Anatomy of a broken promise


Broken vaseWhether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.

While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.

An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.

Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.

Prime Ministerial broken promises are hardly a new phenomenon; throughout contemporary Australian politics they’ve often been considered a necessary evil. Promises made, particularly during election campaigns, have routinely been discarded as economic or political circumstances have changed.

In the 1970s Malcolm Fraser undertook to keep Medibank, then dismantled it. The 80s saw Bob Hawke vow that by 1990 no child would live in poverty. Paul Keating retracted his L-A-W tax cuts promise in 1993, resulting in the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister (now equal lowest with Julia Gillard), but still dragged that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders.

John Howard swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister successfully took one to the 1998 election. Howard also backtracked on commitments made during the 1998 campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises, but won the following 2001 election with an increased majority and prevailed again in 2004.

So when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to discard her vow to never have a carbon tax (as the price for securing minority government with the Greens and Independents), she could have been forgiven for thinking she’d get away with it. But in Australian politics one does not simply break an oath; one must play the game of expectations in order to get away with it.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, learned this the hard way in 2010 when he backed away from his election promise (made in opposition) to quickly establish an emissions trading scheme.

This change of heart shouldn’t have been as difficult for Rudd as it proved to be. Community support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was fading following the disappointing shemozzle that was Copenhagen and the Senate’s refusal to pass what the Greens considered to be a substandard trading regime. New Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s “great big tax” campaign had started to get traction. And business leaders were expressing doubt the CPRS would provide the certainty they needed.

Even having dubbed climate change as “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, Rudd could have emerged relatively unscathed from the CPRS back-down in April 2010 if he’d better managed the community’s expectations.

But if there was one thing Rudd proved singularly incapable of doing, it was to live up to the extraordinarily inflated community expectations that he’d created as Opposition Leader. Having cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Rudd initially proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. But people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be a better version of Howard ultimately proved to be empty.

In fact a defining feature of Rudd as Prime Minister was to promise big but deliver small. In February 2010 Rudd told his MPs there could be no backing away from the CPRS commitment. But in April, on advice from his kitchen cabinet comprising Gillard, Swan and Tanner, Rudd decided to postpone it. The clumsily leaked broken promise caught Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and other ministers unawares. Rudd then fumbled the explanation, and in doing so extinguished what little voter faith in him that remained. As it was later reported, the decision “galvanised the fastest collapse of support for a Prime Minister in the 20-year history of Newspoll and one of the two sharpest recoils from a Prime Minister in the 40 years of the Nielsen poll.”

Prime Minister Gillard should have heeded Rudd’s CPRS downfall when faced with having to disavow her pre-election rejection of the carbon tax. Voters were already unsettled by the coup and resented being denied the opportunity to cast Rudd out themselves. Gillard’s Rudd-like commitment to resolve priority issues such as asylum seekers, the mining tax and climate action proved to be equally Rudd-like in their emptiness. And a sense of anxiety and uncertainty overhung the minority government negotiations.

It’s little wonder that latent voter unhappiness fomented into outrage once the disavowed carbon tax was publicly re-embraced by Gillard. Abbott’s aforementioned sloganeering whipped that outrage into the phenomenon we know today as JuLIAR.

In contrast, the twilight hours of 2012 saw an exemplary display of how to break a political promise AND get away with it, when the Prime Minister and Treasurer deftly broke their Budget surplus commitment.

The government first created a community expectation that dropping the surplus promise was a sensible and necessary thing to do. This was done in stages, first by floating the possibility in off-the-record discussions with credible journalists and economists who in turn championed the need for the about-turn in the media. The next stage was to convert the “idea” into “a proposal” and leak it to an esteemed journalist whose credibility would provide reflected validation.

Thus, Laura Tingle revealed (the week after parliament concluded) that the surplus commitment would be dropped. Following months of public discussion about this being the right thing to do, Tingle’s article added a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the proposal.

From there it was simply a matter of announcing the decision in the week before Christmas, when most Australians were thinking more about barbeques and beaches than the state of the Budget. The few who had not entirely switched off might have thought “and about time, too”, having vaguely recalled calls for such action. Then Australians would have turned to the post-Christmas sales and the cricket.

Such is the anatomy of a broken promise. Tony Abbott would do well to study it as he deploys the next stage of his election strategy. Most likely he’ll rely heavily on the worst-handled of the Prime Minister’s broken promises – the carbon tax – and the best-handled, being the surplus. But as we have seen with the surplus, not all rescinded commitments generate outrage, and even those that initially inflame – like the carbon tax – can lose their volatility over time.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year of the broken promise: Tony Abbott will make sure of that. But Abbott should be wary of assuming the community will become indiscriminately outraged about any and all oath-breaking. If the Prime Minister has learned from the successful reversal of the Budget surplus commitment, and continues to deftly manage community expectations, it’s likely her broken promises will be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and something that all Prime Ministers occasionally have to do. And in doing so, she will make redundant one of her opponent’s most valued pieces of artillery.

This post first appeared at the King’s Tribune.

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