May 22, 2014

Memo to MPs: how to break a promise and get away with it

Breaking a promise has ended some prime minister's careers, while others have thrived. Why? And which camp will Tony Abbott fall into?

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

Cathy Alexander

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

If Tony Abbott's leadership is to revive after the broken promises in the 2014-15 budget, he'll need the trust of the public, good timing and a savvy conversation with voters. Is he ticking those boxes? There's nothing unusual in a political leader breaking a major promise once the election is won. Yesterday Crikey brought you the top 10 broken promises in Australian politics, from John Curtin to John Howard to Julia Gillard. Some leaders survived their backflips -- as with Bob Hawke's "no Australian child will be living in poverty" and Howard's "never ever" on a GST. But for some leaders, it proved terminal (Kevin Rudd, Gillard -- both on climate change). Why? It's worth noting that last century's political broken promises were more likely to stem from changing external circumstances or genuine errors or miscalculations, while they have now become par for the course. Career politicians of various persuasions are telling strategic lies to win elections. A former very senior Australian politician, who did not wish to be identified, told Crikey: "If you think you can't deliver on your promise you shouldn't make your promise. A promise should be well-founded in fact or research, and it should be deliverable ... I think voters are crying out for honesty and decency in politics." They're unlikely to get that any time soon. So here's Crikey's guide for MPs on how to break a promise ... Build up a reservoir of trust from the public beforehand University of Melbourne political historian Jackie Dickenson says a politician has to earn this over time. It helps if a politician is a familiar figure the public has come to see as fairly reliable, open and honest. There's little point to a new (or untrusted) face saying "trust me". Voters don't. Dickenson says this helps explain why Hawke and Howard got away with breaking major promises; they had been around for a long while and were reasonably well-trusted and respected. Both had been highly visible in public life for more than 20 years before they broke their promises (Hawke as ACTU president then PM, Howard as treasurer then PM). "If you do something that breaks faith with the electorate, you’ve got something to fall back on," Dickenson said. But if a leader is not trusted by the public, then goes and backflips on a big issue, there's trouble. Gillard already had trust issues because of how she became leader. Veteran political commentator Malcolm Mackerras told Crikey: "Julia Gillard did not survive her broken promise because there was so much propaganda against her legitimacy on other grounds. Had that not been the case I believe she would have survived that broken promise." Media commentator and former Coalition staffer Niki Savva made a related suggestion, telling Crikey that the general performance of the government was critical to whether a leader could wear a broken promise. "Voters hate being lied to but in the end they pay on results. So in the end, if promises are broken AND the government performs badly then they get punished," Savva said. Timing is everything It helps if a politician has the courage to backflip before an election, as Howard did on the GST (he promised no GST back in '95, backflipped before the '98 election, won, and sealed the tax in '99). "Most people were fair enough minded to understand that, in such a circumstance, it was not really a broken promise," Mackerras told Crikey. After WorkChoices, the Coalition has heeded this message by promising no changes to workplace laws without taking them to an election. Leaders who backflip in their first term as PM tend to be punished (Rudd, Gillard -- and Abbott?). Bring the public with you A former long-time senior staffer, who would not be seen as an ally of Howard's, told Crikey that Howard had mastered the art of engaging in a conversation with voters. "He just relentlessly would go on the ABC then on 2UE, he was able to go Left and Right, he continuously argued his point and engaged with the community." The staffer says this takes a personality and skill Abbott doesn't have. Dickenson said "if you prepare people and you take people with you gradually, they will forgive you if not all of [your pledges] come true". A compliant media helps Dickenson says powerful figures wanted to get rid of Gillard so she was hounded from office by the media, largely for the broken promise on the carbon tax. "They never let up," she said. But if the media stops reporting on something, voters forget. In the wake of last week's budget the News Corp tabloids are not focusing on Abbott's broken promises not to cut health and education funding or introduce new taxes. Instead, the tabs are running Coalition-friendly stories about revolting university students and welfare "slackers". Will Abbott get an easier run than Gillard? Strong party support helps Rudd was vulnerable for backflipping on climate change because he did not have strong caucus support (it was Labor, not the voters, who dumped Rudd). Mackerras told Crikey: "Had Kevin Rudd been a more pleasant man he might well have survived, but his general behaviour caused his caucus to dump him." The senior staffer quoted above says there is less party discipline now. In the '80s and '90s, MPs were more likely to remain behind the leader in tough times, but are now more willing to break ranks. This makes leaders more vulnerable if they backflip. If your party is not behind you, watch out. Have external circumstances changed? A leader is more likely to get away with a major backflip if something clearly changes (war, terrorist attack, global financial crisis -- e.g. John Curtin on conscription in 1943), but while politicians always blame external changes when they backflip, it's often exaggerated.


