Bring back core and non-core promises

The election is no longer “on the horizon.” It’s close enough to smell the sausages. Everyone involved in politics is working hard, trying to get us to listen, trying to get us to believe, trying to get us to vote.

Most of what they are saying is lies. Or to be a little kinder, false predictions about what they will do in the future.

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Labor’s policy list

Labor has set out 100 positive policies on its website.They’re really quite interesting and I recommend having a look.

But will it do them all? No way.

Take its plan to cut capital gains tax and negative gearing. These are very bold reforms any party would struggle to get  through the Senate.

And – despite recent reforms – the coming Senate is going to be a particularly mixed one.

Psephologist Anthony Green predicts eight Greens, three Nick Xenophon Teamers, either Glenn Lazarus or Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie and an associated senator, plus probably one other odd-bod from Tasmania.

It’s a volatile mix that would wreak havoc on the most carefully-planned legislative agenda and laugh heartily at the very idea of a mandate.

And there is no guarantee of a mandate, for anyone. A hung parliament is quite possible, with independents and Greens set to make good runs in a range of lower-house seats. Nick Xenophon Team is a huge factor because it is competitive in some classic Coalition seats in SA. One expert tips six cross-benchers.

The odds of a hung parliament are 4:1 against and the closer the two major parties get, the better the chance a couple of independents (Yes Tony Windsor, I’m thinking about you) could have the parliament in the palm of their hands.

What all this means is that words spoken before the election – however earnestly meant  – cannot all come true.

Why don’t politicians admit that?

Instead of having broken promises littering the field of battle, creating the impression  “they’re all liars”, why not explicitly admit some outcomes are state-contingent?

They could make promises contingent on election outcomes:

“If we win a Senate majority we will pass all our policies. If not we will make health and education our top priorities.”

Promises contingent on Budget outcomes.

“If company tax revenue rises above $100 billion, we will fund a new hospital in Launceston.”

Or promises contingent on other promises.

“If we can get our negative gearing reform bill through, we will fund the building of submarines in South Australia.”

Politicians demur on hypotheticals for a reason – adherents of the more cynical schools of political communication will insist the complexity is too high for voters. And I’m sure the first few weeks after adopting this approach would be full of mocking.

The Leader of the Opposition is a maybe man, a possibly politician, an if-then individual,” the PM would jeer. “He’s built an escape route into every promise!”

Perhaps most politicians would wilt immediately under such ripostes – and the bad press that would follow. Gallery journalists – whose expertise in reading the tea leaves might be slightly less valuable in such a scenario – might be unwilling to give the approach a decent chance.

But maybe, just maybe, a  contrast would eventually become apparent between one side explaining their priorities and the risks and contingencies while the other side baldly claims things that can’t all come true will all come true. It just takes one politician floundering when asked, “But what will you do if you don’t control the Senate?” for that to become the favourite question of press-packs everywhere.

If so, the pressure for truth-telling would ultimately fall on the party that over-simplifies their plan. If that party won an election and then failed to keep their promises the consequences would likely be harsher, given the good example set in advance.

There would still be plenty of opportunity for broken promises. Sometimes politicians simply do the opposite of what they say they will, as Tony Abbott demonstrated after the last election.

But without the cover of all those things promised that were only really deliverable under very particular circumstances, the flat-out lies would be much easier to see.

 

Could this be a better way to pay politicians?

Australia’s 824 politicians are paid well.

The lowest paid MPs are certain members of the ACT legislative assembly, who get $132,800.On the other side of Canberra, federal parliament is even more lucrative. The lowliest federal backbencher* makes $195,130. The highest paid is the Prime Minister, who makes $507,000.

State MPs seem to get about 70 per cent of the federal pay. The Premier of NSW gets $358,853 .

The following table is taken from a recent report in parliamentary salaries in Victoria. Since then, pay rates have been hiked for inflation once or twice.

MP pay

Politician pay is a fraught issue. The annual pay rises create a furore in the media, especially during times of budget stringency. It got me wondering if there might be a better way.

What if politician pay were anchored to something that we can all believe in? What if politician pay was somehow linked to how well the rest of us are going?

This could be an effective way to not only manage the PR aspect of politician pay rises, but to properly align their incentives with our own.

Here are some anchors we could use, for starters.

Average annual full time earnings (for the employed) is $78,821, GDP per capita is $67,218. The median wage is $60,112, and the minimum wage is $33,327.

