trenches” and she is adamant, as are others, that it was Gillard & the Wan Goose who demanded that Krudd drop the original ETS.

  7. Gary Carrol

    What about Malcom Fraser ‘we will defend and extend Medibank’. l

  8. Cathy Alexander

    Some good broken promises identified here that didn’t crack the Crikey top 10. Not sure what happened to Hawke’s billion trees!

    And don’t forget Bob Menzies’ promise to shore up the pound.

  9. Electric Lardyland

    How about Tony Abbott’s (and countless other members of the coal-ition’s) continual and deliberate lie of “We believe in the science of climate change”.

  10. Cathy Alexander

    Also Howard promised not to increase troop numbers in Iraq and then did.

  11. col gradolf

    While the GST did not hurt Howard with the electorate it destroyed the Democrats. I still call it the MLS (Meg Lees Tax). I voted Dems in the Senate in the expectation that they would Keep The Bastards Honest; poor fool.

  12. drsmithy

    […]but you have to give him credit for putting it out there, and not doing the slimy trick of pulling a ‘Gillard’ or an ‘Abbott’.

    Surely you’re not referring to the carbon pricing policy that Labor took to *two* elections ?

    Even John “Non-core promise” Howard’s fibs pale into insignificance compared to the systemic and premeditated dishonesty and deceit engaged in by the current Liberal party.

  13. Sean Duckworth

    To be fair to Abbott (wow never thought I’d say that) didn’t Howard force those Medicare changes because they had control of the Senate at the time, and didn’t Abbott say that he wished he didn’t have to eat that “s**t sandwich”? Granted, the first place I remember reading that was Peter Hartcher’s “To The Bitter End”, but I don’t remember Abbott ever wanting to make those changes. I could be wrong, though.

    Of course, now a lot of Australians are hoping they don’t have to eat the s**t sandwich that is the proposed budget.

  14. klewso

    Abbott says a lot of things.

  15. MJPC

    Kelwso @ 13
    And now we see that he winks and smirks prior to answering a few things, like disengenuous comments to phonecallers at the bottom of the financial totem pole.

  16. drsmithy

    To be fair to Abbott (wow never thought I’d say that) didn’t Howard force those Medicare changes because they had control of the Senate at the time, and didn’t Abbott say that he wished he didn’t have to eat that “s**t sandwich”? Granted, the first place I remember reading that was Peter Hartcher’s “To The Bitter End”, but I don’t remember Abbott ever wanting to make those changes. I could be wrong, though.

    Abbot’s Government has just – quite transparently – started down the road of disassembling Medicare and turning it into a privatised, user-pays system.

    The fairest thing you could say about Abbot is that he was hiding behind Howard’s skirt a the time.

    For reasons I’ve never been able to quite figure out, publicly funded healthcare is the Right’s great dragon. They seem to reserve special hatred for it above all other social service policies, even the dole.

  17. mikehilliard

    [It’s noteworthy that Liberal leaders seem more likely to get away with a broken promise than Labor’s.]

    That’s because the punters know Liberals are consummate liars & its always more of a shock when a Labor leader lies.

  18. griffin27

    Cathie, it’s useful to have this list, but we should be careful about cause and effect. Gillard got into trouble not because she broke the promise, but because of her dogged stonewalling. She was unable to articulate the connection to climate change, and why this might be important to the country. Hence the message to the public was that she had been forced into doing something she didn’t believe in, so making her look weak.

  19. Electric Lardyland

    I suspect that the main psychological driver, DrS, is that people who are affluent, but bitter and twisted, really don’t like to see the less affluent in a healthy and happy state.

  20. Anon

    What a badly researched list.

    John Howard did promise not to introduce a GST, but when the Coalition changed its policy on the issue they took it to an election, clearly stating that if re-elected they would introduce a goods and services tax. The fact that some disengaged voters (or Labor stooges) see this as a broken promise does not make it so.

    Similarly, prior to the 2010 election the Labor government clearly stated they would price carbon if re-elected. Their exact policies were forced to change during the minority government, but this hardly can be characterised as a lie, despite the success of the Coalition and some in the media (including Crikey, apparently) to do so.

    Poor form guys. Do better next time.

  21. Cathy Alexander

    This interesting feedback comes via Mungo MacCallum to Crikey, on some other broken promises:

    “Menzies declaring hand on heart in 1963 that Australia would not follow the US into Vietnam … Hawke’s promise to plant one billion trees … Menzies’ pledge to put the value back in the pound … Any number of politicians on building Sydney’s second airport … Howard’s promise of tax cuts in 1977 which were promptly clawed back (cf Keating), all Swan’s stuff about delivering a surplus, Howard’s 1996 non-core promises, Fraser’s dismantling of Medibank after 1975, — frankly you could spend weeks on it. As a rule of thumb, I bet you could find at least one biggie in every election campaign since federation, not to mention in the colonial elections before then.”

    “Abbott’s stands out because the promises were so explicit, including the one that the budget situation would not be invoked as an excuse for breaking them, and because he has made such a song and dance about public trust. This is why where others (well, most of them) have been able to find an excuse, he has marooned himself up shit creek, as politically trouserless as Fraser in Memphis. This is not just a broken promise or two — this is the betrayal of an entire constituency, it’s personal. I have frankly not encountered anything so blatant and cynical in my 50 plus years of covering politics and I thought I had seen it all.”

  22. Cathy Alexander

    That’s true Griffin27. It’s almost impossible to quantify why Gillard ran into such trouble on carbon pricing; a mixture of a broken promise, poor messaging, the use of the words ‘carbon tax’, a hostile media which hounded her over it, the perception she had ‘knifed’ Rudd so was ‘untrustworthy’, dislike of her because she was a woman … This is why political science is not really a science at all. Tough to weigh up how those factors interplayed.

  23. Venise Alstergren

    PADDY (5): A billion! Wow, I must be getting deaf and blind.


    PS: Thanks for the correction.

  24. Venise Alstergren

    CATHY ALEXANDER (8): That was rather my point. Nothing happened re the 1 Million? 2 Million trees. Not as far as I know. 🙂

  25. Venise Alstergren

    Erratum: 1 million to 2 billion trees.

  26. David Penington

    John Howard spent over $60m of commonwealth funds advertising his new GST policy before taking it to an election. That was 60m of broken promises and 60m of party-political campaign funds misappropriated. I have never forgiven him.

  27. John Boyd

    Regarding Julia’s ‘lie’, The perception in the public mind, encouraged by the right wing media; in fact virtually all the media; was as you say. However, the full quote is ‘”There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead, but let’s be absolutely clear. I am determined to put a price on carbon.” It was Tony Abbott who said something along the lines ‘that if you are going to put a price on carbon, you may as well call it a tax’; and it stuck. Julia is on the record elsewhere as saying that she later regretted not trying to repudiate that characterisation, which she was then forced to defend.

  28. klewso

    And if Abbott’s “arse” had been deemed to be worth his word by those Independents (working as close as they had been and knew him so well), it would have been him breaking promises earlier, to form government.


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