When I was younger, the election platforms of Australia’s political parties seemed more transparent than they are today.
The major parties produced a policy platform setting out their values and an A-Z listing of policies. It wasn’t a six-page glossy brochure – or, as received in my household this week, a one-page letter comprised of sentences made from three-word slogans and motherhood statements - but a substantial and detailed publication.
The parties would launch their election campaigns shortly after an election being called, about four or five weeks out from election day. The public had a chance to review a consolidated list of their policy initiatives, as well as the usual motherhood statements. We had time to think about what we liked and what we didn’t. It was taken as given that hardly anyone would agree with every policy so people would look for the values and policies that most aligned with their way of thinking.
Sure, the costing of the policies left much to be desired, and could be seen as a wish list. It could also lead to ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ post-election policies and Budget black holes. But at least we were spared the dripfeed of policies during an extended campaign.
This level of upfront transparency came to an end with an enormous thud in 1993 when the then Opposition Leader, Dr John Hewson, set out the most ambitious strategy of any political leader possibly before, and certainly since, with the compilation of Fightback!, the original Liberal Party manifesto to introduce the GST. The then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who only a few years before had championed a GST-like tax as Treasurer – and lost the debate in Cabinet – embarked upon a scare campaign, and Dr Hewson lost what was seen as the ‘unloseable election’ for the Coalition.
Attempts were made to bring greater financial discipline to election platforms, in response to community concerns starting with Peter Costello’s Charter of Budget Honesty in 1998 and the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) by the Gillard Government in 2012. Neither has operated as effectively as they should because both sides of politics have found ways to circumvent the process to various degrees, partly depending on whether they were challengers or incumbents.
Progressively, the party launches have taken place closer to the election date and there is no pretence at integrating the two.
Instead, what we have today from the parties are campaigns that are driven by responding to the latest public poll and media chatter, as well as sophisticated private polling. Multiple announcements are made daily on anything from a road bypass to a stadium upgrade and many things in-between for selected electorates.
This has led to the ‘small target’ style of campaigns, which is as much an art form as a science. It is where parties are constantly upping-the-ante on duchessing different parts of the country depending on how critical that electorate is to the election outcome, and what their sophisticated private polling is telling them. It is designed to curry favour rather than govern in the national interest.
If we want future governments to be more transparent and accountable, we should be demanding for the next election that the major parties launch their campaigns within one week of the election being called and disclose all their policies and their costs.
We should also be demanding that all their policies be submitted to the PBO for costing and that there be a legislative requirement for the PBO to release the costing details. This ensures that neither side has the option of presenting a list of savings items with little detail and no time for analysis.
The policy platforms should also disclose the impact on the Budget bottom-line for each year of the forward estimates using as a base Treasury estimates of Budget income and expenditure. This means political parties are working from the same Budget estimates and there’s no redundant argument about Treasury’s estimates because both will be based on the same set of forecasts. This would prevent an incoming Government claiming a Budget ‘black hole’ and, for example, potentially resorting to ‘signature’ and ‘non-signature’ policies.
To support this, we should also be demanding fixed term parliaments.
The benchmark we should be demanding is what is required of a company when it issues a prospectus.
A company cannot give potential investors only part of the information spread over several weeks, and then ‘tweaking’ it as they see fit. They have to prepare a detailed prospectus that sets out their business strategy, the risks, the likely scenarios and the costs and revenues. It is a legal document whose requirements are regulated by ASIC.
In many respects, tomorrow we will be voting in somewhat of an information vacuum, expected to take the party policies – such as they are – on trust.
Whatever the outcome, whatever happens, the major parties have been more intent on telling the story to suit them, rather than sharing the information we ought to have to make informed decisions.
Without the level of transparency and accountability we deserve, we have a democracy that is significantly less open and effective than it should be.