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March 26, 2011

Of Broken Promises

Politicians break promises. Not much news there. We've had the 'L-A-W' tax cuts. We've learned the difference between core and non-core promises. We've enjoyed a 'never-ever' GST for ten years now. There have been workplace laws arise unannounced from the mist. And we know that "No child will ever have to live in poverty again." Both sides of politics have a long history of doing other than they promised during an election campaign. And there are times when there is good reason to do so. Circumstances, understandings and beliefs do change. So why is there such angst about the present PM's direction on carbon pollution? Her position - both at the election and at the present moment - have never been entirely unequivocal. At the election she promised no carbon tax, but expressed a commitment to a price on carbon. Now we have movement towards a price on carbon, and there is legitimate debate about whether the approach is a tax or a precursor to an ETS. There is genuine reason to believe that the anger about broken promises is confected. How else do we explain the lack of outrage which followed broken promises in this same area after the 2007 election - when both parties went to the election promising a price on carbon, only to walk away afterwards? Where the hue and cry about political integrity then? Both the present leaders were complicit - even openly supportive - in those promises.

Broken promises are primarily about trust. Each promise that is not kept erodes at the base of the relationship we share. It is a challenge faced regularly by parents in the negotiating space which young children bring to the family environment. As a parent, I was always careful in answering children's questions not to breach that trust. This can be quite tricky at times. "Is there a Santa?" is but one of those questions which places the parent in a difficult position. I preferred to be honest with my children. "Of course there's a Santa!" I would reply, "...I'm Santa!" Delivered with the appropriate sense of irony and robustness, the children would laugh and decry my claim. When the truth dawned on them and the challenge of integrity was raised, I was able to remind them of my honesty. At other times it was better to reflect back the question with another, or offer an explanation of an apparent injustice, seeking to help the child grow in understanding and maturity. To admit that I blew it, and explain why I haven't delivered on a promise might not make all things right, but often serves to strengthen the relationship.

However, keeping promises isn't always easy, or even possible. There are times when circumstances have intervened to stymie the keeping of a promise to a family member. And then there were some promises which should never have been made - those blanket, romantic assertions which are beyond the capability of anyone to deliver. "I'll never let anything happen to you..." "I'll always be here to protect you..." It is part of the growth of parents and children that the discovery of human limitations reveals the fallacy on which such promises are made. As idealistic as it might be to believe that all promises must be kept, we recognise that there are times when promises need to be broken, and even that there are times when promises are made in order to be broken. While we might readily debate the ethical principles at work, we all operate at some level or another in complicity with such an understanding.

In any case, it would deeply disturb me if we simply elected leaders to be automatons who simply and only implemented the promises they made during an election campaign. We elect our leaders on the strength of their promises and for their ability to lead. These two often exist in creative tension. Ought we have expected the Rudd government to maintain budget surpluses when the Global Financial Crisis hit? To do so would have been an abrogation of leadership, sacrificing responsible leadership on the altar of purity, and we all would have been losers. And how would we have expected leaders to respond in the wake of September 11, given that no promise had been made at the previous election about such an event. We simply cannot afford to restrict leaders to do that and only that which they had promised at the last election. Our representatives owe us their judgment, and we ought to not only expect it of them, but demand it. An opportunity to deliver our assessment will follow at the next election. Arguably the electorate did so in 2010, turning on a government lead by a person who declared climate change to be "the greatest moral challenge of our time," and then backing away from acting. But the electorate at the time did not embrace the alternate position either.

I can appreciate those who protest the government's commitment to a price of carbon when they argue the merits of the approach, but not on the basis of some confabulated sense of broken promises. The question at hand is not whether the promise delivered at the time of the election was broken - a debate which could last for years without resolution or agreement - but whether the approach adopted towards the delivery of an ETS is both needed and appropriate. The former response is at best unproductive and at worst potentially divisive. The latter allows all to air their perspective and concern and allow the community to reach some form of agreement or acceptance about the way forward. Banners of the ilk represented at yesterday's Canberra gathering are neither witty nor constructive, serving only to demean the spirit and integrity of their protest rather than to further debate or understanding, and are ill-befitting those who seek to claim the high moral ground.

Posted by gary at March 26, 2011 08:54 AM

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