Election Campaign A Time For Politicians To Promise What They Can’t Deliver

Election campaigns are incredibly frustrating.

It’s not just that they consist almost entirely of promises that we, the voters, have no way of ensuring will be kept.

Elections are just a bunch of claims and counterclaims about what might happen in the future – claims which rely on opaque assumptions and are offered without detail.

Take, for instance, this week’s little infrastructure costing spat. Labor wants to extend the South Morang train line by eight kilometres so that it ends at Mernda. Labor says that “many aspects of the project are still to be finalised” but they estimate it will cost between $400 and $600 million.

The Coalition disagrees. Treasurer Michael O’Brien said this week the Department of Treasury and Finance has costed the extension at $700 million. Thus another Labor black hole.

What are voters supposed to make of this dispute? Yes, the Department of Treasury and Finance is a more reliable estimator of costs than whatever policy unit Labor has cobbled together in its backroom for the election campaign. But, then again, Labor’s plans are so vague that the track extension could really cost anything.

If Daniel Andrews becomes premier, the South Morang line will be Treasury’s problem. They’ll have to make it work – or get the new government to drop it.

The certainties of the campaign ebb away when faced with the responsibility of government. This is inevitable. It’s like a law of nature.

Andrews offered a rather spectacular illustration of the difference between campaigning and government on Friday. Labor proposes an independent body, Infrastructure Victoria, to advise on new projects. Andrews was asked what he would do if it recommended, say, building the East West Link. The answer was politic. Labor would consider it.

But recall that East West Link is the project whose contracts Labor says it will rip up, regardless of the extraordinary cost of doing so – both the cost to the budget, which will likely have to bear the penalty for contract cancellation, and the cost to Victoria’s reputation with future investors.

Now East West Link 2 is an option?

It’s funny how things can change once an opposition gets the big offices.

The Coalition is proud the budget is in balance. There’s a projected surplus of $1.3 billion in 2014-15. Labor would be secretly chuffed about this too. The healthy budget is how each side can justify their campaign spending sprees. But the government only has a budget surplus because it was conservative with spending over the last term. Voters like spending but they don’t like being taxed to pay for it.

Polls say Labor is ahead. This is not due to any Herculean effort on their part. If Denis Napthine loses next week it will be because any prudent government is vulnerable to being called “uninspiring”. In politics there are few more devastating epithets.

But reform is Canberra’s job now. The states deliver services and build infrastructure. Where’s the room for inspiration in that?