Stop Making Promises You Can't Keep

Now that an election date has been firmly set for some time between July and October, Australia's future will be heavily shaped by the rules of engagement during the 95 to 216-day election campaign. Such a protracted campaign will produce policy paralysis in the next parliamentary term if the major parties promise to doing nothing to upset voters. Or if the next prime minister wants to govern effectively, he will be unable to do so without breaking a plethora of promises. We know how that ends. An informal agreement between the major parties and the media on the rules of engagement during the election campaign would be in the national interest.

Broken promises have always been an issue in Australian politics, in living memory dating back to Malcolm Fraser offering the people a fistful of dollars in the 1977 election campaign only to take them back afterwards. More recently, John Howard distinguished between core and non-core promises, Tony Abbott as health minister broke his "rock-solid, iron-clad" promise ahead of the 2004 election to leave the Medicare safety net alone and Julia Gillard was pilloried for promising no carbon tax. Astonishingly, Abbott, the prosecutor of the campaign against Gillard, didn't realise the same rules would apply to him. Having pledged no cuts to health and education, no changes to pensions, no excuses and no surprises, his fate was sealed with the disastrous 2014 budget that broke every one of these promises.

Now that election campaigns are all about promises get ready for the rule-in, rule=out game. The standard media question at the leaders' public appearances will be whether he will rule out cuts to education, health, social services, income support payments, defence and roads or increases in any taxes, fees, levies or charges. Leaders will be challenged, too, to keep each and every tax shelter wide open.

A standard response will be to refuse to play the rule-in, rule-out game. That will create stories from media outlets desperate for online content that Turnbull or Shorten today refused to rule out the budget measure in question. By the end of the election campaign, both leaders will have been forced to rule out every bit of policy flexibility for the coming three years.

In the Hawke-Keating era there was a tacit understanding between the media and the political parties. Hawke was permitted to say a particular policy was "not on the government's agenda", or that the government had "no plans" to do it. This allowed a re-elected Hawke government to claim changed circumstances as necessitating a policy shift. Such wriggle room was clearly in the national interest. Just imagine if the Hawke government had been hamstrung by pre-election promises ahead of the current account crisis of 1985-86 that precluded it from bringing down the 1986 budget and the 1987 May statement which delivered, necessarily, the biggest spending cuts in Australia's history. Or suppose if, instead of promising a tax summit for its second term, the Hawke government had been obliged to rule out introducing a fringe benefits tax and a capital gains tax. By now the income tax base would have been totally destroyed.


In this new era of rule in, rule out the early signs are worrying. By choosing to run a scare campaign against Labor's plans to limit negative gearing and abandon any other changes for political expedience, a re-elected Turnbull government will not be able to touch this tax shelter. And despite bipartisan support for a comprehensive review of the retirement incomes system, the Coalition, in attacking Labor's announced superannuation tax changes, will only be able to implement its own 2016 budget measures.

For its part, Labor has been bold in setting the agenda on revenue measures but timid on expenditure savings. If Shorten wins the election, having been forced to rule out any further savings measures during the campaign, he will have no room to manoeuvre on the expenditure side in fixing the structural deficit.

Voters are thoroughly disillusioned with the political establishment in Canberra. Both leaders need to think beyond polling day and refrain from making promises they cannot keep. When journalists press them daily to rule out everything under the sun, the leaders should refuse to play their games and instead set out their broad agendas in a way that gives the next Australian government room the latitude to run the country in the national interest.