Pay packets
Pay packets

There is a case to be made for paying politicians well, in order that they are not swayed in their duties by fat brown envelopes, or promises of lucrative employment after their retirement from public life. Generosity also prevents the other problem you get when you pay peanuts – you get the homo but not the sapiens.

So while it is tempting to say that politicians should be on the median wage, it may not be practicable.

Instead, a bundle of all of the above might make a sensible balance. If you add the four categories together, and multiply by 0.8, you get  $191,580 – a number that roughly approximates current politician pay.

You could easily argue, at this point, that this pay structure is entirely mis-focused and materialistic, and if we’re going to have performance pay for MPs it should be linked to a far broader basket of KPIs, including a rating of the health of the great barrier reef, carbon emissions per capita, spotted numbat populations, ambulance waiting times, NAPLAN testing results in western Sydney, etc, etc. I’d totally support all of that.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I really do not think any sort of MP pay reform is worthwhile without sorting out entitlements, which are absolutely arcane and create a culture where MPs are disproportionately focused on getting the public to pay for bookshelves and travel allowances.

Is this a good idea? What would you suggest putting in the mix to align politicians’ incentives with our own? Leave a comment below!

* Please feel free to use the comments section to nominate precisely who you believe is Australia’s lowliest federal backbencher.

Victoria is cold on the Liberal Party – what can they can do about that?

The state government of Victoria lost power this weekend. The election saw their narrow majority reversed, and by losing government after just one term in office, they set a record. No other government has done that since 1955.

Since Jeff Kennett’s reign as premier from 1992 to 1999, the Coalition’s appeal to the electorate has been slight. They’ve lost elections in 1999, 2002, 2006 and 2014, some by big margins. They won in 2010 by just two seats.

The state is lurching away from the Coalition. (The Coalition is an alliance between the large city-based Liberal Party and the smaller, country-based National Party).

coalition blue

The Liberals can console themselves with a decent-looking result in first-preference terms (766,000 votes to Labor’s 820,000 on the count so far). But there are plenty of voters that do not put Labor first whose vote ends up with them thanks to the magic of preferential voting.

greens first preferences

The Liberal party do not have an equivalent. The Nationals operate mainly in different areas to the Liberals and are in any case a smaller, less popular party. The Greens took 11.2 per cent of the vote in 2014, to the National Party’s 5.6 per cent.

The whole state is lurching away from the Coalition. It’s not just the Greens. The National party are losing seats to Independents all over the bush.

Faced with this remarkable recent record of underperformance, The Liberal party can either follow the population or fade into irrelevance. They need to tack to the centre to become believable on key issues for voters at state elections, like schools, transport and hospitals.

The choice of a new leader will be essential in remaking the party. In some ways, the selections on offer look good: An man in his 30s of Ukrainian descent or a prize-winning lawyer known for his pro bono work . But Matthew Guy is a former staffer to Jeff Kennett and an unpopular planning minister while Michael O’Brien is a former adviser to Peter Costello.

These two are the front-runners for Liberal leadership. If you keep building a new house out of the same bricks, there’s a limit to how much better you can make it. And when you can narrow down your field to two senior cabinet ministers so soon after a crushing defeat, it indicates a “steady as she goes” attitude. Perhaps the Liberal party is unable to reform itself, and the voters will have to do it for them.

Jocks not nerds: Why dumb politicians may be better.

The era of the warrior king was awe-inspiring. The leader that rode his troops into battle, survived arrow puncture wounds and chopped off a dozen enemy heads really earned the right to sit on that throne.

Richard iii shortly before his reign ended, at the Battle of Bosworth
Richard III – shortly before his reign ended – at the Battle of Bosworth

But over time, it became clear that the two skill-sets – sagacious governing and vigorous neck-hacking – were rarely found in the same individual.

We saw specialisation and gains from trade.

Kings paid knights to do their warring for them while Knights benefited from having a bookish type on the throne – someone inclined to spend hours contemplating the merits of the laws, rather than lifting heavy rocks.

So we come to modern politicians. There’s a lot of complaints that these people are  “too dumb”.

But is that fair? Since when did we expect the parliament to do the heavy thinking to come up with new policies?

That’s why we have the public service, the think tanks, the vast commentariat. There is no shortage of good ideas in Australian politics. Take today’s call for the end of negative gearing, for example. That idea doesn’t need to be invented, just implemented.

