Promises, promises!

Yesterday Wayne Swan was hijacked by facts and therefore had to “break a promise!”  The majority of economists, business leaders and commentators are saying it was about time – for example, see Swan eats crow – and not a day too soon.  The Opposition, particularly Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, have been handed a great Christmas gift and are acting as one would expect – but, as Lenore Taylor notes:

The Coalition has promised always to deliver surpluses but on Thursday Abbott hedged that promise saying, ”based on current figures”. If forecasts change, so might the Coalition’s promise. If it sticks with its pledge, when it comes time to tally the cost of election promises in the new year…

All this set me to thinking about political promises.

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Thanks to RacingB*tch

Gillard, Swan, Wong and all thoroughly painted themselves into a corner over the “budget surplus” promise – very foolish of them in retrospect, especially as so many quite supportive voices pointed out their folly. Had they promised merely to roll back the deficit they would not have had a problem, as they have indeed made very substantial inroads on that front. But they would set a too specific target, wouldn’t they. The splendid Penny Wong tried to look fetching with egg on her face on 7.30 last night, but it didn’t quite work.

Trouble is promises are so often oversimplified and changing circumstances can lead to much biting on the bum. Sometimes the promise is so far over the top as to be impossible from the word go, as was the case with Bob Hawke and “no child in poverty” by 1990 – now Hawke’s greatest regret apparently.

Twenty years after pledging no Australian child would live in poverty, former prime minister Bob Hawke says his comment is one of his biggest regrets.

"It was a silly shorthand thing," Mr Hawke has told News Limited newspapers. "I should have just said what was in the distributed speech."

I venture to say that in the sad race to the bottom we have seen on asylum seekers in recent years, Tony Abbott and the Coalition will rue the day they ever started barking “I will stop the boats!”  It seems to me that they will not, that their reasoning based on the effectiveness of policies of the past decade may well be very flawed.  Paris Aristotle was very likely correct the other day at the Senate hearing.

"At the current rate of arrivals, we could see upwards of 25,000 to 30,000 people coming (in 2013)," Mr Aristotle told a parliamentary committee in Canberra on Monday.

"There is simply no way our navy has the capacity to get to every boat that will get into distress in those circumstances."…

"If we think this is going to be fixed in three months we are delusional," he said.

Some idea of what has changed may be deduced from this graphic from the GetUp blog. Go there for the full graphic and commentary.

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See also There’s no evidence that asylum seeker deterrence policy works and other posts in that Conversation series.

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So good luck, Tony Abbott. I suspect your time for eating crow will come. Another shredded promise just waiting to happen, partly because it has been framed hyperbolically for full drama queen effect in the first place. A shame, too, that it is also a pretty disgraceful policy as well, but that is another matter I have pursued before. See also The People Smuggler.

The People Smuggler pieces together the events and terror that force people to take their chances on rickety boats. It fleshes out and humanises the people the politicians would rather we didn’t identify with and that the 30-second sound bites cannot ever capture.

It forces us to re-think the government’s ‘children overboard’ scapegoating version of events, the actual ways to ‘stop the boats’ that significantly differ from politicians’ postured but ultimately empty promises. It highlights the farcical and inhumane systems we have in place for processing—or not processing, as the case often seems to be—refugees we turn into detainees.

Ali sums up the situation well:

This is the first time I have heard of queue-jumping. I try to imagine this queue. What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, ‘Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?’

He also writes:

It is unclear why Australians are so strangely concerned about asylum seeks arriving by airplane; maybe because there’re no pictures in the paper or on TV. But they are so afraid of the two percent who come by boat that they lock them up like criminals. As with the Jews in World War II, the refugees’ pitiful plight inspires irrational fear. If Australian people only knew the strength it takes to get on one of these boats, to keep holding onto life after the horrors these people have been through, they would be filled with awe and admiration.

That’s exactly what I’m filled with after reading The People Smuggler. I have a good mind to post copies to our not-so-esteemed ‘leaders’, especially the blustering, ‘I’ll stop the boats’ one who has a penchant for wearing budgie smugglers.

On lying pollies from another perspective see Promises promises: When politicians don’t deliver.

Update

Just a couple of other thoughts on the Wayne Swan/deficit news.

Nicholas Gruen, economist:

As a temporary member of the press gallery I had my ‘gotcha’ question ready for Wayne Swan, but alas didn’t join the shouting match to get my question in. But I can share it with you gentle reader – a little esprit de l’escalier a few hours later.

Treasurer, do you support the Budget’s Paper’s call for the Budget to retain “the necessary flexibility for the budget position to vary in line with economic conditions to support macroeconomic stability” or your Prime Minister’s commitment to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13 come what may.

That promise is the best of promises – and the worst of promises….

— Crikey, May 10th, 2011. A more recent column making similar points here.

Jim Belshaw:

The statement by Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan that the Commonwealth was unlikely to achieve a budget surplus this financial year came as no surprise.  Apart from some rather strange reporting in the Australian (Labor exposed as Treasurer Wayne Swan breaks surplus promise), I think that the major reaction among many was one of relief. I said strange reporting because of the inconsistency between the main take-home message provided by the "story" and the detail contained within it; this is political commentary masquerading as reporting.

Why relief? Well, the numbers have been suggesting for some time that a surplus was almost certainly unachievable. The fear was that in its desire to protect a political promise, the Commonwealth Government would be forced into silly spending cuts. The latest national account figures showed that the Government sector in general is now detracting from growth as a consequence of spending cuts. Further cuts would have added to this at a time when the economy is clearly off the boil. Forget the social policy arguments about the adverse effects of cuts. When the business sector as a whole starts arguing for the abandonment of the surplus target, you can be reasonably sure that there is a problem…

So, finally, Treasurer Swan was forced to face reality, not the atmospherics of politics. A bloody good thing too.

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