Truth and ideas casualties in spin-dominated Victorian politics

The Age: Truth and ideas casualties in spin-dominated Victorian politics, November 23, 2014 Farrah Tomazin

A post-election hangover seems inevitable for the winning party, with optimistic promises being bandied about but no certainty over how they are to be paid for, writes Farrah Tomazin.

Election cycles are a bit like office Christmas parties. You put on your best dress, start out early with good intentions, and build up momentum as the night wears on. But somewhere near the end, strange things happen.

The champagne kicks in and people get loose with the truth. They infiltrate the dance floor with reckless moves. And amid the revelry, things are said and done with little regard for the consequences – until reality intervenes the following morning.

With days until the state election, both major parties have reached that point of fever pitch: splashing cash in marginal seats like an overzealous Santa; promising plans they should have implemented years ago; insisting everything is affordable, without explaining how. Trust us, they tell the voters: the night is still young, just keep dancing.

But in a campaign where trust is a dominant theme, the bigger question is which side is more deserving, when both are guilty of half-truths, false promises, and overblown rhetoric.

Take last Monday morning, when Daniel Andrews had the temerity to claim Labor would release its policy costings “well before Victorians vote” – the same day early voting centres opened and tens of thousands of people started making their decisions.

Or the Liberal campaign launch the week earlier, when Denis Napthine promised $3.9 billion to boost public transport, attempting to airbrush from history the commitments his party made – then failed to deliver – at the 2010 poll.

Or Wednesday’s election debate on Sky News, where both leaders told an audience of 100 undecided voters in the marginal seat of Frankston they would not have any new or higher taxes, charges, levies or fees. Sound familiar?

Politics is meant to be the battle of ideas, yet these days it increasingly feels like a battle over who can spin the most nonsense and get away with the least collateral damage.

Julia Gillard never lived down claiming “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”. Tony Abbott is now under fire for promising “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. And Ted Baillieu also came to office with a list of commitments he didn’t keep: making Victorian teachers the best paid; no cuts to the public service; an independent watchdog for government ads.

Now, Napthine and Andrews are promising big – and not surprisingly, many simply don’t buy it.

Some might argue that a lack of faith in our political institutions is par for the course, but in a worrying sign for democracy, evidence suggests that trust in politics isn’t just a problem – it’s on the decline.

In 2009, a Scanlon Foundation study found 48 per cent of people surveyed trusted the federal government “almost always” or “most of the time”. By last year, this had dropped to 27 per cent.

And in Victoria, the ABC’s Vote Compass survey – which has assessed the views of more than 100,000 voters so far – found that in terms of trustworthiness, Napthine scored an average of 4.1 and Andrews 3.9 out of a possible 10.

One school of thought is that numbers like this underpin the public’s apparent lack of engagement in this year’s poll, which as been variously described in recent weeks as lacklustre, uninspiring, yet another “Seinfeld election” about nothing. Others, like Monash University political veteran Paul Strangio, have a slightly different view.

“If you ask people about issues – are they concerned about the condition of their local school, whether ambulances are turning up on time, or if the roads are clogged and the trains are punctual – they’re vitally interested,” he says. “I’m just not sure they believe either party can deliver the sort of things they really want.”

Perhaps they have good reason. Take the battleground of transport as a case in point. Contracts have been signed on the East West Link, yet we’re still none the wiser about the true cost of the project and its tolls.

Or the Metro Rail Link that Labor claims it will “build”. Only $300 million has been committed, so it still requires at least another $9 billion – one-third from the state, one-third from the private sector and one-third from an Abbott government that has no intention of backing urban rail.

And what about the Coalition’s airport rail link? Not only is the funding unclear, it’s not likely to exist for another decade, despite your hard-earned money being spent on ads to promote it.

After four tumultuous years, the Coalition knows it can’t campaign convincingly on its record alone. That’s why Napthine’s central pitch is about three things: financial management, Daniel Andrews, and trust.

He wants you remember that Andrews was part of the government that gave you the desalination plant and myki. He wants you to know about the Labor leader’s ties to CFMEU and its militant bosses. And he wants to remind you that Andrews’ made a “reckless” decision not to honour contracts on the East West Link. In that context, how could you trust him over the Coalition?

The risk is that Andrews has made himself such a small target the public might not buy the argument. Andrews’ pitch also centres on trust, but in a more subtle frame. He wants you to trust that Labor is different to the party you kicked out four years ago, with a different leader who has heeded the lessons of the past. And he wants you to ask yourself what you want for the future: “four more years like the last” or a Labor government with a “positive plan to put people first”.

Who do you believe?

Farrah Tomazin is state politics editor. Twitter: @farrahtomazin

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