What we need in parliament is people who can make parliament work.

We need coalition-builders. We need people other people are happy to follow. We need people who can bolt together a coalition of interested parties to make something happen. We need leaders.

If your community is chock-full of bookish types, then they may be delighted to be led by a former university professor.

But will that inspire and delight the community at large?

PUPS

Recent evidence says no.

I’m not saying the level should be brought down that low, mind you. The politicians still need to be able to tell a good idea from a bad one.

The Dunning Kruger effect, wherein a person may be too stupid to tell they are stupid, is an ever-present risk among candidates for parliament. Many of them self-select, thinking they are the first person who ever wanted to take “common sense to Canberra”.

The structure of the political system also influences who you should vote for. If one person will rule, you want a sensible centrist. But where there’s lots of negotiation, you’re better off sending a hardline crazy person. (This may explain the Senate.)

There’s a roughly translated quote from Plato:

“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

That may have been true once. But these days we are barely governed at all. Years pass without any real reform, while reams of sensible but bold recommendations printed on glossy A4 blow emptily round the inner-city streets of Canberra.

So don’t be afraid to vote for a Jock. Someone who seems smiley and friendly and very popular, if a little bit dim. Someone whose electoral success is not explained by a dazzling academic CV. They might be the the exact politician we need.

Political narratives – have politicians learned anything from HBO?

Political commentators pay major lip-service to the importance of having and using a “narrative”.

The tricky knack of a political narrative (Bernard Keane)

In government, a mantra is not enough to control the narrative (Annabel Lukin)

Political Narrative (Michael Cooney)

Australian Politics: A lack of narrative (Michael Tons)

Talking about narrative goes deep into policy making circles:

“Narratives are stories, in whatever form they take – oral, written or visual. Conventional narratives in literature, the theatre or the cinema have a beginning, middle and end. Good ones provide drama, arising from a predicament that ensnares the principal character; they have plenty of action – the steps the character takes to escape the predicament – with unexpected plot twists and complications thrown in; and there is a resolution, culminating in the achievement of a visionary aspiration or objective. Economic narratives have some similarities.”

– Dr Ken Henry, former head of the Treasury, in a 2007 speech to the Curtin Policy forum. Surprised?

All this talk about narrative in politics has coincided with what many people agree is a golden age of story-telling in the ascendant medium of television (1, 2, 3, 4)

But I see no sign of politicians learning from it.

Our leaders scarcely ever admit to watching the box. They prefer to project an image of someone working tirelessly for their constituents.  Why have they spurned the chance to learn from TV?

Politicians fetishise staying on message. That – they believe – is the only way to get voters to hear the one thing you want them to hear. It is true only if you assume that people won’t be listening, and it is a catch-22.

Would you tune into a show where the main character just repeated the same lines, week-in and week-out?

What about a show where they never admitted they were wrong? Never grew as a person? Never got into trouble and squeaked back out?

Our political characters all claim to be good people from ordinary backgrounds, and play down their weirdness. It’s immensely boring.

They end up with a script that’s all issues, no characters. But (most) humans don’t care about issues in the abstract. We are drawn to characters.

In the HBO western Deadwood, the opening credits are all about a tough but fair sherriff called Bullock. But after a few episodes Bullock’s role fades and the writers turn saloon-owner Swearengen into the main focus.

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Al Swearengen (Source)

He’s a murderer, bully and brothel owner. But his motivations and relationships are complex. They make us love him in the end, and we forgive far more from him than we would from the rest.

Viewers don’t mind complexity. We can even feel for Sergeant Brody, the muslim terrorist at the centre of Homeland, because we get insight into his home life and terrible back-story.

We barrack for Walter White from Breaking Bad, who is a meth cook. We barrack for Omar in The Wire and the inmates in Orange is the New Black. All because we get to know them. We see not only their strengths but their weaknesses. We see them as humans, not message delivery machines.

Can politicians learn from this?

I’m not saying the front benches should start dealing drugs. Just that it doesn’t hurt to show a little of their real struggles. There should be plenty there. Difficult lives turn people to politics and politics is hard on humans.

A political career is a story written over the really long-term. It is not a movie. If it is to remain compelling, the main characters have to have depth. Depth means complexity and complexity requires ambiguity.

At the moment, political narratives strive to kill ambiguity. But this generates only the most superficial interaction with issues.

