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.

 

How Malcolm Turnbull could be just what Labor needs

This post is a quick, simple game theory explanation of Australian politics. It’s not comprehensive. It cuts out a lot of detail. It simplifies radically. In doing so, it aims to shine a light on one interesting dynamic.

Please don’t get the impression I’m unaware other dynamics are running at the same time. This is just one strand in Australia’s politics – but an interesting one.

Tony Abbott learned a lot from John Howard. What he learned most apparently, was the lesson of the 2001 election – that an environment of negativity and fear and a focus on national security benefit the incumbent.

Abbott ran hard on national security. We have planes in the air over Syria because of those lessons – learned when Abbott was 43 and had been in parliament for seven years. Not to mention our new paramilitary Border Force. Even his elevation of the anti-methamphetamine campaign to a national level seemed to be part of a campaign to whip up fear.

Was he fundamentally wrong?

I say no. The reason Abbott couldn’t get an edge on national security was Bill Shorten stuck to him like sticky stuff to a blanket. Suffocatingly bipartisan on every issue, Shorten appeared to know that the slightest bit of space between him and the PM would be blown out of proportion.

Shorten refused to break his national security lock-step with Abbott even if it cost him. When “Border Farce” was announced Shorten was all for it. Shorten also supported boat turnbacks even though his party was very suspect of it.

National Security bipartisanship was not a rule of thumb for Labor under Shorten. It was iron law.

All this meant Abbott’s chosen strategy got no lift-off, and as he pushed it harder and harder (e.g. by begging the US to ask us to bomb Syria, and repeating the phrase Death Cult reflexively), he looked somewhat mad.

In essence, Shorten played the game of chess correctly, from a political perspective. Abbott’s fear and negativity strategy was absorbed perfectly and seen off.

Now the government is trying something different. Positivity. Malcolm Turnbull keeps repeating that it has never been a more exciting time to be Australian, and talking about opportunities. No more Death Cult.

I love it. This is the political discourse I crave.

But the person craving it even more might be Bill Shorten.

He’s been a strangled and ineffective communicator for the last two years. But that could be the result of being forced to play “small target” and match Abbott on the fear side.

Now the game is about offering competing positive visions? That’s Labor turf. They invented NDIS. They can offer a vision of Australia where we have not just wealth, but wealth with a bit of meaning and compassion.

Today even, Bill Shorten has been out announcing a policy. Labor will reverse the Government’s higher education cuts and offer tertiary education places to disadvantaged people.

People love to write Bill Shorten off. But if you look past the zingers to the chess game being played beneath the surface, you can understand why the Labor Party chose him.

The curious case of poll-driven political reporting.

The Guardian published a report yesterday about Bill Shorten. The author set out to repent for calling  Bill Shorten a “tired accountant”. The impetus for the story was the turn around in the polls.

“Shorten is still leading the Labor party in the wake of this latest credibility disaster for the Coalition, after last week’s credibility disaster (blocking a free vote on marriage equality) and the preceding week’s credibility disaster (chopper-friendly Bronwyn Bishop). He’s now sitting atop polls from both Ipsos and Morgan that have the Coalition facing a loss of between 36 and 44 seats.

Is it time for a rethink?”

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I don’t like it.

Interpreting what a political leader does through the polls is intellectually vacuous. It’s easy to write. There is no need to have a view on tough questions about policy effectiveness or priorities, the merits of intriguing questions about whether the head of the AWU should be matey with big business, or the management and composition of their front bench.

The author of yesterday’s piece is not especially guilty. She has written about policy more than polls. But overall, allowing poll numbers to drive judgment of politicians’ merits is now commonplace. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

The rise of this sort of reporting means a swing in the polls does double business.

Not only does a poll bump get the leader kudos in their party, but it changes the tone of reporting about them. The new, glowing stories therefore amplify swings in popularity. That may be responsible for the increasingly binary popularity positions we see among our political leaders (They’re often wildly popular like Baird or old Abbott, or wildly unpopular, like Gillard and new Abbott).

This kind of reporting validates the paradigm that political hacks of the most cynical kind push inside their parties: We can do good once we’re in power. For now let’s focus on winning. It sidelines those inside a political party who think they should focus on making the country better, not just making the polls better.

Here’s a choice example of the kind of reporting I’m talking about.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers not policy ideas to choose their leader. Is he right?
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers to choose their leader. Is he right?

I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance some reporters must experience when they write articles demanding more policy substance and less poll-driven rubbish.

Of course, we do need some political reporting. It’s helpful to peek behind the curtain from time to time and see the way the magician performs his tricks. You feel like an insider.

But it can’t be all we have, most of what we have, or even a substantial minority of it. It’s a sometimes food.

Our meat and veg must be stories about policy.

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?