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.


So will Abbott’s leadership survive and thrive in the wake of his broken promises? He has not built up a reservoir of trust with voters (his personal approval rating has never been high and now sits at net negative 30 points). The timing doesn’t seem to have worked; this budget comes eight months after Abbott was elected, and circumstances have not really changed. It’s early to break promises.

Abbott and Hockey are not selling the budget well; their messaging seems confused and not always believable. On media, News Corp papers are mostly digging in behind the Coalition, but Fairfax, The Guardian and the ABC are running negative stories.

Abbott does have one thing going for him: he has strong party support and is liked within Coalition ranks. They give him a good deal of credit for bringing down Labor and running a tight ship. It remains to be seen if that is enough.