Useful delusions

Two curious, abstract figments of the political imagination, contracts and mandates lay the mental groundwork for whatever contrived political debates might lie ahead. In this case, I speak of the unfortunate politics of New South Wales (where I don’t live).

On one hand, Barry O’Farrell has signed a “contract” with voters, promising to resign if he breaks his promises (one of which is, of course, a promise to resign if he breaks his promises).

Let us first disavow ourselves of the notion that these “contracts” have any sort of legal basis. By my (perhaps shallow) understanding of contract law, a contract needs the express consent of all parties, not just the implied consent of the majority. There’s nothing whatsoever to stop O’Farrell breaking his “contract” or exceeding his “mandate”.

I’m not sure exactly who pioneered the idea of an election contract, but certainly David Cameron and Tony Abbott both tried it. Tony Abbott also tried to contract his way out of WorkChoices.

These “contracts” are, of course, really just a way of saying that you’re promising something really, really hard. They are apparently designed to create the impression of enforceability, relying on voters not thinking too hard about who, precisely, will be doing the enforcing. They also don’t yet have the same history as election “promises”, which are broken as a matter of course. “A contract,” you therefore say to the electorate, “is just like a promise, only we mean it.” The word will be just as tarnished in the end. (This brings to mind the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s multiple attempts to revalue its currency during hyperinflation. The second Dollar is just like the first Dollar, only you can buy things with it. The third Dollar is just like the second Dollar, only you can buy things with it. The fourth Dollar is just like the third Dollar, only you can buy things with it.)

On the other hand, Kristina Keneally has declared that a victorious O’Farrell will have no “mandate”:

If the polls today are correct and Mr O’Farrell is slated for victory, it’ll be a victory without a mandate, because he’s not telling people what it is he will do.

How much Barry O’Farrell has said is beside the point. The people are voting for him, and since democracy operates under the assumption that the people are reasonably well-informed1, we must assume the people of NSW have taken his policies (or lack thereof) into due consideration.

Even if you accept Keneally’s premise, O’Farrell’s mandate would be much broader for him not having articulated any policy detail. If you don’t tell the voters what you’re going to do, and they vote for you anyway, then the assumption is that they trust you to make the right decisions. It’s when you tell voters what your policies are – and make “contracts” with them – that your mandate becomes restricted to those stated objectives.

That said, this notion of a “mandate” is rather abstract and, like an election contract, lacks any real legal basis. However, it is useful for evaluating a government’s level of honesty. The outgoing government naturally wants the incoming government’s mandate to be as narrow as possible, because they’re about to spend the next four/eight/twelve years finding ingenious ways of concluding that O’Farrell misled voters. Presumably, though, the incoming government has both the right and obligation to, well, govern, and not simply be a second Opposition.

  1. This is, in fact, the entire constitutional basis of freedom of speech in Australia. Nowhere does our hallowed founding document even mention such freedom, but elections require a well-informed public, which implies freedom of speech. []