Mandate mantra is mumbo jumbo


The letters of the words 'Carbon tax' tumble out of a chimney stack along with smoke and ash in the shape of dollar signsWhat exactly is it that a defeated government loses and its successor acquires? The question is typically answered by using the word 'mandate', which doesn't amount to much more than saying that in a constitutional democracy the elected government is, well, the elected government.

Governments, of course, like to pretend that there is much more to a mandate than that. Those faced with the prospect of negotiating legislation through an upper house in which they don't possess a majority, which is mostly the case in Australia at federal level, usually insist that their election victory conferred a right to expect that legislation arising from their platform will be passed. The people have chosen them, they argue, and therefore must want them to fulfill all their election promises, too. If MPs and senators vote against bills implementing those promises, they will be treating the will of the people with contempt and repudiating the outcome of the election.

There are several problems with this claim. Among them is the majoritarian assumption criticised in an earlier Eureka Street article by Max Atkinson: in parliamentary systems winning a majority of lower-house seats confers the right to form a government, but it doesn't follow that the preferences of a majority of voters possess any privileged moral insight that must be heeded.

For example, opinion polls routinely record majorities in favour of restoring the death penalty. Does that mean parliaments are therefore obliged to do so? Politicians in all the mainstream parties have rightly resisted that conclusion, chiefly for ethical reasons but also because stable government would be impossible if every item of legislation had somehow to be validated by the dictates of popular opinion.

The notion that a mandate to govern confers the right to implement all the policies in an election platform — a notion now being vigorously asserted by the Abbott Coalition Government, and which previous Labor governments have sometimes invoked, too — essentially regards an election as a referendum on a set of policies. This is inherently implausible and all politicians know that it is, however much they invoke, when in office, the magical 'mandate, mandate' mantra in the hope of browbeating opponents into supporting contentious legislation.

For one thing, treating an election as the voters' verdict on the platforms of the various parties assumes that when people enter the voting booths on polling day they are fully informed about what is in those platforms. Anyone who has ever handed out how-to-vote cards knows that to be false.

Further, this inflated notion of what a mandate means also assumes that 'majority of seats' and 'majority of votes' are the same thing, though they evidently are not. The mechanics of Australia's electoral system mean that it is entirely possible to win a majority of seats without winning a majority of votes, as both Kim Beazley and Andrew Peacock know to their cost. In the 1998 election, the Beazley-led ALP won a majority of votes but that did not translate into a majority of seats; the Howard Government, however, secured its second term with only a minority of the vote and promptly claimed a mandate for introducing the GST.

The most important reason for rejecting the election-as-a-referendum-on-platforms view of mandates, however, is this: if it were taken seriously, no government would ever be able to change its mind. And occasional changes of mind (and changes of heart, too) are essential to the process of governing.

The newly installed Abbott Government, for example, has already had several notable — though not admitted — changes of mind, even as it continues to demand that ALP and Greens senators bow to its mandate and allow repeal of the carbon-price legislation. Remember the budget deficit, which the Coalition inveighed against so much when in opposition? Labor's inability to deliver the surplus it had promised was portrayed as the chief, and sufficient, measure of its incompetent stewardship of the economy. Yet Treasurer Joe Hockey now seems to think that the deficit is not such an urgent problem after all and that we can comfortably live with it while longer.

This was always the sensible attitude to take to the deficit, because drastic spending cuts to reduce it quickly could trigger a deflationary spiral, and because Australia's public debt is in any case relatively low when compared with that of other OECD countries. That is emphatically not the message, however, on which the Coalition campaigned. It has a 'mandate' for austerity but clearly does not feel constrained by it.

The promise to 'stop the boats' is another core Coalition campaign message that, although not quietly dropped in the way that achieving an early surplus has been, is nonetheless in the process of being revised away. Whether or not the Coalition ever vowed to tow boatloads of asylum seekers back to Indonesia, which Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denies, it certainly assured voters that a hairy-chested and unilateral insistence on border security would discourage asylum seekers from coming. It hasn't, and Tony Abbott's visit to Indonesia resulted in an implicit acknowledgment that there will be no such thing as a unilateral Australian solution to the problem because Australia cannot take action that might infringe Indonesian sovereignty. What, then, is left of 'stop the boats'?

So while the Government — with its eye on a hostile Senate now and a potentially unreliable one when the new senators take their seats next July — brays about a mandate to end the carbon price, it is also shrugging off what, by its own theory, it has been 'mandated' to do in other respects. Hypocrisy is nothing new in politics, but we could have a little less of it if journalists did not so easily let politicians talk nonsense about mandates.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Carbon tax illustration from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey



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Existing comments

In his excellent article Ray Cassin, in the last sentence, reminds us where responsibility lies for the current mandate nonsense; it lies with ‘the fourth estate’, a phrase whose origins are discussed by Wikipedia in a brief but fascinating entry, which also cites Oscar Wilde: Somebody - was it Burke? - called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism. This is surely true today; but the pace of reporting has seen a reluctance to challenge ideas and arguments. It saw the media destroy Gillard’s credibility by treating her breach of promise as a lie; it accepted, without question, Howard’s bizarre theory that the ‘alliance’ could justify war in Iraq. Is it possible this detachment also reflects a deep conviction that it doesn’t really matter if such claims, or the mandate theory, makes sense. Is this where the real debate lies?

max atkinson | 24 October 2013  

One of the biggest issues in the election was the carbon tax. In fact, Abbott clearly stated on the eve of the election: "If the Coalition wins the election on Saturday, the carbon tax will go. No ifs, no buts, it is gone… We will do whatever is necessary to abolish the carbon tax." He declared the election to be a "referendum on the carbon tax", Now you can't be any fairer than that! With the economy struggling to maintain living standards, voters are less willing to shrug and accept environmental regulations and green taxes. Scare stories about an overheating planet don’t seem to be borne out by reality, either. No wonder the cultural elite’s concerns no longer wash with Aussie voters.

DavidSt | 24 October 2013  

Come on now. Who REALLY believes any thing a politician has to say during an election campaign. We only have to remember the immortal words of Julia Gillard who was never going to implement a carbon tax. A short lesson to learn here. Never trust a politician to any thing they say unless it benefits them

Paul Brown | 29 November 2013  

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