Politicians need to break promises. Our parliament and democracy would not function if they did not.
[First published by the Australian Financial Review - read here]
There is a commonly held view that governments are elected to deliver every single election policy, in every detail as outlined in the lead up to an election. But an election policy is not the same as a promise. An election platform is not the same as a priesthood vow. Policies need testing, developing and ultimately need to find support from parliamentary colleagues across two houses of parliament.
Our system of governance simply cannot function if both sides go through each parliamentary term only voting for things that are identical to what they proposed during an election campaign. Refusing to negotiate, compromise or concede, under any circumstances, to opponents who were elected with different positions is, of course, a recipe for gridlock.
In all the debate over marriage equality, the argument that is most corrosive to the wider political debate is the mindless insistence that a plebiscite process is the only option because it would be a breach of promise to do otherwise.
What really causes the trust deficit?
We are hearing repeated claims that there is a trust deficit created as politicians break promises. That this is causing an increased, perhaps record, disillusionment with politics. But given that our system of parliamentary democracy requires politicians to adapt policies to get them through the parliament; it is this very notion that a policy promise cannot be altered, cannot be broken, that is causing the problem.
Perhaps the public are turning off not because of the actions that politicians take, but because of the incongruous messages that politicians make.
The Prime Minister has understandably tried to make a virtue of getting things done. Indeed to do otherwise would risk the Trump trap – internal ideological turmoil yielding no results. And many a minister will wax lyrical about the need to be pragmatic and how compromising with the Senate is the hallmark of good government.
Yet the very next day the electorate is likely to hear a politician insisting that the government has no choice but to stick with a plebiscite on equal marriage or they will have irrevocably breached faith with electorate.
Australian politics has a fundamental contradiction. In the simplest terms, politicians can simultaneously be accused of "breaking promises" and "getting nothing done". So they are damned if they negotiate an outcome, and damned if they do not.
The public isn't stupid
It is incumbent on our political leaders to offer a more nuanced narrative. The public is not stupid; they understand that there needs to be compromises to get things done. They also understand that if circumstances change, you may need to change your position with them.
But of course, the public are understandably confused and disenchanted when politicians use the exact opposite argument from one day to the next.
If we are to have a better politics we need a better quality of debate about what is means to make – and break – a promise. One person's sticking to principle is another person's intransigence or stubbornness.
This is the art and science of politics. It is a craft like any other and we need politicians that are able to take the electorate with them on a journey that does not involve binary choice of principled promise keeper vs detestable promise breaker. Our system of parliamentary democracy requires this but too easily our political narratives deny it.
It is also why those associated with politics need to defend and promote politics as a good thing in itself, a noble art, a useful and important science. A belief in democracy requires a belief in politics. As we have seen from recent research, ultimately if the very notion of politics is run down, belief in democracy starts to dissipate.
So long as we pretend that election promises are carved in stone, even when governments are elected with less than a majority of the vote and a minority in the Senate, Australian politics will continue to turn off the public.
Ben Oquist is executive director of The Australia Institute @BenOquist