A question for readers

I’m working on a piece for the Fin, and, in my current draft, I say that John Howard never actually used the word “non-core”. Rather, he said he had delivered his “core” promises and we were left to infer that the rest were non-core. Can anyone protect me from error by pointing to an occasion when Howard used “non-core”, or, better still, support me in my contention?

43 thoughts on “A question for readers

  1. Wouldn’t the use of ‘core’ here by politicians in general, simply mean their ‘main’ or ‘first order’ priorities John? That leaves we punters to implicitly assume none of them would ever get to the bottom of their grand wish list/blueprint even if they were pedantic enough to create one. If nothing else, the usual alligators would frustrate some of their their overall plans for the swamp.

  2. You may be right about that ‘non-core’ assumption John, that it was largely a stick picked up his critics to beat him with. Here’s Dr Paul Henman in the McQuarie Univ News of May 2002-

    “In 1996, Mr Howard campaigned as ‘Honest John’ under a promise to improve Government standards. But with the budget ‘black hole’ excuse, he created the fiction of ‘non-core’ promises.”

    Basically that might be the roots of a fiction in the critics’ minds that has stuck like a tune in their heads ever since.

  3. It’s not a fiction, observa, rather a valide inference. If kept=core, broken=noncore

  4. I’d only say it was a valid inference for those commitments that inherently had a time limit (like “no child will live in poverty by…”), or for those that people could reasonably have understood as having an implied time scale like “during this parliament”. That could cover most of the promises he made, but could still leave a category that was open ended, for which “not kept [yet]” doesn’t imply “broken”. Justice would require looking at some of the specific promises that were not kept and showing that they weren’t in the open ended category, before describing them as broken.

  5. It was John Laws.

    Alan Ramsey quotes Laws here:

    And here is another gem that might perhaps fall into the category of “untrustworthy liars”. Five months after voters swept the Keating government out and the Howard Coalition in, the new Prime Minister went on the John Laws program on Sydney radio. The date was August 21, 1996. The following was said:

    Laws: “There are two classes of promises, it seems now, with this Government – core promises which are kept, and then those not-so-important promises, the ones-we-didn’t-really-mean kind of promises, the surely-you-knew-we-were-joking kind of promises, I guess …”

    Howard: “We worked hard. We tried to get the balance right, we tried to get the economics right, we obviously tried to get the politics right, we tried to spread the burdens around, we certainly were determined to keep the core commitments we made. And we have, in full.”

    And this exchange:

    Laws: “Do you think Australians accept your distinction between so-called core promises and those you have now felt free to [pause] – how many promises have you broken?”

    Howard: “On the totality, not a lot.”

    Laws: “But how many?”

    Howard: “Look, John, I haven’t sat down and done a tabulation.”

    Of course not. Thus was spawned “core” and “non-core” promises, pinged by Golden Tonsils himself, now even more aged than the bloke about to be run over if he can’t get his Big Tax Bang to work more effectively than the meagre 2 points the Government gained in its primary vote in yesterday’s first post-bang opinion polls, which still have Labor very comfortably ahead.

  6. Obviously Howard had said something to prompt Laws’ question, but I don’t know what it was. The topic comes up again in Hansard on that day, and on the 7:30 report that night, but I can’t find anything to clarify.

  7. 1996 was a long time ago John, but it seems somehow the word ‘core’ stuck to Howard right then and there. In what context I and probably the vast majority of the electorate certainly can’t remember, but Dr Henman apparently still did in May 2002. It’s a moot point as to whether Henman, et al, had the right to attach ‘non-core’ to any shortcomings in Howard’s ‘aims’ or ‘policies’ after that. Should we attach the words ‘core promises’ to Rudd now with fixing ‘working families’ troubles or being practically ‘sorry’. I would have thought these are simply broad policy aims and Rudd will ultimately be judged on his overall efficacy in that regard over time, rather than failing to achieve some ‘core promise’ to us all.

  8. SJ’s posts support JQ.

    Poor Observa and PML are off on an emotional tangent, trying to fight last November’s war.

  9. LSA”D”D, you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. I was trying to spell out just what JQ would have to do to avoid leaving a loophole.

