The Queensland Labor Government’s recent approval of the controversial Adani mine, despite campaigning on a platform of saving the Reef, demonstrates the great political tradition of saying one thing and doing another. In the US, it’s called a flip-flop, in the UK they call it a u-turn, but here in Aus, our pollies do backflips. So how do they get away with it? And is backflipping truly as reprehensible as we all think?
Premier Palaszczuk hasn’t been the only leader working on her acrobatic skills in the past few weeks. Malcolm Turnbull, once seen as the returning savior of the Liberal Government, has notched up a mammoth 17 backflips in just seven months in power. Policy platforms as diverse as GST changes, state income tax changes, and the old chestnut of high-speed rail have been floated and sunk with alarming rapidity. Turnbull has preferred to talk widely about such issues, then conveniently be blocked or contradicted by COAG, his ministers or his Treasurer, at which stage issues are dropped, never to be heard of again. This isn’t to mention his about-faces on moral issues such as marriage equality and climate change, which he personally committed to before his shackling by the more conservative elements of the Liberal Party.
It’s easy to sledge Turnbull, floundering as he appears to be at present, but all major political parties have been guilty of backflipping as a form of crisis management, and most have been punished brutally by an increasingly cynical electorate. Because the pollies appear to need a hand, and so the rest of us can spot their circus tricks (with apologies to Nicola Roxon for stealing some colourful language), here are some tips from history on how to get away with political bastardy:
- Timing is everything
There’s a big, big difference to backflipping on an issue that has been raised as a thought bubble, and changing your mind about something that was campaigned on as a core election promise. Kevin Rudd learnt this the hard way when he backed away from implementing a price on carbon after famously calling climate change ‘the great moral challenge of our generation’. An about-face on something so fundamental in Rudd’s first term as PM hurt him badly with the public, leading to plunging opinion polls – and we all know how that little tale ended up.
- Never say never
Tony Abbott suffered at the hands of this stinger, being punished by the public and ultimately his own party for clearly promising “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS” and delivering… well, frankly, not much except for cuts. Oh, and the advent of onion-based comedy.
- Bring the people with you
For a backflip to work, it has to be justified to three groups of people: the party, the media, and the voters, and to win the battle of public opinion, there’s a fine line to tread between admitting responsibility and appearing weak and directionless. John Howard showed how to achieve this difficult balance this way back in 1998 when he changed his mind about a GST and took the issue to an election. Relentless campaigning on radio and engagement with the community eventually brought the public and media around, and Howard had hedged his bets by ensuring the Liberal party was securely onside due to his strong track record.
- Only backflip when circumstances change
This is perhaps the ultimate difference between being agile, as Malcolm loves to remind us governments should be, and being a bald faced liar. Politicians will always try to blame external circumstances, but often this will be exaggerated, and it’s got to be legitimate for the audience to take it seriously. An example of actual changing circumstances that legitimatized a backflip: John Curtin’s 1943 backflip on conscription in the face of World War II. A failed attempt to blame circumstances: Julia Gillard bringing in a carbon tax (semantics aside) after pledging not to in the election campaign due to a hung parliament and crossbench support. The electorate, media and opposition never forgave her for that one.
So here’s the thing: there’s a difference between a backflip on an issue that was central to a government’s platform and mandate, that had a clear cut guarantee, and a considered change of a non-central platform. Backflipping might not always be bad – sometimes, it might actually mean that the government is listening to the populace. At best, a political change of mind can indicate a considered and consultative approach to the implementation and consideration of policy. At worst, backflips can demonstrate instability, lack of authenticity, and as ‘the pub test’ would have it, complete spinelessness.
If you think you’re seeing some poorly maneuvered acrobatics from pollies, keep an eye out for reasonable justification via the strategies discussed above. If there is no good defense for the about face, then a little research should reveal the truth of the matter. In the modern era of 24 hour media, no matter how perfectly a backflip is executed, the truth will always be somewhere in black and white… not the rainbow colours of the political circus.