A quick scan of political headlines over recent election campaigns will tell you that there is a trust deficit in Australian politics. Alarmingly, surveys uniformly find that public trust is falling in Australia.
The Murdoch tabloids (Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail) posed this question on their front pages with the headline “ScoMo vs Shorten: Who do you trust?” on March 28, perhaps implying trust was a one-sided political proposition.
But by the following week, the headline read: “Aussie voters short on choice” after their commissioned YouGov Galaxy poll revealed low public regard for both political leaders.
The poll showed 30% of respondents believed Scott Morrison to be “untrustworthy”, compared to Shorten on 34%. And when asked if they believed the leaders to be “well-intentioned”, the results were grim: just 34% believed Morrison to be well-intentioned, and 30% for Shorten.
Why is this? One oft-cited reason is that politicians from all sides of politics don’t keep their promises. Veteran columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins, summed it up after the defeat of the Liberal National party in the Queensland state election in 2015. Then-Premier Campbell Newman was unceremoniously ousted from office after record wins in the previous election. Gittins wrote:
The biggest problem, of course, is decades of broken promises by both sides.
Gillard broke her promises to balance the budget and not to introduce a carbon tax. Campbell Newman promised not to sack public servants. Abbott campaigned on the restoration of trust and high standards, but also made promises he can’t have intended to keep – and didn’t need to make to win.
But are broken promises really to blame for falling levels of public trust in politicians?
We know from extensive research about other western democracies, that political parties make serious efforts to keep their political promises and, despite popular rhetoric, the majority of promises made are kept. Our latest research tested whether this was also true of the Australian experience.
Using the same methods of the Comparative Party Pledges Project (CPPP), which has examined over 20,000 election promises made in 57 election campaigns in 12 countries, we analyse the fulfilment of election promises in six policy areas by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Julia Gillard during the 43rd Parliament.
Among the reasons why we chose to analyse the Gillard government’s performance was the common criticism that it had broken its much-publicised pledge not to introduce a carbon tax, creating a perception that the government could not be trusted.
Sections of the media and political rivals openly called Julia Gillard a liar following the policy backflip. Also, the Gillard government was the first minority federal government since 1941. When the 2010 election produced a hung parliament, many commentators predicted chaos, as Brenton Prosser and Richard Denniss have reminded us. Some argued the government would be unable to fulfil its mandate or that the government would be forced into an early election.
We collected 232 promises (from party documents and the media) at the official start of the election campaign in 2010 until polling day. To measure if a promise was kept, we used sources like Hansard, official political communications, budget papers and, as a last resort, media reports.
We found most promises made were specific rather than general, and most – 87% – were kept (see table below). But, some of those needed to be altered in some way and were only partially kept. This reflected the compromise required to get bills through the two houses, neither controlled by the Labor party.
That the Gillard government was able to keep the majority of its pledges but be tarred with perceptions of deception is what some academics label the “pledge puzzle”.
So why is there a disconnect between perceptions and reality? One reason is that not all promises are equal. Implementing a carbon tax was seen as a big promise to break. Other famous examples include Bob Hawke promising at his 1987 election launch that no Australian child would live in poverty by 1990, and John Howard promising in 1996 to “never ever” introduce a goods and services tax. Measuring the importance of a promise to voters (salience) is an important aspect that may help us better understand the “pledge puzzle” and mistrust of politicians.
The pledge puzzle also suggests that broken promises are only one aspect of how voters regard their politicians. it also tells us that there are other factors to consider – such as media coverage, negative campaigning and political infighting and rorting – to better explain why public trust in Australian politicians is falling. We also know that citizens who are more trusting of politicians are more trusting individuals generally and vice versa.
Overall, our findings give cause for optimism about the role of election promises in representative democracy. We found that politicians do take promises seriously, and that they do try to keep them. Yet, this finding by itself is unlikely to bolster Australians’ trust in their elected representatives at this election until politicians’ report cards improve on other measures.
Andrea Carson, Associate Professor at La Trobe University. Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University; Aaron Martin, Senior lecturer, University of Melbourne, and Andrew Gibbons, Postdoctoral Fellow, Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies, University of Texas at Austin