The electoral drip-feed: why policies can and should come earlier


Australian Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison holds a media conference in Sydney, Thursday, June 2, 2016. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins) NO ARCHIVING

Australian elections tend to follow a familiar pattern: a slow strip-tease of policy and costings, with one policy being revealed and flung at the voters each day of the campaign.

Very often, coverage of the campaign becomes more about when costings or policies will be released rather than the actual policies that are being costed. But what if the major parties released all their policies, in a publicly accessible format, almost a month before the parliamentary election? What if the major parties’ full suite of policies was then available for voters to consider, leaders to discuss in their debates, journalists to critique, and economists to cost?

“The drip-feed of policy also gives parties an excuse for why they postpone releasing their full costing.”

Consider the constitutional purpose that elections serve. The constitution tells us that our parliament should be the product of the people of the Commonwealth of Australia making a direct choice. Surely we, the people, should be able to make a choice that is informed by detailed policies, released well in advance, and susceptible to more than a few days’ scrutiny? And the people of the Commonwealth would also be able to make a more informed choice if their media coverage was less preoccupied with arguments about the precise hour at which policies and policy costings would be revealed.

Drip-feeding policies out over the duration of the election campaign means that voters, journalists, and pundits have less of a chance to scrutinise the competing plans for the country’s future. But, crucially, the drip-feed of policy also gives parties an excuse for why they postpone releasing their full costings. After all, the parties say, it would force us to show our hand if we were to release our policy-by-policy costings before the very last of our policies has been dripped out. The drip-feed is thus intimately connected with the tiresome debate about when, precisely, the costings will be released.

Instead of the campaign being a discussion about the content of both sides’ policies, we’re left with coverage of when the policies and their costings might be revealed, and with people attempting to scrutinise what policies might cost without the full detail of those policies. The addition of a Parliamentary Budget Office may not have helped as much as had been hoped (and it may also be time for a Parliamentary Policy Office). But, we might ask, why not solve some of these problems by just releasing all the policies upfront?

If we look back to 2013, Labor and the Coalition had, admittedly, released a number of policies before the election campaign began, but they both kept plenty in reserve for the final days of the campaign. Similarly, this year the Coalition is running on its Plan, but has kept some policies and costings in reserve; Labor has released its 100 Positive Policies but is keeping others in reserve.

Releasing a full comprehensive policy document at the start of the campaign may seem like tactical madness to many Australian campaign managers. Doubtless such a move would be seen as jeopardising the daily rhythm of policy “announceables” on which 21st-century Australian politics relies.

And yet each party releasing a comprehensive set of policies near the start of the campaign is precisely what happens in the UK.

Madness? Bah! UK does it

Back at the 2015 UK election, Ed Miliband released the UK Labour party’s policy platform (a “manifesto” in UK political lingo) 24 days before the May election. The 83-page publication, “Britain Can Be Better”, has been available online ever since. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories released their 81-page manifesto (“Strong Leadership“) a day after Miliband; the Lib Dems’ 157-pager (“Opportunity for Everyone”) came the following day.

All three platforms were public before the leaders’ debates concluded; all three platforms were out well before the intensity of the final weeks of the campaign. Of course, these policy documents did include carefully-posed full-page photos and rhetorical flourishes, but they also contained detailed commitments on a wide range of policy areas (everything from vocational colleges, to an EU referendum, to connecting Oxford and Cambridge with a rail line). Other minor parties offered manifestos too.

“If the policy strip-tease is of such immense tactical importance for the political operatives, why do their overseas counterparts release a comprehensive policy document so much earlier?”

If your full set of policies is public right from the start, citizens and pundits can scrutinise, discuss, and analyse your plans for the country’s future in a systematic way. And, as a significant bonus, the parties have one less reason not to release their full costings.

British politics and politicians are far from perfect, and it would be foolish to idealise the UK electoral system. The hung parliament in the UK in 2010, for example, led to both Tories and Lib Dems abandoning manifesto commitments to form a coalition. Parts of manifestos can sometimes be vague or aspirational rather than detailed.

There are many aspects of Australian democracy that we can be proud of, but Australia’s voters deserve better when it comes to the slow drip-feed of policies and the tiresome debates about when costings will be released. If the policy strip-tease is of such immense tactical importance for the political operatives, why do their overseas counterparts release a comprehensive policy document so much earlier?

Undecided voters in 2013 complained that the election campaign has been too much about personality, and not enough about policy. Releasing comprehensive party platforms well in advance of the election date certainly won’t single-handedly improve the quality of Australian political debate. But it would be a good way of helping us make better direct choices.

Top image: Treasurer Scott Morrison’s economic policy press conference in Sydney on June 2. AAP.

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