The new Labor Government has made great play of the fact that it intends to keep all its pre-election promises, and you can’t help but admire the commitment.
This means they remain wedded to two pre-election positions in particular: the tax cuts for high-wage earners, and the 43% per cent carbon reduction target, which also ties in with their willingness to approve various gas and coal projects. On the latter point, Resource Minister Madeliene King has said, “Overall, even as we are moving to a decarbonised energy system, coal and gas will continue to heat our homes and keep manufacturing going for many years to come. In short, if projects involving these traditional energy sources stack up environmentally, economically, and socially, we will support them.”
Challenged on the carbon target at her Press Club address, Tanya Plibersek specifically raised the fact that Labor wasn’t going to break promises. As Rachel Withers recorded in her daily Monthly column at the time:
The opening query, in fact, was on the government’s 43 per cent target, with Australian reporter Sarah Ison asking if it was still good enough for Labor to stick by it given what the [State of the Environment] report had found. “We made a promise to the Australian people, and we will keep that promise as a government,” Plibersek replied. A follow-up question from SBS’s Pablo Viñales pointed out that Labor had made that 2030 commitment before it saw the report, and asked whether the findings might prompt a reassessment. That prompted an awkward non-answer from Plibersek, who ignored emissions and said the government did not plan to go beyond its new 2030 land protection target. Another member of the press club later completed the trifecta, pointing out to Plibersek that this new information surely “absolved” Labor of needing to stick to its previous pledges. “We’re not going to start breaking promises,” she repeated…
So, let’s look at this.
On the one hand, there is the promise, and by all means, politicians should keep promises. But then there is a changed reality, in this case, a new report that shows that we need much stronger climate action than the promised policy provides.
Labor is in a similar position with their commitment to the tax cuts. On the one hand, again, the promise. On the other, they are committed to ‘budget repair’ dealing with the ‘trillion-dollar debt’ they inherited from the Coalition. This puts them in the position that they are preaching fiscal rectitude while leaving in place tax cuts that deliver the opposite.
They are arguing out of one side of their mouth that they need to keep the promise of tax cuts that will, by 2030, cost the Budget bottom line $37 billion annually, while promising out of the other side of their mouth to repair the Budget.
In both cases—the tax cuts and the environmental policy—Labor think it is more important to deliver on a promise than to reconsider the promises in light of new, or better-considered information and replace the old policy with a better one.
We all know why this is the case.
Labor knows that if they ‘broke’ a promise, the media would pounce and all we would hear for the next three years would be about how Labor had broken their promises. No-one doubts this for a second.
As Kevin Rudd said earlier this year, ‘if you look at the pages of the national print media, there is no real reward structure for advancing a policy agenda—which of itself is complex and dealing with the mega policy challenges of the nation—because working journalists…including …within the national broadcaster, regard this as complex, stale and not generating ratings or …click bait of one type or another.’
A broken promise, on the other hand, perfectly fulfils the media’s need for a simple, easily communicated controversy, and all the incentives are in place to capitalise on such a thing when it occurs.
So, let’s be clear.
Installing a better policy than the one you went to the election with is not breaking a promise. The whole idea of the promise is that you commit to something that will make the country better. Making it better still, with a better policy, is enhancing that promise, not breaking it.
To put it another way, the promise in a policy promise is, surely, the implicit commitment to improve things. Changing the policy to enhance that improvement cannot on any reasonable understanding be breaking a promise.
Taking the insanely literal approach to what a promise is—the words spoken, rather than the intent of the policy—is one of the clearest ways in which the media actively undermines the ability of governments to enact good policy. It is a clear-cut example of the way in which the mainstream media damages our democracy.
By all means, hold a politician accountable for a broken promise. But if all they are doing is adjusting a policy to produce a better result, why in god’s name would anyone stand in the way of that?
Why should that be punished?
Look, I am sympathetic to Labor’s position. I get it. Given the current state of play, they are probably doing the only thing they can. But it really speaks to the fact that we need a politics—and a public culture—that is more deliberative and less reactive, and I concede, we are never likely to get that given the media we have. Until some politician is willing to break this media-politics co-dependency nexus, we are stuck with this institutional stupidity.
And it is breathtaking how stupid it is, that grown people are paid money to behave in this way.
The idea that a govt can't replace a bad policy with a good one, or a reasonable one with a better one, for fear the media will hammer them for eternity for 'breaking a promise' has to be one of the most dangerous aspects of how our political class operates. It is shameful that we are held hostage to the ridiculous incentives for controversy that dominate the way in which the media operates.
UPDATE: Been asked a few times if Labor doesn’t have a role here, and just to clarify, they definitely do. It would be difficult, but there is a path to making a case to change their position on this, and indeed, their own logic of Budget repair demands it. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. Treasurer Jim Chalmers made it sound unlikely the other day when he said, “If we didn’t think they were [needed], we’d have a different approach to it.” There is even what the media call “growing calls” for Labor to rethink, and the media love this too, just like Lucy likes convincing Charlie that this time she won’t pull the football away as he goes to kick it. The point is, and the point I was making above, is that policy shouldn’t be held hostage to this sort of media whim.
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