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.


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?


How voting for a crazy candidate is smart (and voting for a smart candidate is crazy.)

Could voting for a really crazy candidate work in your interest?

That’s the implication of a new study by some very sharp economists from the World Bank, MIT, Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Northwestern University: ELECTORAL RULES AND THE QUALITY OF POLITICIANS: THEORY AND EVIDENCE FROM A FIELD EXPERIMENT IN AFGHANISTAN.

They compare the results in two types of local elections:

1. Where multiple candidates are elected; and

2. Where one winner rules.

In the latter, voters opt for clever moderates. But in the former, voters identify hard-cases and elect them.

“We propose a theoretical model where the difference in the quality of elected officials between the two electoral systems occurs because elected legislators have to bargain over policy, which induces citizens in (type 1) elections to vote strategically for candidates with more polarized policy positions even at the expense of candidates’ competence. Consistent with the predictions of the model, we find that elected officials in (type 2) elections are more educated than those in district elections and that this effect is stronger in more heterogeneous villages. We also find evidence that elected officials in (type 1) elections have more biased preferences.”

Negotiation is a staple of politics. Greek democracy was founded on the idea of thesis and antithesis entangling in order to forge synthesis. Our modern-day parliaments are the inheritor of this intellectual tradition.

But negotiating is tricky.

Coming to the negotiation table with a smile on your face and a sensible plan immediately marks you as the loser. President Obama found this out the hard way in his first term.

The Atlantic:

“When it came time to deal with the expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts, President Obama again immediately abandoned the liberal — and his own original — position of allowing all of the Bush Tax Cuts to expire and started negotiating from the centrist position of allowing only the Bush Tax Cuts over $250,000 to expire. By holding hostage the extension of unemployment benefits, Republicans quickly got their way in the tax talks.”

Obama is a smart guy and he did not repeat his mistake. Think Progress quotes him on the topic:

“I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some and then let them take credit for all of them. And maybe that’s the lesson I learned.”

ImageBy his second term, Obama took a hard-line position to negotiating and the Republicans were the ones that copped the blame for the government shutdown of 2013.

Politics has become more polarised in the United States, as the fantastic Graphic on the right here illustrates (source: The Economist). That means more divisive figures in public life.

For example, Ted Cruz, the barnstorming Republican Senator from Texas who led the Republicans into the debt default impasse (an issue that required negotiation to resolve).

Cruz is described as…, well, let me Google that for you.




Now, Cruz lost the wrangle over the debt default. He was cut out by his own side. But his ploy might have been the only way to win. If the other side thinks you are an idiot before you start negotiating, you’ve convinced them they need to offer something stupidly good to close the deal.

The lessons for Australia are many. The moderates in parliament hold less power than the wildcards. And this is especially so in the Senate, where neither party currently has a majority, and negotiation is far more important.

This may be why you hear so much from the Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and so little from the ALP Senator Carol Brown. The less mainstream your position, the more you can expect to gain in concessions, and so the more favour you can expect at the ballot box.

Evidence the Australian public is savvy on this topic can be found in the most recent Senate election, which sent a full box of Froot Loops to our nation’ capital.

This line of thinking raises two important questions:

1. Does this way of voting represent an inherent conservative desire? If we want to gum up the works of politics, matching the other side’s wildcards with wildcards of our own should just about do the trick. A government system stocked with outliers on the spectrum will create a lot more noise and fireworks than one stocked with moderates, but perhaps just as much in the way of real reform.

2. Where we see moderates elected to rule a system, can we assume this means we don’t expect any negotiation to happen? That if someone seemingly sensible like Bill Shorten is elected to head the ALP, that we expect him to rule it with an iron fist?

I value your thoughts on all this – please leave a comment below!

Politicians – peddlers of pain. Why not make it plain?

Change that doesn’t involve pain is not political. It is administrative change.

Politics without pain is not politics at all. Change without pain requires no hard choices, no leadership, and no leaders.

Dress up administration as leadership, people will disrespect you. Pretend reform produces only winners and you’ll be unable to be true to your word. Say “this won’t hurt a bit” and people will soon learn to not trust you.

Politicians who aspire to be more than mere administrators must not flinch in the face of pain. They must be conversant in it. They must know that being a leader means being a dealer of pain.

