Whatever happened to the ‘policy speech’?

The late and great Henry Mayer once told voters that they should turn their own electorate into a swinging seat: more attention would be paid to them, more would be done, and more lolly would come their way. He told the electors of the proposed New State of New England in 1967 that they should vote Yes! to a man and woman, because that, and that alone, would turn the attention of the government in Sydney to their domain. There was no possibility whatever of a new state’s coming into being, so there was no risk, but they could get a lot more done in New England by all voting Yes.

I miss Henry’s astute and often acerbic remarks, especially whenever there is an election. He loved cutting through the rhetoric, and there is a lot of it about today. Do you remember Julia Gillard’s announcing the election date, then September 14th, at the end of January? This is part of what she said then, at the National Press Club:

The benefit of fixing the date now is not just the end of speculation about election timing. It gives shape and order to the year. And it enables it to be one not of fevered campaigning, but of cool and reasoned deliberation.

Bill Shorten didn’t know about the election date until he heard it on the news, but he put the same construction on it.

Announcing the date gives order to the year allowing business to plan their year. This means there are no surprises and no excuses. It means all parties will have ample time to release their policies and have them fully costed so they can be considered by voters. By announcing the date early it means there’s less chance for spin and more chance for substance from the Opposition.

Well, there has been a surprise or two, and what we did get was several months of spin, from all sides. With less than three weeks to go we still haven’t had all the policies announced or had them fully costed. Ms Gillard was thought to have stymied any new challenge from Kevin Rudd by effectively putting the parties into campaign mode. She was wrong there too, if that had been her intention. And I’m still waiting for the ‘cool and reasoned deliberation’, which I modestly suggest you can find on this website, if nowhere else.

In fact the old election campaign has by and large gone. I first voted in 1958, and in the election campaign that ran for a month in October and November all four party leaders (Menzies, Evatt, McEwen, and Cole from the DLP) hired halls and spoke to packed meetings. In that year television was employed for the first time in federal campaigning, but no one knew how to use it. Harold Holt was the best of the politicians; Menzies disliked the medium, and avoided it.

The policy speech outlined both the vision and the policies. Nobody then did any real costing, and when Dr Evatt would enthuse about this new expensive policy or that one, a heckler would yell  out ‘Where’s the money coming from, Doc?’ A version of the policy speech was printed and handed out to anyone who wanted a copy, as well as to many who didn’t. The newspapers and their editorials were important then, and I remember writing a letter to my local newspaper on the election. Fortunately, no copy survives.

That was 55 years ago, and a great deal has changed. If there is to be a formal policy speech by any of the party leaders they are keeping its announcement remarkably quiet. Peter Costello, former Liberal Treasurer, developed a Charter of Budget Honesty, but so far as I can tell no one is using it. The Coalition has hired three eminent and competent economists/analysts to provide some kind of scrutiny of its proposals, but since we haven’t heard all the proposals yet it’s not clear when we will hear what the Three Wise Men have decided.

Meanwhile, one estimate is that the proposals from both sides are running at about $1 million a minute. Does anyone believe that they have been properly costed? Does anyone know how you could do that? Does anyone know where Mr Rudd has found the money to fund his new proposals, given his $30 billion deficit?

A pained correspondent to an Adelaide paper expressed his unhappiness with all this: When you release your costing you should give everyone the time to be able to go through it,  also work out what and how your numbers will add up. Nothing less will do.

I don’t think I could do it at all, no matter how much time I was given. And as an end-thought, to make any sense of how costly these proposals are you would have to estimate government revenue for the coming year or two. Treasury, which is much better at this than anyone else, has been spectacularly wrong about some aspects of this task over the past few years. How will the Thre Wise Men, let alone the person in the street, do any better?

Let’s face it, these proposals and promises are window-dressing, whose primary function is to let interest groups know that the parties are aware that they are there, and take them seriously. I don’t think they are worth they paper they are no longer written on.




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