Politics – it’s all in the delivery

Politicians often have a strange way of defining “achievement”.


Wayne Swan famously said when he handed down the 2012 federal budget: “The four years of surpluses I announce tonight … “

The comment, which attracted wide applause at the time and “Back in Black” headlines for the Labor government, is mocked by the coalition to this day.

Despite that, Labor went on to produce a controversial election pamphlet that claimed “We’ve delivered a surplus, on time, as promised”.

It’s a mark of modern politics that “announcements” are equated with “achievements”, and vice versa.

Achievements aren’t black and white – they come in degrees of success.

Then there’s the broader question of the relevance of the achievement or announcement to average voters.

Tony Abbott claimed he had “achieved” free-trade deals with South Korea, Japan and China in his first full year of governing.

However, it took a little longer to put pen to the formal implementation on all three, with Malcolm Turnbull claiming he had “delivered” the China agreement after ousting Abbott.

Abbott also soon after the 2013 election announced he had “abolished” the carbon tax but this, too, was more difficult than expected – getting the axe, in legislative terms, in July 2014.

However, Clive Palmer stopped the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and other agencies Abbott promised to get rid of to make a clean sweep of Julia Gillard’s climate achievements.

The Liberal party website lists a number of Malcolm Turnbull’s achievements, among which is “signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to deliver substantial new trade and investment opportunities for Australian businesses” and “Senate voting reform”.

The election of Donald Trump signalled the death of the TPP, which would have also been on the chopping block under a Clinton administration.

Senate voting system changes, coupled with the lower vote quotas of a double-dissolution election, led to a historically large upper-house cross bench, which itself has delivered a mixed bag of “achievements” for the coalition government.

This week, the prime minister claimed a win for free speech with the announcement of changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the way in which the Australian Human Rights Commission handles complaints.

“We have delivered considerable achievements … we are focused on results and outcomes,” Turnbull told reporters in Canberra.

However, Turnbull’s success might be short-lived, with Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team likely to vote down the law changes this sitting fortnight.

Labor agrees on the need for new AHRC procedures to ensure people get early warning of complaints against them and to head off frivolous claims, but says watering down section 18C is a step too far and will encourage racism.

The government achieved the passing of savings to family welfare payments on Thursday to help fund a childcare package.

However, the deal with One Nation and NXT left about $4 billion in much-vaunted savings on the shelf.

The childcare package is also likely to pass but not in the form the government initially wanted.

The downside is growing cynicism among voters about the promises politicians make.

There are some telling figures in this week’s Essential poll.

Seventy-one per cent of voters said the Liberal party would “promise to do anything to win votes”, while 63 per cent said the same thing of Labor.

Only one in four voters thought the Liberals kept their promises, while 34 per cent said the same of Labor.

It doesn’t help things when the prime minister delivers a scattergun week of policy – attacking union corruption on Monday, defending free speech on Tuesday, reforming childcare on Wednesday.

Broken or watered-down promises, coupled with a narrative with all the cohesion of a Jackson Pollock painting, won’t save marginal seats.

Losing the next election due to a baffled, underwhelmed and frustrated electorate would be quite an achievement.