Does Tony Abbott think we are all fools or does he believe that with big business in one pocket and Rupert Murdoch in the other he can replenish the political capital he’s expended over the last weeks and months anytime he likes?
How else to explain his near total abandonment of pre-election pledges in the federal budget. As Tim Colebatch observed on this site just hours after Joe Hockey delivered it, the Abbott Government broke promises on a gargantuan scale, walking away from pledges on education, health, pensions, the ABC and SBS, and a few more besides.
The only one he didn’t walk away from, wrote Colebatch, was his pledge not to fiddle with the GST, adding: “(But) it’s inevitable that that promise will go too.” Of course it is. Don Chipp, who launched a political movement based on keeping “the bastards honest” – it petered out relatively quickly – must be turning in his grave somewhere.
Of course, Abbott has already paid an enormous political price, with post-budget opinion polls indicating he’s about as popular as, well, Kevin Rudd. Neilsen now has Labor 12 points ahead of the coalition on a two-party preferred basis and Bill Shorten 11 points ahead as preferred PM. Newspoll isn’t very far behind. As Fairfax papers observed, Abbott appears to have made “a potentially catastrophic error”.
Certainly he’s misjudged the electorate. As ethicist Dr Simon Longstaff wrote at thenewdaily.com.au on Monday, Abbott’s broken promises “come at a time when the ethical stocks of politicians and our political institutions are at rock bottom – with the shadow of corruption falling over both major political parties”.
The message is clear: Voters are looking for more honesty, not less.
A long tradition
Political porkies are not a new phenomenon. Way back in 1938, Hitler told the biggest one of all time when he pledged to British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain: “I have no more territorial ambitions in Europe.” Sixty years later Bill Clinton was assuring the American public he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” There were plenty more in between and there’ll be many more in the future.
Abbott’s breach of faith falls well short of the worst of them, but he’ll probably have trust issues for the rest of his political days. Particularly, given he told Melbourne broadcaster Jon Faine in August last year (listen below).
“If we do win the election and we immediately say, ‘We got it all wrong and we now have to do all these different things’, we will instantly be just as bad as the current government has been and I just refuse to be like that.”
Turns out he’s just like that.
As I’ve written before, there are three levels of untruth in politics. The first is when a politician says something believing it to be true, only for it to be disproved later. The electorate will usually be pretty forgiving in those circumstances, unless the ‘honest mistake’ has been made recklessly.
The second level is breaking a promise, overturning an undertaking given reasonably or honestly. We’ll excuse these too, if circumstances change or the pledge is impossible to deliver. But we’ll condemn the promise-maker if it emerges he or she had no intention of ever acting on it.
The third level of untruth is telling an out and out lie, uttering a false statement knowing it to be untrue. This deserves fierce condemnation and, in an ideal world, some sort of penalty.
Julia Gillard’s pledge that there would be no carbon tax under her leadership fell into the second category of untruth. The problem for her was that in order to win the electorate’s forgiveness, she had to convince us she was speaking from the heart at the time she made it.
Now Abbott faces the same problem, which is ironic given the relentlessness of his attacks on Gillard in the run-up to the last election. The best he can hope for is that the electorate accepts he believed what he was telling us this time last year. But I don’t like his chances. The worst case scenario is that voters think he was lying from the get-go. Which puts him slap bang in the middle of category three, which is Pinocchio territory.
Think, then talk
In an ideal world, politicians would be much more circumspect with their promises, particularly during election campaigns. And it would help if voters – and the media – were less condemnatory of them when they spoke the truth, sometimes at their cost. We live in hope on both fronts.
Until then, and to prevent political opportunism and voter cynicism bedevilling the political system entirely, we need a circuit-breaker. I’ve previously advocated a kind of social compact during election campaigns. I think we need it more than ever. Instead of politicians saying what they will do, get them to write it down, almost as if it were a legally enforceable contract. This signed compact would list the party’s major promises and then agree to retribution if either leader failed. Perhaps:
I undertake to deliver on these promises. Any failure to do so in the absence of a compelling reason should result in my forfeiting office.
They could sign it on the last day of the election campaign. Media would line up to record it; anyone who refused to sign would pay a hefty price at the ballot box.
Why has Abbott abandoned his promises?
There are at least two possible explanations: one, that the PM has put the country’s economic standing above his personal popularity; or, two, that Abbott thinks he’ll be able to restore his political capital by election time, thanks to the financial support of big business and the pubic relations boost he’ll get from the Murdoch empire.
He’s almost certainly right on the support of big business; after all, they did very well out of the budget. But Murdoch is more problematic. While the media titan would enthusiastically support the thrust of the budget, his tabloid editors would be starting to feel their papers are out of step with readers. If that were to become pronounced, would Murdoch jump off, at least to another Liberal leader? Of course he would.
Not that long ago, a politician seeking the highest office in this land, proudly proclaimed (listen to the audio file): “We really need a better government, a better polity, a more straight forward system and that’s what I aim to deliver.” They were fine words from Tony Abbott. He was absolutely right. Pity he didn’t walk the talk.
Bruce Guthrie is editorial director of The New Daily and author of the book Man Bites Murdoch. Some aspects of this column first appeared at theage.com.au