Gittins: Danger, election ahead
In election campaigns, the policies and promises come so thick and fast we don’t get time to think about them. Ross Gittins explains.PT3M26S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2rd0m 620 349 August 6, 2013
Election campaigns are dangerous things. They're dangerous for individuals who get caught in the crossfire between political leaders, dangerous for good policy and dangerous for the credibility of politicians. They're also times when policy statements fly so thick and fast we often fail to notice matters that affect us.
I suspect election campaigns have become more vicious, life-or-death affairs as politics has become less about convictions and more about careers - a ladder to be climbed by young people who leave university to work for a union or a politician, with ambitions to win preselection for a safe seat, make it into government, make into cabinet and then have a crack at the top job.
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
When almost all the opportunities for promotion or demotion come just once every three years, it's not hard to see why politicians get so desperate and campaigns so willing.
Business economists long ago learnt to keep their heads down and their lips buttoned during campaigns, for fear something they say is taken up by one side, prompting the other side to blacken their name. Too many people's careers have become collateral damage in the political fighting.
Election campaigns are when promises are made - some of them considered, some of them short-sighted, some of them on the spur of the moment to get out of a tight corner. When a government isn't at all sure it's going to win, its desperation often leads it to go for broke, making wild promises and worrying about how on earth it will keep them only if it manages to cling on.
When such incredible fuss was made over Ju-liar Gillard breaking her promise not to introduce a carbon tax, people were behaving as though such a thing was utterly unprecedented. The people who work in the House with the Flag on Top convinced themselves the era of easily made and broken promises was over.
Somehow, I doubt it. Elections have become too panic-stricken for the politicians to stick to a vow of scrupulous honesty. Already, and for the next five weeks, promises are being made that - whether or not the makers of those promises realise it - are destined to be broken. The hard part for voters is picking which ones they are.
Leaving aside those that never become operative because the party doesn't win, election promises can be divided into three categories: those the pollies make while having little or no intention of keeping them, those that are made and kept, and those made with good intention but broken because they're overtaken by events.
Too many voters have concluded most broken promises are in the first, knowingly dishonest category, whereas I suspect most are in the latter, overtaken category. Either way, our leaders would command more respect and trust from us if they made fewer promises and so were forced to break fewer.
I'm sure in their more reflective moments they realise they're trashing their own brand, but it doesn't seem to deter them - probably because the competition is so intense. ''I would if he would, but I know he won't, so I won't. If I became scrupulous and he didn't, I'd get done.''
A big part of the media's role in campaigns is trying to extract promises from pollies - ''Will you guarantee no one would be worse off from your policy? Do you promise you won't … ?''
I'm sure the journalists who ask such lazy questions think they're performing a public service, but I have my doubts.
When can politicians ever promise that no one will be worse off? Why would it be smart for our politicians never to make any change that involved losers? Is life that easy? Why is it always in our interests to have our leaders close off their options in coping with an unknown future?
That's the trouble, of course: none of us knows with any certainty what problems will arise over the coming three years. And yet election campaigns are conducted on the mutual and tacit assumption we do know - as with last week's economic statement, where the government pretended it knew exactly how the economy would perform between now and 2017, and how this would affect its budget down to the last dollar. And the rest of us nodded wisely.
It was to reinforce the illusion of being in control of the future that Labor announced four major tax measures in just the past week or so. One is a supposed 60 per cent increase in the excise on cigarettes, one an effective increase in the fringe benefits tax on company cars and the third is a new levy on bank deposits.
Another, deliberate feature of election campaigns is that the announcement of plans and promises is so fast and furious they flash past without properly registering on our consciousness. The increase in tobacco excise will be phased in over three years in a way that, combined with another recent change, will cause the excise to double in five years.
The company car measure won't take effect until April next year, while the bank deposit tax - the details of which haven't been revealed - won't start until 2016.
And the fourth measure? A solemn promise not to change the tax treatment of superannuation for five years. Nothing to hurt you in that one? That's what they want you to think.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.