If you were an aspiring political leader with ambitions to lead the nation and you had a suite of well-developed progressive policies which you hope will capture the imagination of the electorate, would you tell them in advance ?
If you answer Yes : you are a loser !
You might as well join a barbers’ shop quartet because your political career isn’t going anywhere.
Do you remember Liberal leader and aspiring prime minister John Hewson, who was taking on incumbent prime minister Paul Keating in the 1993 election and who brought a package of policies to the electorate under the banner of Fightback. One such policy was a tax on consumption in the form of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the Liberals saw this as progressive taxation reform as it would include the abolition of a range of other taxes such as sales tax, state stamp duties, deep cuts in income tax for the middle and upper-middle classes, and increases in pensions and other benefits to compensate the poor for the inevitable rise in prices flowing from the GST. Labor played on the complexity of the tax and Hewson didn’t help himself by bungling an explanation of how the tax would apply to a birthday cake. In the event Hewson lost the unloseable election and we lost the prospect of having a very reasonable and thoughtful man as our prime minister.
Instead we got John Howard as the next Liberal leader and he knew full well that you don’t take major policy changes to an election, you introduce them when you secure office and in the meantime you tell lies for all you are worth : and to John Howard, as we were to learn, truth is a strange, unknown and unexplored continent, terra nullius you might say.
Howard was desperate to knock-off Keating so in May 1995, eight months before the general election of March 1996, he started to – in Liberal party parlance – crab walk away from a GST even though it was Liberal party policy. In true biblical fashion, before the cock crowed three times John Howard would deny that the GST formed part of a Liberal policy.
At a Sydney bankers’ lunch, Howard referred briefly to John Hewson’s losing GST policy in the 1993 election and how “nothing remotely resembling it” would be Coalition policy in the 1996 campaign. When questioned further he said that ” the fact is the last election was a referendum on the GST. There is no way we can have it as part of our policy for the next election. As to what happens some years in the future, I don’t know. But the GST cause was lost in the last election …”
The mainstream media noted that final sentence and reported that ” Howard had left open the possibility of the Coalition reconsidering a GST some years in the future.”
Howard instantly issued an unequivocal statement saying ” suggestions I have left open the possibility of a GST are completely wrong. A GST or anything resembling it is no longer Coalition policy. Nor will it be policy at any time in the future. It is completely off the political agenda in Australia.”
When further questioned and with an ear open for that crowing cock he told reporters ” There’s no way a GST will ever be part of our policy.” When a journalist pressed him on the point : “Never ever, Mr Howard?” he replied with that now infamous pledge : “Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by voters at the last election.”
So, that was alright wasn’t it ? He went on to win the election that made him prime minister and some 27 months later, in August 1997, less than 18 months after becoming Prime Minister, Howard told the truth by telling yet more lies. He announced a “great adventure” in tax reform he wanted to “share with the Australian people” : this great adventure we were later to learn was to be the introduction of a GST.
By April 1998 Howard was well ensconced in the Lodge and he told parliament : “I went to the 1996 election saying there would not be a GST in our first term. I go to the coming election saying we are going to reform the tax system … The Australian public are entitled to be told before an election what a government will do after the election. They do not deserve to be misled. They do not deserve to be deceived.”
So, a grateful nation re-elected him and he gave us a GST and an alternative definition for never ever.
From there on it’s been down hill
So, when Shorten and Bowen announced their detailed policies in the lead up to the 2019 election, they told us how they would focus on health and bring dental care into Medicare and ease the burden on cancer sufferers and out of pocket expenses and they would reinvigorate TAFE, apprenticeships and our education system and they would eliminate distortions in our taxation system. In particular they would eliminate negative gearing on existing housing purchases to create a level playing field between investors and first home buyers and owner occupiers ; they would correct an anomaly that was allowing self-funded retirees to claim cash refunds from the tax office on franked share dividends which in turn meant that no tax was being paid on that component of a company’s profits. In other words they took the high road, and bared their souls with costings and modelling : the Liberal party were ecstatic.
The coalition’s only real election policy was to provide tax breaks for more than 10 million Australians well into the future and in so doing try to bind any future government to adopt the same policy. These measures they reluctantly conceded would cost Treasury over $158 billion over 10 years in forgone revenue and, of course, they insist there won’t be any cuts to essential services .
Perhaps Bob Hawke was right in 1983, when his campaign was built around Reconciliation, Recovery and Reconstruction; his and Keating’s subsequent achievements in government were developed and implemented later, when in office. Hawke is later reported to have said to John Hewson “You should have put the GST stuff in your bottom drawer, and not pulled it out till after the election.”
Sadly, the lesson for Labor is that policy formulation in advance of an election is a recipe for failure and it seems that the road to electoral success in this country is a bit like reality show, Married at First Sight ; you scheme, tell lies, defame and revile your opposition and pout a lot. If you can also rely on organised persuasive communication from a compliant media you are almost home. But, under our preferential system, you also need as many dodgy preference swap deals as your conscience will permit.