Sunday, October 28, 2007

Keeping the Bastards Honest. No, Really.

The good folk over at GetUp have developed a nifty new tool - PromiseWatch, an election-promise wiki in which Ordinary Strayans (for which substitute internet activists) can log and look up election promises categorised by policy area and political party. Go on, release your inner election-campaign vigilante!*

Obviously, anything we can do to make politicians accountable for what they say during an election campaign has got to be a healthy thing. But I worry that it might be too little, too late. The credibility gap seems to have grown to a point where playing fast and loose with the truth is accepted, because people think "politicians all lie". Hence the electorate's inability to muster much fury at the revelations of Howard government dishonesty, time and time again. In an ideal world, the children overboard affair would be enough to bring down a government. In Australian political life, too many people don't notice, not enough people get disgusted, the rancorous divide between Howard's battlers and the bleeding heart brigade grows ever deeper, and everyone is poorer for the experience. And a dangerous precedent is set: lie all you want. If people don't find out, it could win you an election, and if they do, they will merely shrug.

So people who want to see more honesty in political life are fighting against the low expectations of the Australian public, cultivated through many years of government mendacity. They are also fighting another, less localised bias: people believe what they want to. The children overboard photos got so much traction because they appeared to confirm what a lot of people were kind of hoping: these queue-jumpers aren't good people, they are amoral opportunists, and our ethical duty to them is adjusted accordingly. Grant them asylum? We should be shooting the bastards.

Likewise, anyone with a passing acquaintance with economics knew in 2004 that Howard could not guarantee that he would keep interest rates low. Some of us - the Reserve Bank, Ross Gittins, various newspaper editorials, and a good chunk of Labor voters - were saying it all along, loudly, but people were not listening. When you're mortgaged to the eyeballs, it's comforting when someone powerful says it's going to be all right. So the battlers voted for Howard on an empty promise, and only now is Howard's recklessness coming back to haunt him. Which looks like a belated victory for truth over lies, except that it took five interest rate rises to drum the message in, when it shouldn't have taken any. Howard never controlled interest rates. People accusing Howard of breaking his promise now are missing the point: the promise was never tenable in the first place.

With this track record, my thinking is there ought to be at least a few promises this time around that are already obvious furphies. Which are they? First correct response gets a new highway over the Great Dividing Range.


*Disclaimer: my friend skipped pub trivia last week to code furiously for this, so it had better get some mileage.


Lucy said...

By the way: my vote for least worthy campaign promise to date goes to the $275k subsidy promised by the Nats to an air-conditioning company. Either that or the new cricket academy.

Also, empty promise-wise, this looks, um, promising:

"Labor will make sure that all future SBS board members are selected on the basis of merit."

Pfft. Labor doesn't even have merit-based selection in its own ranks. How on earth does it intent to enforce it at SBS?

Diego Luego said...

John Howard is looking favourably on further Government donations to the "Slim Dusty Foundation" in Kempsey according to 2GB today.

Now that really resonates.