John Howard famously distinguished between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises. The rhetoric signified a turn in Australian understanding of electoral process in Australia. Whatever the formal reality of elections, Australians now understand that we elect the government by voting for the local candidate based on their party’s promises. Following the election, it became necessary to work out which promises were those promises relevant to electoral behaviour (core promises) from those which were just incidental (non-core promises).
Personally, I worry about this sort of thing because it gets away from the ideal state of our political system: where we elect somebody who embodies the values, aspirations, and insights that we wish we could express collectively, and send them to Parliament where they elect a government and vote upon legislation based upon those values, aspirations, and insights.
There is a mechanism that’s available to us if we would like the current understanding to become more formal, but do we want to go down this path?
State parliaments have the ability to pass legislation which prevents particular future legislative activities. Prior to voting day, an act could be passed which outlines activities that will be prohibited to the legislature and executive depending on which party forms majority. The Commonwealth Parliament might have this ability, but it would take a court case to find out.
The act would be fairly simple. Should the ALP form government, the Parliament would be unable to pass legislation which does X, Y, or Z and the Executive would be unable to make decisions that would give effect to A, B, and C. Should the Liberal Party form government, the Parliament would be unable to pass legislation which does U, V, or W and the Executive would be unable to make decisions that would give effect to D, E, and F.
The effect would be that the incoming government would be limited by its pre-election promises. But it would also mean that there are limited options if evidence comes to light that their pre-election promises were stupid.
Also note that this option limits ability but does not enable. In other words, if the promise is to build a hospital, achieve economic equality, or repeal a carbon tax, this mechanism wouldn’t work. It therefore privileges a conservative approach to politics (one that protects the status quo) rather than a progressive one. I’m okay with that last point — because I’m conservative — but I imagine progressive friends would be less thrilled. If the new Greens MP wants to introduce legislation to achieve some goal, I’m not sure she’d be impressed that the legislation is invalid due to pre-election promises of larger parties.
I’m not comfortable with this approach. I want parliament to be a melting pot of ideas and debate, a platform through which we argue about values, aspirations, and perspectives. Legislated core promises might make it easier to be assured that the party you elect will actually do what it says, but it also means a less responsive parliament and government.
The real solution is to stop electing people who promise to do things and start electing people for their character, quality, and attributes. ‘What’s your policy on…?’ should never be part of the election campaign.