Does the surgeon tremble when he picks up the scalpel? Does the coach worry that the players must be tired? Does the kindergarten teacher flinch at using the naughty corner?

Not if they know their job. So politicians too must be prepared to make scars, see sweat, deal with temper-tantrums.

Perceptions of injustice, angry placards, people weeping for a way of life lost and letters to the editor. These are the products of good leadership.

And I’m not talking about hurting foreigners. Asylum seekers and would-have-been aid recipients. That’s fish in a barrel stuff. Rookie stuff. Leadership means a willingness to rile your own.

Being willing to deal in political pain requires seeing over the horizon even when the voters can’t. Lead well enough for long enough, and the balance will show through.

Here are some examples of politicians being afraid to dish out hurt – beneficial hurt – to their constituents and stakeholders.

  • The absence of congestion charges and user-charges on the road system.
  • The lack of GST on education and health.
  • The failure to increase the tax on the abundant profits of the mining sector as ore prices rose.
  • The loopholes in the taxation system that allow trusts to operate and remove billions from within the ATO’s reach.
  • Urban planning rules that preserve certain suburbs in sepia tone.

Politicians need to step back and understand their job. Rather than trying to make changes that don’t hurt, or making changes that do hurt but pretending they don’t, they ought to make pain their friend. They are pain-makers.

When you lie about the way reform hurts, you undermine the case for reform. A simple headline that says “pensioners to be worse off” can end your reform.  But if you introduce a reform by emphasising that it hurts, that headline doesn’t have the same effect.

I’m not advocating pain for pain’s sake. I just want good policy to be able to be discussed openly. Pain and all.

If we know politicians are pain-makers, we will be more respectful and careful in selecting them. Fewer flighty weirdos. More hard-thinking, fair-minded squares.

Because a good politician, like a good coach, is one that makes us want pain. A communicator that fills each billowing twinge with the reason for it.

In other fields of endeavour we love and respect hard-liners who remind us nothing good comes cheaply. Why do we elect politicians that pledge to coddle?

Politics is ripe for cracking open, ripe for genuine innovation. The homogeny of ideas and approaches is stifling. The acceptance of the limits placed on politicians is stifling. But this stifling period in democracy will end.

When it does, it could be via a politician that does not shy from pain. I’d like the next Prime Minister to also adopt the title Minister for Pain. PM-MP. Put the issue front and centre. Make it clear that this is a government that won’t lie about the connection between hurt and improvement.

Baking the dough of debt into the bread of financial crisis.

Debt seems to be a necessary trigger condition for global economic disasters.

Doesn’t matter if its private (subprime mortgages) or Government (Greek debt).

In the Red

But Japan shows debt is not a sufficient condition for a meltdown.  (Government debt = nearly 200 percent of GDP)

So what is the extra ingredient that turns the dough of debt into the crusty baguette of financial crisis? Continue reading Baking the dough of debt into the bread of financial crisis.

What is Net Neutrality?

Folks interested in the operation of the inter-wobble are probably aware of the concept of NET NEUTRALITY.

For the rest of us, here is the gist: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have the capacity to restrict their subscribers’ access to specific content and websites. For example might load at the normal speed, but is made as slow as a wet week.

Advocates of Net Neutrality want such activities to be illegal.

Continue reading What is Net Neutrality?

Population policy

I’ve been haunting the forums and threads on transit and urban policy for some time now. And I’ve noticed a change. Back in the day, the response to any proposal for more housing, or train lines, or new suburbs was:

Let’s not build it, who wants another million people?!?

It’s a classic case of mistaken identity between our old friends, that nebulous duo, cause and effect. In fact, the need to support another million people is almost a fait accompli.

But the naysayers are getting smarter and have reinvigorated their attack. Today, in response to proposals for more roads, more trains, more urban density and more tax, the naysayers exclaim “we must establish a population policy!”.

Obviously, they don’t specify a level of government that should do this, nor a target level, nor a means. But this is progress nonetheless.

And our illustrious, lustrous egg-head of a Prime Minister must have been haunting those forums too, because suddenly the Australian Government has a Minister for Population, Tony Burke. In addition to keeping an eye on Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, he now has to manage into existence a population policy, with a reporting deadline in 12 months time.

This is a good thing. IN THEORY. In reality, actually doing something about population growth is extremely difficult and may not be worth the effort. Here’s a few reasons why:

Continue reading Population policy