Politicians make and break more promises in one electoral cycle than the rest of us manage in a life-cycle.
We call them names and rant and rave. But really, we seem to forgive them, because we rarely vote them out. We know much of what politicians “promise” is actually contingent on several factors coming together.
It’s like hearing a footballer promising to kick four goals on the weekend – there are only a few circumstances in which they can deliver. We, the voters, form judgments about which promises are dependent on the most unlikely circumstances, and which seem more solid.
But even then we can be wrong. Politicians can be very inventive when it comes to wriggling out of promises.
It would be simpler for them to nominate the circumstances in which their promises will be kept, and the circumstances in which they will be abandoned.
John Howard spoke of “core” and “non-core promises” after his election win in 1996. I propose a more nuanced promise ranking, with three levels of political promise. Even the top level has plenty of political escape hatches.
1. Cross my heart and hope to die. Exclusions apply in the case of budget-stretching new priorities that may take the shape of major land wars, significant domestic earthquakes, sharp recession, nuclear attack, or mutations that create mega cane toads. Also not applicable in the case of a minority government. nb. Promised policy may mutate like a cane toad in the Senate.
2. Scouts Honour. Exclusions apply if revenues fall below $400 billion a year, or if expenditure on level 1 promises blows out by more than 15 per cent. Also, don’t expect this to happen if News Limited papers start to oppose it.
3. Best efforts. We will implement this if we can get the National Farmer’s Federation and Friends of the Earth to agree on terms of reference for a report before the winter sitting, and assuming the senate committee delivers its report into the issue before the end of the year. If that report aligns with the advice from the department, then the policy has a chance. But only if you deliver us a pliable senate and the rest of the legislative agenda goes smoothly, company tax receipts look healthy, and no other issues – oh, look, asylum seekers! – capture our attention. In fact, this is more of a second term promise.
I struggled not to write the above in a facetious fashion, but I honestly think this idea – contingent commitments – would be the fairest approach.
We elect leaders because we want people who can react sensibly to evolving circumstance, not just automatons who will carry out a plan long after it ceases to be a good idea.
Stop treating voters like goldfish who will forget not just what happened after the last election, but the very nature of political promises. Contingent commitments would hint at where the government’s focus will be, even in the case of major distractions.
If a political party opted for this, the initial headlines would be predictable. I imagine a media-cycle would obsess over the political party that no longer made promises! It would go global. Everyone from Fox News to Le Monde would get excited.
But if the innovation was developed long enough before an election, the brouhaha, the laughter and the op-eds would quieten down. After perhaps six months, the contingent commitments of one party would force the public to look closely at the promises of the other side and start asking questions like: Will you really deliver that expensive new social policy even if we have a recession?