Political promises – to be taken with a grain of salt!

OPINION: The habit of politicians standing for election making grandiose promises that somehow do not see the light of day after the election, is a longstanding “tradition”. In many cases, I suspect promises have been made quite cynically, ie in the expectation that they will be unachievable in practice. Fortunately for politicians, the voters en-mass have a poor memory or just low expectations so the broken or discarded promises don’t cause too much political damage.

240_f_108561036_lsknclq1xms94mrkdvpzbaslpz0g0k9cThe most recent example was Nationals promise to repair all the suspect road bridges in Northland as a part of its campaign for the Northland by-election. My recollection was that the commitment was unconditional. National did not win the by-election and there has been no sign of new bridge since!

I recall Helen Clarke in her last election bid boldly declaring Labour’s goal of New Zealand becoming Carbon neutral on emissions (“Carbon Zero” is the term I recall), i.e. any residual emissions made cancelled out by emission savings such as tree planting. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – it would not have been possible to get even close to this goal without devastating the NZ economy as we know it. As is happens Labour lost the election and the record since is that emissions have actually increased at a faster percentage rate than any other developed nation.

There are lots of other examples.

That happens to be one of the refreshing but slightly alarming attributes of Jacinda Arden. She has made lots of promises and I think there is a genuine determination to follow through. She has also been clever enough to hedge her bets in cases where it would be folly to make an unconditional numerical commitment. The latest example is that of a capital gains tax – not a new idea but coming around for consideration again!

I have mixed feelings about politicians aiming to achieve their bolder promises. If achievement proves to be difficult or close to impossible then the options available are to either stick with it and probably cause significant economic problems or worse, or pragmatically change tack to something which is achievable and less damaging or even beneficial.   The idealistic side of me says that they should damn well should follow through whatever the consequences – a promise is a promise. The more pragmatic side of me says that damage limitation for the country is more important than avoiding damage to the ego or reputation of politicians when they do not follow through because of the adverse consequences. My pragmatic side usually wins out in the end.

The real answer, of course, is that politicians should only make carefully considered promises that they know can be carried through at a reasonable cost, and they should do enough analysis before opening their mouths to know what the consequences are likely to be. They should then follow through and do exactly what they said they would do. Making partial statements which involve sorting out the details further on down the track is not a comfortable compromise. Voters would like to know the likely consequences up front.

However, it is u unlikely to happen that way. There is tremendous pressure on political leaders to get policy out into the public arena, during elections particularly, if only to get media attention, and in the end that overrides other considerations. The voting public is left to decide what to believe and what to regard as political grandstanding. For all the nice things that have been said about her and her undoubted talents, I think that Jacinda Arden will find it difficult to break the traditional pattern, despite the best of intentions. And I think at some stage the lack of a recent track record for Labour will count against her.

National may be boring but they do have a long track record to fall back on, i.e. they have demonstrated that they know how to do things and although there are blemishes they do have a record of delivering in most areas, even it if it is less than they might have indicated.

I think is the end it will come down to going with well proven but boring and uninspiring v going with excitement, vision but high risk. Each voter will have their own view on that balance.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.