So Tony Abbott has broken another election promise. Well, golly gee – who would have thought it?
Actually, just about everyone. It isn’t the first pre-poll lie and it won’t be the last. And of course Abbott is not the only offender – election promises are, as Sam Goldwyn once almost said, just verbal commitments not worth the paper they’re written on.
But Abbott’s confection is particularly egregious because he had made such protestations of rectitude. There would be no ambushes, no surprises; what he said is what he would do. He would restore trust and honesty to the system. And naturally there would be no broken promises like Julia Gillard’s pledge of no carbon tax, a turpitude that could only be compared to the original sin of Eve.
Thus Abbott can, rightly, be blamed for shameless and cynical hypocrisy. But more than that: his reneging on the election eve “no cuts” declaration was made without prompting and without reservation or qualification. The voters heard an unequivocal undertaking: no cuts. What they got instead was cuts, and plenty of them.
But instead of a frank admission that, yes, he had made the promise, and now it was broken, Abbott and his colleagues have spent weeks attempting to weasel their way out of it. First there was the predictable appeal to hindsight: Labor’s debt and deficit disaster was worse than they had ever imagined or feared, so all bets were off. Even if this was true (which it wasn’t) this was no excuse. There were other ways of fixing things without welshing on the voters.
But the denialists persevered: the real promise was to repair the budget, and everything else was a secondary consideration – or a non-core promise, as John Howard famously popularised the line. And in any case he had only said it on the SBS network, which no one listened to, so it didn’t matter.
His not entirely loyal follower Malcolm Turnbull said, yes, Abbott said it, but it was a matter of context: after all, Turnbull and Joe Hockey had said there would be cuts – well, a bit of tightening up, anyway – across the board, so the public should have listened to them, not to their leader. Or health, or education, or pensions, for that matter, but that was not quite the context he meant.
Matthias Cormann went further: they weren’t cuts at all, they were efficiency dividends – a fine example of the spinmeister’s art – so Abbott had not actually broken a promise after all. And Abbott himself went back, as is his wont, on obfuscation and bluster: Team Australia had a job to do, so there were no exemptions, not even (perhaps especially not) the ABC.
As the polls had already showed, this just doesn’t wash. Abbott simply reinforced the perception that he is untrustworthy and dishonest. He would have done better to have come clean: okay, I said it, and it’s a fair cop. I was reckless and stupid: it was a promise I could not and should not fulfil and I’m sorry. Now let’s move on.
By trying – unsuccessfully – to pretend it never happened our prime minister has revealed himself not only as mean and sneaky but a wimp and a wuss. Perhaps Andrew Bolt is right: time to bring back the biff. Nothing else seems to work.