  10. So it was Lawsey that spawned the core/non-core classification of Howard that everyone has relied upon since. Nice work SJ. I didn’t know Lawsey had such sway among the intelligentsia, but he was a well listened to bloke by all accounts. Of course we lesser beings in Adelaide weren’t so fortunate to hear the great man’s pronouncements first hand, which probably excuses our ignorance in these important historical matters.

  11. A paper by Murray Goot supports your contention. Goot writes that it was Kerry O’Brien who first made the distinction between "core" and "other promises".

    O’Brien was rephrasing Howard’s boast that the budget had delivered on ‘core commitments’ but not, it seemed, on other commitments; ABC 7.30 Report, 21 August, 1996 and AM, 21 August, 1996. While Howard, himself, did not use these terms, he did not challenge them either. Running the gauntlet on the John Laws Program (Radio 2UE), he distinguished between those promises ‘the people really voted on in the election’ (the ‘core’ promises) and, by implication, those they did not (the ‘non-core’ promises); 21 August 1996.

    Goot’s paper is titled ‘Distrustful, Disenchanted and Disengaged? Polled Opinion on Politics, Politicians and the Parties: an Historical Perspective’.

  12. #4 I agree with your clarifications, PML, but the promises Howard broke were clear-cut, and obviously premeditated. Most obviously, he promised not to cut funding for the ABC, then went ahead and did it.

  13. “A paper by Murray Goot supports your contention. Goot writes that it was Kerry O’Brien who first made the distinction between “core” and “other promises”.”
    Not unless he was interviewing Howard on AM on the 21st of August 1996. Lawsey would have got there first on his morning radio show and O’Brien was merely twisting Lawsey’s knife at 7.30 PM

  14. observa, Goot’s paper does claim that it was O’Brien on the AM program.

    I can’t tell yet who was first, and it probably doesn’t matter.

  15. Costello speaks of “key election commitments” and “central commitments”, which is probably what prompted the questioning of Howard by Laws and O’Brien about “core commitments”, and “core promises” which are close synonyms for what Costello had said.

  16. Agreed SJ, it doesn’t matter whether the critics are spouting either Lawsey’s or Red Kerry’s particular spin on the Howard Govt’s first budget. What is relevant is what ‘core commitments’ or ‘core promises’ that were made in the election campaign, were broken in that budget and why. John Q states the ABC funding as a clear broken promise. Any more in that budget? If expenditure like this was cut, then Howard could fairly claim it was in response to the changed circumstances of the budgeatry black hole ($96 bill?)that Keating had clearly ‘failed to be honest’ about. Some might even say he ‘lied’ to us all about that. In my book that lets Howard off the hook with election campaign expenditure commitments, until such time as the deficit was fully rectified. I’d say the same thing about Rudd reneging on his tax cut commitment in the same situation. That aint lying, it’s responding to changed circumstances due to others ‘lack of honesty’.

  17. I’ve found various Internet references to a June 1996 interview where Howard introduced the term “non-core promise” to the lexicon, but unfortunately haven’t been able to dig up a transcript of the interview itself.

    Its context, it seems, was in relation to the 1996/7 Budget.

  18. Just dealing with those pesky grave robbers SJ. I’m not one for gilded eulogies but if you’ve got a shovel in your hand in the cemetery at night I’m gunna ask what you’re up to.

  19. SJ, you can’t have it both ways. If “Howard’s dead and buried”, this whole exercise is fatuous – but if there’s some meat to be got at from this projected article, the subject matter is still live – Howard and all.

  20. In summary, John, it looks like Costello delivered a bog-ordinary budget speech, but when Howard was questioned about it the next day by Laws and/or O’Brien, he stuffed it up. Didn’t really hurt him, though. He survived another 12 years after that.

  21. I remember Costello’s 1996 bog ordinary budget speech, I was listening to it on the radio and had a little piece of paper on which I was keeping a tally of how many times he used the phrases ‘families’ and ‘small business’. I guess these days the phrase is ‘working families’.

  22. Howard made the comment about core promises and non-core somewhere around the budget period 1996, at a doorstop, I vaguely recollect.