We might actually be a chance of engaging with university reform if we saw how Joe Hockey’s mother-in-law hates him for it, if we knew it kept him up at night, if we saw how his background and values explain why he balanced it off against other priorities.

As presented, there’s no meat to the political narratives. They are the kind of narrative you might get in a child’s story book. See Spot Run appears to have inspired See Joe Repair Budget. 

There is little to grasp on to in the Coalition’s story. Nothing to stop us from painting them as simple villains. Nothing to stop us rolling our eyes and changing the channel. Nothing to make us focus in the short run, empathise in the medium run and barrack in the long run.

Bill Shorten could learn a lot from Batman. We know more about how Batman begins than Bill begins. Why is that?

But it doesn’t just have to be about the leaders. The Avengers or Oceans Eleven may be an even better metaphor for a political party. A raggedy team with distinct flaws and skills have to fit together to get a job done. There’s alliances and fractures that keep us focused on them, and those alliances and fractures are strengths, not weaknesses, in the narrative. Political parties try to keep talk of factions down. But they can be a fascinating sub-plot.

There are some politicians that modern messaging experts can’t explain. They include Bob Katter, Clive Palmer, and Lee Rhiannon. These people understand something of how eye-catching, complex characters can take an outsize role in a narrative. But does the political world learn from them?

Politics is much like it was 20 years ago and the time is right for a change in the way it is practised. It is a cozy old duopoly using old school communications techniques that are increasingly out of favour with the youth. In TV terms, the major parties are the Simpsons and the Bold and the Beautiful. Popular once, they are now the same old thing over and over.

Who is authoring The Sopranos of politics, writing a script that looses the foundations and doesn’t care who it shocks?

Is it Clive Palmer? Or is he just some sort of free-form experiment, like a drama student let loose with a digital camera.

When will we get a real narrative made up of characters real Australians actually care about? I cannot wait for such a show to hit the air.

One term? I wonder

Waleed Aly’s long piece in today’s Fairfax press about Tony Abbott is thoughtful, but the headline it carries: No Way Abbott Can Now Budget For Second Term is too strong.

Every reader fell greedily upon that story, I assure you, but the headline hints at far more certainty than the excellent Mr Aly projects.  Here’s three reasons why “one-term Tony” will win the 2016 election, and one reason he might not…

1. Parliamentary majority. 

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Source: ABC

In the lower house, the Coalition leads Labor 90 to 55. Labor needs to peg back 21 seats to win. If you look at the pendulum, that means they need to win every seat that the Coalition holds be a margin of 4.3 per cent or less, while not losing any of their own seats.  That’s a lot.

Winning a lot of seats will be hard for Labor, because it requires not just a swing but a lot of good candidates, a lot of organisation and a lot of money.

2. Sophomore surge

In theory, someone who was an unknown at their first election becomes familiar at the second (sophomore) election. They enjoy a surge in popularity. This effect, if it exists, will help the Coalition a lot – they introduced 19 new MPs.

As the name implies, the sophomore surge is a US concept. Is it real in Australia?

Some bloggers argue yes.

This book written about the 2010 election thinks so:

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That means that even if Labor gets 51 per cent of the vote in 2016, it can easily lose a lot of important seats and be stuck in opposition.

3. Budget trickery

Tough budgets now lay the foundation for easy budget later. I wrote about this last week. 

To most people, the grumbling of early 2014 [will be] as relevant to the political situation as the result of the 1974 VFL Grand final. Labor can’t get over the broken promises and keeps talking about the past, while Mr Abbott is focused on the future.

The evidence for the efficacy of this approach is mounting. Not only Victorian Premier Denis Napthine but also NZ PM John Key have unveiled more generous budgets on the eve of elections. (NZ is introducing free doctor’s visits just as we abolish them. Time to move to Wellington?)

4. But the polls are very bad.

55-45 is BAD.

I can see just one good example of a government coming back from that, in the early 90s. Keating took over a very unpopular government and won the next election.

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Source: News

 

Howard was losing by almost as much prior to the 2001 election. I also commend to you this graphic of the newspoll:

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If this polling continues, expect newspapers to push the idea Malcolm Turnbull should take over from Mr Abbott. Not only would it likely help the Liberals, the media have clearly learned that a good leadership challenge narrative attract eyeballs and, crucially, elevates their (our?) own importance.

Core and non-core promises are actually a good idea

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?