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14 thoughts on “Memo to MPs: how to break a promise and get away with it

  1. cairns50

    even you cant help yourself can you cathy?

    julia gillard did not lie about introducing a ETS she just did not bother to contest it being called a carbon tax

    abbott in his 10 months as PM has shown himself to be a serial liar

    his lies before the election enabled him to be elected PM

    dont you get it? he has no mandate

    he was elected on the basis of lies

    trying to compare julia gillard&kevin rudd with abbott, is just plain wrong

  2. zut alors

    My favourite line before/after the wink incident yesterday was Abbott dangling the prospect of cutting taxes down the track.

    His antidote to being caught out lying is to spin an even bigger whopper. In excess of half the nation was gullible pre-September but a significant percentage has suddenly wised-up.

  3. Kristian

    “Will Abbott get an easier run than Gillard?”

    Funniest thing I’ve read in months.

  4. Catherine Scott

    For Pete’s sake! The public hasn’t just been lied to. Everyone except the wealthy is being actively attacked and punished. How about you pop that in the calculator?

  5. Jimmyhaz

    Abbot doesn’t have the brains, the trust, the political savvy or the extenuating circumstances to justify the rubbish he is trying to pull.

    All he has is a ‘compliant’ (blatantly biased?) media, and I doubt their declining influence will be enough.

  6. Cathy Alexander

    True in a way Kristian, but have you been reading Fairfax and the Guardian? Full of negative coverage pounding Hockey and Abbott over the budget and the broken promises. I don’t think we should assume that “media coverage” only refers to News Corp outlets. Although of course, readership and % of swinging voters make a difference in how much media “matters” …

  7. Peter Phipps

    ‘Will Abbott get an easier run than Gillard?’ Cathy this is Crikey, you don’t have to pretend the Murdochracy press is committed to ‘fair and balanced’ or even ‘reality-based’ reporting. It is a very powerful, shabby propaganda outfit, and will remain the most malign influence on Australian politics until we collectively disassemble it. Murdoch will eventually shaft Abbott, but not until he can get more of his agenda (neoliberal social reassemblage) advanced by another party of the right (craven Labor under Shorten).

  8. zut alors

    Peter Phipps, Murdoch’s almost has his payoff: the Australia Network has been given the flick, the NBN has been nobbled & Turnbull has already mentioned a review of media cross-ownership laws. When that agenda is satisfactorily completed Murdoch will sharpen the blade on the whetstone & Abbott will be history.

    Oh yes, it will happen…the only question is how soon. Murdoch likes to demonstrate power & it’s best displayed when removing governments.

  9. klewso

    “Will Abbott get an easier run than Gillard”?
    [“Is the puppet a Catholic”?]

  10. old greybeard

    He is already getting an easier run. His stupidity has never been scrutinised in Murdoch and I doubt it ever will be. Even in the more balanced press Hockey has got away with his disgusting prancing and gloating. Abbott is a bully and like most of them is a sook. He runs away from a demo because it might look like he is unpopular. Notice his not very tacit support of the ditch the witch stuff. I am a serious long term Howard hater, but he was twice the leader Abbott is. Met Abbott, reminded me of the goanna after the eggs- disllike both man and reptile.

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