On the face of it, Joe Hockey’s statement that talking about things like “costings” in this election campaign will bore everyone to death seems like run-of-the-mill disrespect for the electorate. After all, we’re in week two of an official election campaign, and spin and mistruths are par for the course regardless of your poison of choice. (Actually, this is not quite true: I cannot find any examples of egregious mistruth or deliberate spin in any statements by the Australian Greens. This may simply reflect that they have such a low proportion of the media coverage.)
An obvious reason that might explain their reluctance to pony up the details is that they don’t want to spend the next several weeks addressing and rebutting the queries and accusations the media and Labor might bring against them. If they had trust that their numbers were robust and correct, this would be about the only legitimate fear, but it’s a short-sighted one. Large swathes of the electorate are tired of continual negative politics, personal attacks, and three word slogans: not sufficient, but a decent proportion of the all-important swing voters. Defending your own policy position with trustworthy numbers could become a very good thing. Hockey’s statement – “…about costings, rather than about policies…” – seems to indicate that they want to keep the focus on their policies at a very superficial level. Naming a policy and giving a one-line abstract of it may be sufficient to get the immediate sugar hit of a positive attitude, but digging into the details and the numbers risks actually finding out the limitations and caveats behind every policy. I can see why they might want to avoid that, when they’re ahead in the polls.
But I think that the Coalition’s attitude towards revealing their costings to the Australian people (and the media) in advance of the election is about more than avoiding contention. Taken in combination with the coalition’s approach to
climate change the NBN the carbon price/tax Labor’s budget everything, there’s a repeated and demonstrable pattern here. The real world doesn’t match up to the Coalition’s worldview; the facts are too inconvenient to be borne. So we don’t trust those facts, and we’ll instead rely on (or make up) our own.
As a scientist, I find this thinking to be actively offensive. As a member of Generation X, I find it to be profoundly arrogant. And as an Australian, I consider it to be morally repugnant.
It’s also astonishing that they’re getting away with it. When you’re driving towards a cliff, redefining your reality to insist that the road to riches continues forever won’t save you from a crash. When you’re falling off that cliff, a blind insistence that there’s a truck full of mattresses at the bottom isn’t much help either. So by all means argue about the terms of measurement of the height of the cliff. Have your political argy-bargy about the effectiveness of the brakes and when you need to start applying them. But don’t discount the reality just because it’s inconvenient for your agenda.
In May, Joe Hockey said he didn’t believe the government’s figures in the budget: “they don’t tell the truth“, he said.
In July, Joe Hockey said he didn’t believe the government’s figures in the revised economic statement: “I don’t believe these numbers“, he said. The Coalition would not be drawn into revealing its costings. It needed to see the state of the federal budget – in numbers they could trust, and they didn’t trust anything the government had any involvement in.
Even though Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson went to some lengths to confirm that the numbers had not been influenced by the government, that the numbers in the Economic Statement (ES) would be the same as in the PEFO, the Coalition reserved their right to doubt the figures. Labor has no input into the PEFO and most analysts feel the revised ES was an attempt to pull the government’s figures into line with the Treasury numbers if had no control over, but the Coalition is within its rights to suspect that governmental interference is at least possible. Still, it’s starting to sound less like a reason and more like an excuse, but OK.
In August, Joe Hockey said he didn’t believe the Treasury’s figures in the PEFO: its policy costings will be based on “a range of other data“, he said.
Now the PEFO is out, and as promised, it’s virtually identical to the ES. And the Coalition has had it for almost two weeks (at the time of writing these words). Mr Hockey, your excuse just ran out of legs.
It’s no longer defensible to claim that the real numbers are not available. So the newest reason given for not providing the numbers is that people are bored hearing about the numbers. (Here’s a little tip, Mr Hockey: the people aren’t bored by the numbers. They’re bored by the continued discussion about the fact that we have no numbers.)
The alternative reason that the Coalition may not wish to reveal their costings is that they don’t believe in their own numbers. That they have no intention of ever putting their election promises into practice. Not trusting the ES and the PEFO is Hockey laying the groundwork, once the Coalition comes into government as they still expect to do, for the time-honoured “The state of the economy is so much more parlous than we had known that we have to go back to the drawing board for our policies”.
All parties in an election will make promises. Most will over-promise and find it difficult to deliver, or will deliver a cheaper/smaller version, or will deliver in tiny chunks that somehow require another term or two to complete. This is par for the course. But if an election is a game of one-upmanship, you need to play by the rules, and the rules include at least pretending to have done the numbers to make your promises affordable. Once you remove the requirement to show that your promises can be funded, you can promise just about anything, and that does not lead to an edifying or fair election.
In an election, the people are entitled to the facts. The parties in contention must be on a level playing field. Once one party starts redefining the facts to fit their own worldview, that playing field is lost. In this case, elections are won and lost on emotion, invective, and the money spent on advertising. This is an assault on democracy, and as democracy is defined as government by the people, you could view it as an assault on the people themselves.
“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” – attr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan
First posted 15/8/2013 on the Random Pariah.
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