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Kevin Rudd defends gay marriage u-turn

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd draws loud applause on the ABC's Q&A program for defending his recent support of of gay marriage, after a Christian pastor questioned it.

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Why won't the politicians trust us with the truth? Across Australia, it's the biggest complaint about the election campaign in particular and politics in general.

The answer is very simple. No, it's not because they're congenital liars. It's not because they're idiots. It's because of John Hewson. More exactly, it's what he offered us, and what Australia did to him in return.

<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>

Illustration: John Shakespeare.

In 1991, Hewson told us the truth. The then leader of the opposition issued a detailed, 650-page manifesto of his entire plan for government. It was issued two years before an election was due.

It was bold, comprehensive, bracingly honest. It was fatal.

The Fightback! manifesto has gone down in political folklore as "the longest suicide note in political history". Hewson lost the 1993 election, which had been supposedly "unlosable". Labor won another three-year term.

"That was a pretty scarring experience for politicians," Hewson agrees today. And for future politicians, including Hewson's then press secretary, Tony Abbott.

The Hewson plan was a blueprint for a surge in national competitiveness. It would promote growth in the private sector at the expense of the public sector.

But the political debate centred on the tax equation. Hewson offered to cut income taxes by a third, funded by the introduction of a GST set at a rate of 15 per cent.

Hewson's boldness was initially a political advantage. When the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, seemed unable to confront Fightback!, his party replaced him with Paul Keating.

The new prime minister waged a ferocious two-year scare campaign against it. Keating's alternative? He told Australia that it could have the benefit without any cost. He promised to match the tax cuts but without the nasty GST to pay for them.

And in case you didn't believe this magic pudding promise, Keating legislated the tax cuts, pledging them as "L-A-W." Of course, it was nonsense. After the election, Keating rescinded the tax cuts because they were unaffordable.

What did this episode tell us about the Australian people? "They were easily frightened, easily misled, easily lied to," Hewson says.

Australia ended up getting the essential Hewson tax bargain - lower personal taxes funded by a new GST - courtesy of John Howard and Peter Costello a few years later.

Keating told his so-called "true believers" that it was "the sweetest victory of all" as Labor won another term. But the main consequence of that election 20 years ago was that the voters had established a powerful new incentive for political leaders.

We had shown the political parties, as clearly as possible, that we were not interested in the truth. "Don't tell us your real plans. We prefer political fairy tales. Tell us that story again, the one where we get lots of goodies at no cost."

This is precisely what Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd are telling us today. Fairy tales.

We get frustrated because we know they're not levelling with us. But don't blame Abbott and Rudd. They are rational actors in pursuit of reward. They are merely responding to the incentive that the Australian people set up.

Tony Abbott will not trust the people with his full costings until the dying days of the campaign because he learnt from Hewson's experience that it would expose him to the risk of a scare campaign.

And Kevin Rudd is waging a scare campaign on Tony Abbott's alleged plan to raise the GST and cut spending because he learnt from Keating's GST scare campaign against Hewson that the people can be easily frightened.

Hewson believes that the political parties have become ever less truthful with the people since: "It's just gone downhill over the last 20 years. There's less and less substance, it's less and less believable."

Yet he thinks the people have drawn a very different lesson: "I think the electorate has moved on and the politicians haven't."

This is something you wouldn't expect to hear from modern politics' greatest victim of public gullibility, but Hewson says: "I think the electorate can be trusted. The electorate may have a simple understanding in some case, but people know right from wrong, good from bad, truth from lies. They know when they're being bullshitted.

"People are craving information and . . . being treated like dummies. I think the people are much more sophisticated than the politicians."

Hewson doesn't advise today's leaders to produce another Fightback!-style manifesto, but he does think a smart politician today would offer the people a good deal more than Labor or Liberal has on the table:

"You probably don't need to go as far as I did with thousands of pages of detail, but give them a deliverable vision, explain how you'll get there, take the people into your confidence."

But neither Rudd nor Abbott has. And this means that "whoever wins will face a massive problem" because "none of their big promises is funded." Hewson runs through a list - the national disability scheme is not properly funded beyond its earliest years, and neither is the so-called Gonski schools funding, nor the parties' promised infrastructure spending.

The last leader to truly trust the people with the truth concludes: "Whoever wins will have to trim their programs and delay them, and the electorate will get even more jaundiced than they already are."

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.