    The first documented reference I know of was in Hansard ds090996, pg 3024, by Senator Faulkner. He uses it in a manner that implies the expression was quite familiar by then (ie before John Laws’ interview). Bagging Alston over selling Telstra.

  23. Here’s the quote that Donald Oats refers to, dated 9 September 1996:

    No matter what rock solid, ironclad guarantees John Howard gives on this matter, no matter what core or noncore promises John Howard makes on this particular matter, he plans to flog off the lot.
    We now know that that is the case.

    This requires a re-think. It looks like both the Ramsey and Goot references are wrong.

  24. Aargh, my bad! The Hansard I referred to was 090996, which is of course 9th Sept 1996, obviously a little after 21st August 1996 mentioned by previous posters (Faulkner et al also make mention of non-core promises in Hansard 21st Aug 1996). Sorry ’bout that.

    It’s definitely proving tricky to find a specific quote by Howard himself (that is verifiable). I’ve found one quote from Pandora archive (via Webdiary) which suggests a June 1996 interview might be the original:

    “Governments themselves have applied tortuous logic to explain or justify how their actions relate to the promises they made in getting elected to office. The Prime Minister, John Howard, explained in June 1996—soon after winning office for the first time—that some of his party’s promises were “coreâ€? promises, and some were “non-coreâ€?, and that his government (in the light of the unexpectedly poor finances it had inherited) would keep only core promises. The distinction, depending entirely on his own discretion, has now entered the Australian lexicon as a code for political cynicism in general.”
    [From: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/44985/20040929-0000/www.brucebillson.com/flipflop.html%5D

    The Prime Minister website (for Howard, when he had an official site) had a searchable archive of all doorstops, speeches, press releases etc. Maybe that is archived somewhere for ‘posterity’.

    Good luck.


  25. Howard used the Budget situation as an excuse, but everyone knew that was coming, so he’d been asked before the election what would happen when he got Budget bad news, and he said he would implement his promises regardless.

  26. Now here’s a problem …

    Imagine you wanted to write an opinion piece saying that Rudd and Swan should break their election promise and hold off on the tax cuts.

    But if you do this aren’t you letting Howard and Costello off the hook for their ‘core’ and ‘non core’ promises?

    In evaluating governments should we place more emphasis on good policy or kept promises? Do you say that an irresponsible election promise doesn’t justify an obviously bad policy?

  27. After delving deeply into the historical record I have some rather sage advice for you on your first Budget night now Kevin. Don’t listen for a moment to all those tossers in Treasury, Finance and the Reserve mate, lest the shock jocks on the ABC or commercial radio tar you the next day and the intelligentsia feather you for the rest of your political life. Bugger the economy and stick to the bloody election script come hell or high water mate!

  28. A bit of history.

    It was Lawsie who asked Howard during the 96 election campaign, given the budget ‘rumours’ if Howard would implement his promises or would renege because the budget was in much worse shape.

    Howard then said he would implement his promises no matter what the state of the budget.

    Lawsie then pounced post-election on Howard

  29. Obs –

    ABC funding was one of a large and ever-growing list of non-core promises revealed over the first months of the Howard incumbency.

    Others included:

    . promise to have the Auditor-General draw up guidelines on government advertising [sic]

    . halve the amount of ‘red tape’ forms required to be filled in by small business

    . introduce an independent speaker

    . maintain university funding levels

    . reduce foreign debt levels

    Even if the ‘relaxed and comfortable’ and ‘no worker will be worse off’ promises are dismissed as poltical waffle rather than the lies many perceived them to be, this is an impressive list so soon after an election win.

  30. Michael Gordon in the Age on 26 July 1996: ‘Hence the rationale for making “core promises” that will be kept, and lesser promises that may fall by the wayside. ‘

    This implies it was in the vernacular by then. I suspect, by its gradual seeping into the language, that journos were being backgrounded about it by the government.

    And Gordon and Stuart Krygsman on 3 August:
    “Both Howard and Costello have been preparing voters to accept that given the shape of the Budget, the delivery of the “core” promises will be enough. It matters not that they suspected the Budget was in worse shape than Labor made out before the election and that no such hierarchy of promises was established during the campaign.”

