Election 2013 media panel

Do election promises matter?

WA premier Colin Barnett has been accused of breaking many promises made during his last election campaign. AAP/Tony McDonough

Following stinging criticism for breaking key promises made in the Western Australia March state election, premier Colin Barnett recently remarked on Perth’s Radio 6PR: “I don’t think people study the promises”.

A Labor-authorised site has identified 15 broken promises, including those on electricity prices, hospital completion and public sector job cuts.

In response to Mr Barnett’s remarks, one individual asked on the 6PR blog site: what would happen if a person relying on a politician’s promise “walked into a police station and made a complaint of fraud?”

Criminal codes usually provide that a person who, with intent to defraud, causes a detriment to a person is guilty of a crime and could face a long time in prison.

So, what would happen if someone complained to police about a broken election promise?

The answer is “probably nothing on the current law” because, for one thing, the complainant might fall at the first hurdle – proving the intention to commit the fraud.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Ross Gittins discussed the subject this week under the headline “Election promises are destined to be broken”. He identified three types of promises: those that politicians have no intention of keeping; those that are honoured; and well-intentioned promises that become impossible to honour because of factors beyond control.

Gittins also chided journalists for “trying to extract promises from pollies” and he doubted whether journalists who tried to do this were performing a public service.

Two points. One concerns the first of the three types of promises Gittins identified – the ones that politicians have no intention of keeping. Given the high stakes in election promises should our crimes statutes be amended to outlaw politicians’ promises that were intended to defraud the voter into voting for them thereby resulting directly in clearly identifiable harm to the complainant? The answer is, yes. The penalties would reflect the severity of the impact of the broken promise on peoples’ lives.

Second, Gittins’ described journalists’ questions to politicians such as “will you guarantee…” or “do you promise…” as “lazy questions”. I agree.

Journalists have an important role in interrogating politicians’ promises. Journalists can play this role better by more intensely focussing on the intent behind promises and demanding evidence for the premises upon which politicians make their promises. To do this properly journalists must do their homework.

And, if as Mr Barnett thinks, people don’t study the promises, and they get duped, well, serves ‘em right.