Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Perhaps now politicians will stop trashing their reputations

Let's hope it's not back to politics as usual. And let's hope the fortnight or so since the voters' collective refusal to award the election to either of the major parties has allowed both sides time to reflect on something that hasn't troubled them to date: when will the political profession decide to call a halt to its trashing of its own reputation?

The process by which our politicians have slowly destroyed their credibility with the electorate has been running for so long it's easy for them - and us - to be unconscious of what is happening. But it reached a new low in this campaign, so it shouldn't have been such a surprise when the electorate couldn't decide who it distrusted less.

The disdain with which we've come to regard our politicians struck me when I considered the success of the mining industry's advertising campaign against the resource super profits tax. With world coal and iron ore prices at record highs, the largely foreign-owned mining companies are raking in unbelievable profits.

The Labor government said the new tax was needed to ensure the people who actually owned these resources - you and me - got a fairer price for them. The miners claimed the tax would cripple them, discourage further development and cause people to lose their jobs.

You might have expected the public to respond to these over-the-top claims with scepticism - they would say that, wouldn't they?; whoever likes paying more taxes? - but it seems many people believed them.

(Think about it: we were being asked to believe the Secretary to the Treasury, the high priest of economic rationalism, backed up by two highly regarded economists and the chief executive of a major business association, was proposing a tax that would lay waste to the mining industry and seriously damage the economy.)

So why was the word of fat-cat miners favoured over that of our own government? Because the credibility of our politicians is at rock bottom. Even big businesses on the make are judged more likely to be telling the truth.

Surveys of the reputation of various occupations show politicians well down the list (but above journalists, advertising people and car salesmen). The company pollies keep on the list makes it clear: the public has a low opinion of people they have come to believe seek to manipulate them and tell them things that aren't true.

The more politicians have relied on the techniques of market research - polling, focus groups, advertising and direct mail - the more they've sought to con us.

Top of the list of behaviour that has cost politicians our respect is broken promises. We have seen it so many times from both sides we have come to view all political promises with suspicion. Consider the possibility that Gillard's last-minute promise to build the on-again-off-again Parramatta to Epping rail link cost Labor as many votes as it gained.

It will always be that some promises aren't kept because they have been overtaken by events and it would be foolish, even impossible, to press on with them. But so many promises have been broken many voters believe they are often given without any intention to keep them.

My guess is the process is more cavalier. Pollies think: if I win that's when I'll worry about whether I can honour them all.

The answer is for pollies to be a lot more cautious in making promises. But why do they make so many? Because of the way, under the influence of marketing techniques, election campaigns have come to take the committed voters for granted and focus on winning the votes of swinging voters in marginal electorates. Swinging voters are judged to be people with little interest in politics, whose only thought is what's in it for them and their families. Hence the temptation to keep promising goodies.

Election campaigns have become increasingly unreal. The pollies create a fairytale world in which nothing bad ever happens. They'll spend more on this and that, but without increasing taxes and, of course, while also eliminating deficits and debt.

In this imaginary world, the law of opportunity cost doesn't operate. We can have everything we want, without price. The pollies encourage people to believe the government can - and should - solve all their problems. Is it any wonder disillusionment is rife?

Often - as with all the pseudo-sympathetic talk about the rising cost of living in this campaign - the pollies seek to appear empathetic while carefully avoiding promising to do anything. They think they're being clever, but when people gain the impression you're going to fix their problem and you don't, they feel just as cheated as if you really had promised it.

In Queensland, voters feel they were ambushed by Anna Bligh because she waited until after the election to announce unpopular tax changes and privatisations.

That's the "positive" way politicians have damaged their reputations. Of late they've resorted more to negative methods: trashing each other. This campaign boiled down to rival scare campaigns about Work Choices, the mining tax, the "Woollies and Coles tax", mountainous debt and boat people.

Politicians wouldn't resort to scare campaigns and negative advertising if they didn't work. They play on the gullibility of people who don't think much about politics. But what works in the short term comes at a long-term cost to the politicians' credibility. The same goes for oppositions automatically opposing everything governments do and the endemic abuse of statistics.

Many voters are naive and gullible. But when eventually they realise they've been conned, they switch not to reasoned scepticism but utter cynicism about the untrustworthiness of our political leaders.

Many politicians believe John Howard lost office because voters had simply "stopped listening" to him. Those who deposed Kevin Rudd concluded voters had "stopped listening". If this isn't ringing alarm bells in the political profession, it should be.

The hung parliament offers politicians the chance of a circuit breaker in this mutually destructive process.