Melbourneâ€™s Lord Mayoralty is not the biggest job in Australian politics but nor is it entirely ceremonial. The municipality is small, based principally around Melbourneâ€™s rectangular Central Business District but collects enormous revenues and makes big decisions about Australiaâ€™s second biggest city.
Its Lord Mayor is not such a bad bloke, a bon vivant teacher who became an elite private school-master and then a politician who was cursed by being the right man at the wrong time. A mainstream Liberal who got knifed by lefty Liberal Ted Baillieu, who essentially fell into office by being the wrong man in the right place at the right time. Robert Doyle is much more representative of Liberal members and supporters across Victoria than Red Ted Baillieu will ever be.
Doyle would have made a great Premier. Baillieu looks like being hopefully slightly above average.
But Doyleâ€™s announcement yesterday that cars will now be permanently denied access to Swanston Street, which has been an unpleasant hybrid of mall and tram/taxi thoroughfare (and will probably always remain that way for as long as trams run along it) made us think long and hard about the nature of politicians and its practitioners.
Because Doyle was elected on a range of delightfully non-specific, unmemorable promises with two exceptions. One was a pledge not to spend ratepayersâ€™ money on overseas junkets. That took him several months to dishonour as he ponied up for business class flights to that beautiful Russian city of St Petersburg.
Another he was very explicit about was that he would end the restrictions on cars driving on Swanston Street and return it to its former role as a key thoroughfare through Melbourne. Probably not a good idea but there was and is a constituency for it, even though it is strongly opposed by enviro-faddish Council officers who have spent many tens of millions of dollars trying to improve the streetscape and make it more of a pedestrian mall in keeping with theories and white papers distributed around enviro-focused council officer conferences usually held in five-star resorts.
Whether Doyle got wise, demonstrated courageous leadership or just plain lied depends on your point of view. But itâ€™s not a good look and he seems to think heâ€™ll get away with it without consequence, even making his new Swanston Street policy a centrepiece of his re-election strategy. Chutzpah might perhaps be his slogan.
On the other side of politics, Prime Minister Gillard sought re-election, at least partly on the basis that she would not introduce a carbon tax. She said so quite explicitly in the face of a Coalition scare campaign saying she would introduce one.
She broke her promise, quite blatantly by introducing a carbon tax ahead of a cap-and-trade system of permits which will tax and limit carbon emissions generating the Commonwealth many billions in tax revenue.
Victoriaâ€™s Premier Ted Baillieu â€“ Doyleâ€™s nemesis â€“ was himself elected on the basis he would â€“ just like that â€“ fix the problems.
But his government shows no sign of fixing anything.
Trains still run late. Still no decision on Myki. No change to the supposedly disastrous desal plant. Kids still go unprotected and abused. Young Sudanese take to each with machetes and chains after beauty pageants.
And the governmentâ€™s somnolent activity seems principally about inventing a budget black-hole that presumably could never have really existed while Victoria retained its AAA credit rating as it had in NSW.
Another impressive example was Victorian Transport Minister Terry Mulder who last week broke a promise-to-breach land-speed record when he went down to a city train station to announce the momentous decision that pet-owners would henceforth be able to bring their little loved ones on-board country trains. In an effort worthy of a Yes, Minister episode, the press release done, the photo op organised with cute puppy, journos and photographers all summoned with the only problem being that no-one had bothered to tell those running Victorian country trains, V-Line, that a change of policy had occurred. Because there were many OH&S and industrial and customer safety issues to think about, V-Line management put up a little declaration of its own on its website essentially telling the public to hold back on plans to take their Siamese cat or Doberman on an outing to Mildura while they worked out the details or perhaps tried to talk Mulder out of it.
An embarrassing and lazy effort from the chap meant to be an alternate leader should Baillieu be run over by a late-running bus one afternoon. When Liberal ministers complain about not having enough staff, this is why the Premierâ€™s office should probably listen up and put their Red Ted veto pen for factional disloyalty down.
It did show â€“ in gory detail â€“ how crude and ill-considered can be the formulation of government policy. Hollow Men was not fiction.
It really is enough to make one a little cynical.
A good friend of ours is one of those Gold Coast conservative-inclined business blokes who â€“ a bit like Donald Trump or John Laws (love them as we do) â€“ thunder on about politicians being a bunch of liars, crooks and frauds who can make promises about what theyâ€™re going to do and then can casually disregard such commitments and do whatever they want.
Iâ€™ve never really taken those kinds of rants very seriously. Politicians make huge sacrifices and take big personal risks to serve after all. While VEXNEWS can be rough on some individual practitioners, weâ€™d rather honour the class of people who get stuck in rather than jeer along with the critics, spectators and whiners.
After a couple of beers, the other night, my Gold Coast spiv-mate observed that if he did the same thing as politicians, put out a prospectus with lies or promises he was willing to break, that heâ€™d end up in jail for offending various provisions of Corporations Law.
And while his exposition had elements of the tribal whinge and gross generalisation, stripping back the hyperbole, thinking about those examples above, he really does have a point.
In another time, I was one of those people who helped dream up campaign commitments, in council elections, union ballots, student union polls, you name it. Thereâ€™s not a crazy policy idea I canâ€™t dream up with a keyboard, some caffeine and a looming deadline. I usually tried to limit the brain-waves to things that I thought would make the world better and be eminently deliverable.
But as in business, ideas are cheap, promises easy, execution is everything, Itâ€™s easy to arrange a photo op with a cute puppy, another thing entirely to negotiate with many different annoying stakeholders real solutions,Â making controversial change in a way that mitigates risk and maximises support. Consensus-building and arriving at common-sense outcomes isnâ€™t easy.
We see in the recent examples of the Prime Minister, Victoriaâ€™s Premier, his Transport minister and Melbourneâ€™s Lord Mayor that across all parties, in all levels of government there is a remarkably and unacceptably relaxed attitude to honouring commitments in public life.
Itâ€™s got to be right at the heart of why politicians, while some of the best and brightest and nobly motivated people in any walk of life, are held in lower regard than used car dealers, crooks and even real estate agents.
If they donâ€™t take their commitments seriously, we will not take them seriously. If they are casually willing to junk promises or to say whatever they need to say to win elections and then do whatever they want to do once they have won, then not only will the communityâ€™s regard for politicians continued to be undermined, it will continue to do much to disturb faith in democracy itself. Itâ€™s ironic that some of them might be able to do what freedomsâ€™ enemies in Soviet, Nazi or al-Qaeda form have never come close to achieving.