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Broken promises

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Amid the wreckage of the Queensland state elections, popular commentary and political analysts alike have settled on Anna Bligh’s ‘broken promises’ as an explanation for Labor’s defeat. Barrie Cassidy for example has asserted that Labor’s election loss had nothing to do with federal issues, but rather with Bligh’s ‘broken promises’. Similarly, according to Laurie Oakes, Bligh scored an own goal with her ‘broken promise’ on selling state assets. Oakes’ analysis needed to deal with the fact that Bligh had not actually made any promise in this case, given that she had said nothing about selling the assets during the 2009 election campaign. He quickly corrected himselfthat it was all the same thing really: ‘Voters viewed it as a breach of trust – in effect, a broken promise.’

As an explanation for political defeats, ‘broken promises’ is short and snappy and media-bite size. The problem is that it explains very little, and is often not even accurate.

Take for example Angela Priestley’s election-eve analysis in The Power Index, headlined ‘Anna Bligh's broken promises took her beyond the point of no return’. The only promises cited by Priestley are those around the removal of the fuel rebate and the selling of public assets. Both actions were taken some time before Bligh’s leadership approval peaked during the 2010 floods and Labor’s subsequent poll lead of 52% support in early 2010.


The ‘broken promises’ narrative doesn’t really fit here, either as a description of Bligh’s record in government as a whole, or as providing an explanation for shifts in public opinion and in voting choices.

American political analysts have been sounding their unease with the explanatory power of the ‘broken promises’ narrative since the late 1960s. Political scientists who have studied election promises and pledges in the US have found that elected politicians are much more likely to make good on their election promises than not. I am not reporting this as a party-political statement, rather it refers to politicians on both (or all) sides of politics. And of course I am certainly not arguing that politicians of whatever stripe are blameless angels.

Beginning with Gerald Pomper’s 1968 book Elections in America: Control and Influence in Democratic Politics, analysts of US politics have studied in detail the congruence of election programs with the behaviour of politicians in office. In Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors (1984), Michael Krukones examined the promises made by US presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter. Krukones calculated that approximately 75% of their promises were kept. In Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance (1985), Jeff Fishel surveyed presidential campaigns from Kennedy to Reagan. Like Krukones, Fishel found that presidents vigorously attempt to carry out their promises, and that the main reason for their not being able to do so was not unwillingness to stand up for what they believe in, but opposition from Congress, with the cut and thrust of democratic politics bringing about policy compromise or defeat of presidential goals.

That is, the failure of presidents to carry through on their promises is not a sign of a character flaw or congenital mendacity, but is usually the result of their operating with the context of the separation of powers, in which both Congress and the courts can and do frustrate presidential aims and programs. And that is hardly newsworthy: legislators are elected to stand for their electorates, not to be steamrollered by the executive power.

The findings of Krukones and Fishel are borne out more recently by the record of the Obama presidency. PolitiFact’s Obameter calculates that Obama made 508 separate promises during the 2008 presidential campaign. The website calculates that he has kept 174 of them, or around 35%, and has broken 63 promises, or around 12%. The remainder are ‘stalled’ or compromised’ promises, with 149 promises still ‘in the works’. Only two promises had not been addressed at all. Despite widespread perceptions of Obama as spineless, most of the broken promises noted can be reckoned to opposition of a hostile Congress. Obama’s record alone, or his record when compared to other presidents, provides no evidence that he is less likely than any other president to keep his promises and accomplish his agenda.

The findings of American analysts about politicians trying to keep their promises are backed up by studies of other countries, such as that of François Petry on Canada and France, or Terry Royed on the UK. It seems unlikely that research would come to a different conclusion about the promise-keeping record of politicians in Australia, unless we were to work on the implausible assumption that those who stand for office here are cunning and mendacious beyond that found anywhere else in the world.


Against this background of research, it is puzzling how the narrative of ‘broken promises’ has gained such traction as an analysis of election defeat, and even as an explanation given by voters themselves for their choices.     

Some response to the puzzle is provided by Tracy Sulkin in her 2011 analysis The Legislative Legacy of Congressional Campaigns. Sulkin notes, ‘Individuals’ opinions about whether levels of promise keeping are high or low have been shown to be more a function of general factors like their trust in and knowledge about government than the particular policy actions of their elected representatives.’ Sulkin cites the 2006 Congressional Elections Study, which found that those citizens who followed the doings of Congress and its members carefully were more likely to agree that their candidate did well in keeping his or her promises, and that those citizens who had knowledge of such elementary things as the party of their representative were much more likely to assess positively the rate of promise-keeping.

The hard lesson here is that those who have recourse to the narrative of ‘broken promises’ are more likely to be ignorant of politics and of the actual record of politicians and their parties. The popularity of this narrative is itself an indication of a troubling wide ignorance about democracy and its workings.

There is also a salutary lesson here for voters, given the finding that what candidates promise in elections is what they will probably deliver, or at least will try very hard to deliver. If candidates say in the electoral campaign that they are going to do something, then that is very very likely what they will try to do.So the lesson is: listen carefully to what candidates say, and don’t just dismiss it as smoke and mirrors for election purposes only. Those politicians who will do anything to keep their promises can sometimes turn out to be more dangerous than those who do not. Those who are prepared to work with others to draw a ‘good enough’ result out of deliberation might be preferable to dogmatic promise-keepers, at least in the public life of a democracy.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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