    Perhaps Michael Gordon is responsible.

  31. I think it is telling that Howard had 11 years to repudiate the core/non-core differentation that was attributed to him, regardless of its origin, and as far as I am aware, never did so. So it would seem he accepted it, even if he did not actually utter the words.

  32. Hal9000, every one of your bullet points is something that no reasonable person would expect implemented “soon after an election win” (provided other things were being progressed). You could argue that at least some should have been done within the life of the parliament involved, but I don’t think any reasonable person would even have insisted that all of them should have been, and certainly not in the timescale you are putting up.

  33. Rossco, you are insisting on a standard that would require any politician to rise to any bait, like insisting that Barack Obama address any attack rather than ignoring it. If that were realistic, it would give their enemies the tactic of snowing them under with stuff to rebut instead of keeping their eyes on the ball.

  34. I look forward to your piece in the Fin Review PrQ. If I recall correctly I think that you at one stage wrote that you thought that one of Howard’s failings was that he was more mendacious than previous PMs.

    As Observa has said the importance of the noncore is that it is a useful stick. That Howard did not use the term doesn’t matter, it will remain as his for ever, it has become the narrative. For example Paul Keating, not averse to a wobbly or two himself and never shy of accusing others claims in an opinion piece in 2007

    “These solemn commitments by Howard, which helped him win the 1996 election, bit the dust under that breathtaking blanket of hypocrisy he labelled “non-core promises”.â€?

    A study in the USA concluded that 65 to 75-percent of all platform promises get carried out. A guess but I think that Howard would meet that percentage, as would Hawke and Keating.

    If you are considering post modern positions by politicians on meeting promises PrQ you might enjoy this one from Bill Clinton’s advisor George Stephanopolous,

    “”The President” Stephanopolous said, “has kept all of the promises he intended to keep.” “

    It caused little fuss.

  35. I couldn’t point to a particular quote but recall a denial about an unkept promise stating that it wasn’t a core promise.

  36. The term “non-core” has been around for a while and used in business jargon and was not coined by JH, Lawsie or Red Kerry eg the Company has moved to to divest itself of non core divisions and activities

  37. Well as interesting as this delve into the archives is, one thing we could all put the house on now, is Rudd will deliver those L.A.W / Core tax cuts now, although he won’t go near such uncouth terms. No, it will be first things first, as priorities permit, first order policy, achieving our agenda, yada, yada. That said it’s probably time to put the same attack dog media blowtorch to the new kid on the block. Now Hal9000 has a good memory for these things, so let’s see if he’s had his eye on Mr Squeaky too of late. Perhaps we’ll let Highlander kick off with-
    “I was disappointed on Sunday to see that the Rudd government has broken their word on intervening in state issues. The incident in question related to civil unions, which the ACT had voted to legally recognise with a ceremony, until the Rudd government intervened, saying they would oppose the act if it was passed. This comes after Rudd stating that he would leave the issue up to the states.

    While Rudd’s had a good start in terms of keeping promises in his term, non-intervention is a big one to break, especially for such an early point in his term.”
    Hmmm… sounds like HL thinks that was a core one right there.

    Now every new chum comes in with shining promises of squeaky Govt and we got the new openness of FOI promised, especially Treasury’s advice on inflation to the Libs, but not their advice on abandoning Workchoices it seems. FOI got pretty selective pretty fast it seems. I also note that Rudd has not been as keen to pull the troops out of the bad war, as he has to bring in legislation to scrap AWAs. That wouldn’t be because the good war isn’t going quite as well would it Kevin? Obviously just like the Libs with that black hole deficit, the new govt in Opposition never suspected inflation was a problem and so calling Howards hand on tax cuts was taken in ignorance of the true facts. Didn’t have a clue about the threat of inflation, not even when the Reserve raised interest rates again in the campaign. Also I recall Labor promising hands off the baby allowance when challenged, so it will be interesting to see if they dip into that in the Budget as is forecast. Any more core/non-core promises you can think of already?

  38. Yes folks, so begins the slow and inexorable tarnishing of the new Ms Sparkles and Mr Sheens, until there’s nothing left but a dull, antiquated, motley collection ready for our democratic dusrbin.

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