If I was writing a “Top 10 Most Reliable Occupations” I’m pretty sure that “politician” wouldn’t be top of the list. They are prone to be devious, lie and have undisclosed sources of income – and that’s just the good ones. A particular speciality of politicians is the flip-flop – known as a U-turn in the UK and a backflip in New Zealand and Australia. It’s essentially where they say one thing and then go onto to completely change their minds. Sometimes they acknowledge that it’s gone wrong – as with Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose heartfelt apology has been turned into a chart-topping song. But the more usual approach is to brazen it out and pretend that they thought that all along. You’ll find plenty of bluster and failed cover-ups in our Top 10 Political Flip-flops.
10. Pasty Tax
You can tell a politician is particularly embarrassed by a U-turn when they hurry out to stage a compensatory photoshoot. And that’s what happened in the UK in 2012, when a curiously specific tax was due to be introduced on pies and pasties that cooled down on a shelf rather than being kept warm. It provoked rage from the baking industry who, along with the general public, were largely baffled by this move. Cue a flurry of pictures of politicians tucking into the flaky treats, including Prime Minister David Cameron (pictured above). This was followed by a hasty climbdown and is one of the most public of the many U-turns performed by the British government since the coalition took over in 2010.
David Cameron’s colleague in world affairs, President Obama, probably knows how it feels to have to perform a humiliatingly public about-turn on an important issue. On the campaign trail in 2008, one of Obama’s key promises was to close Guantanamo Bay prison, after details emerged about the various human rights violations occuring there. But it’s 2013 and the prison is still open. Obama is still keen to close the facility but faces repeated resistance from his own party, as well as his voters, who are not keen to get an influx of terrorists onto American soil. Despite pledges that it would close in 2009 and then in 2010, Obama faces a long struggle to fulfil his election promise, and there have been all manner of flip-flops along the way.
8. The Pacific Solution
A backflip now from Australia that, in 2012, saw politicians hurling insults at each other. In 2008, the government of Kevin Rudd oversaw the closure of detention centers for immigrants in the Pacific Ocean, namely on the island of Nauru and Manus Island. The offshore immigrant processing centers had been set up under John Howard, but they were deemed unethical and illegal as well as costing in excess of $1bn (see above). Just 4 years later, the centers were reopening after a spate of deaths at sea as refugees tried to enter Australia directly. Heading up the initiative was Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had denounced the centers as “wrong as a matter of principle” while in opposition. The backtrack was accompanied with a plea for political tolerance, as she said “the time for the political point-scoring, the yelling, the shouting, that time is over”. The bill was passed and the next prime minister – none other than Kevin Rudd again – has implemented it. An embarrassing and heated climbdown.
7. Romney on Climate Change
Mitt Romney has a difficult relationship with the thorny issue of climate change, with attacks on his flippant remarks about rising sea levels. But the starkest flip-flop he has made involves the effect of human activity on climate change. The change of heart is starkly illustrated by two quotes from Romney, made just a year apart. The first featured in his 2010 book “No apology”, where he says “I believe that climate change is occurring…I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor”. A year later, speaking at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he said “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet”. So, what’s it to be Mitt? Or does it depend on which side is more powerful at the time?
6. Poll Tax
If you were to think of the most unpopular taxes of all time, poll tax would be fairly high on the list. Officially known as the community charge, it was proposed in the UK in 1989 as a way of charging individuals to fund their community services. The cumbersome administrative system would have caused multiple problems, like students being able to move house without paying and so leaving a payments hole. The population of the UK were so enraged by what they saw as an unfair tax that riots broke out. The most notorious was in Trafalgar Square on March 31st 1990 (pictured above) and government ministers rapidly rethought the introduction of the tax. But the prime minister at the time – Margaret Thatcher – was famously “not for turning” and refused to back down. So she was eventually ousted and all her potential successors vowed to block the tax, John Major finally abolishing the tax the following year.
5. The Keystone XL Pipeline
One from Canada, now but which involves American interests. The Keystone Pipeline is a system of pipes from Canada to America, transporting crude oil to American refineries. The fourth phase of the whole project proposed a pipe from Alberta to Nebraska but has met with protests from environmentalists, as the route takes in the Ogallala Aquifer (a large fresh water reserve) and the Sandhills wetland, home to many delicate species of plants and animals. The idea was also stalled by lawsuits from various parties involved. The project is still a possibility, but the Canadian government are seriously rethinking their position on whether it is an “essential” part of Canada’s future oil expansion plans.
4. FDR on World War II
Now, U-turns don’t come much more spectacular than the worldwide carnage of the Second World War. When Roosevelt came to office in 1933, he was staunchly against America’s intervention in European affairs. And while Hitler took power in the same year and started the events that would culminate in war, Roosevelt maintained America’s isolationist policies, using the Atlantic gap as a reason not to to join the “stop-Hitler bloc” of France and Britain. Even as late as 1940, when FDR was seeking re-election, he vowed to keep the USA out of the war, saying to army recruits “you boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war”. Of course, this was before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As soon as that happened, anti-war sentiment in the US disappeared and FDR responded to the general feeling by declaring war on Japan, phoning Winston Churchill to say “We are all in the same boat now”. A noble and not unpopular flip-flop, but a contradiction nonetheless.
3. Political Donation Bill
One of the murkiest areas of politics is where the parties get their funding from. And a Bill in Australia to raise levels of disclosure has been backflipped over by the federal government. The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill had a number of elements to it, but stealthily increased the amount that political parties could receive without disclosing it. Local MPs were “flooded with complaints” about the less-than-transparent Bill and the Labor party, who had initially approved the Bill, were forced to step down amid a barrage of criticism. Opposition leader Tony Abbott (pictured) was named as one of the people who had backflipped over the issue, but his political reputation survived and he has gone on to become the current Prime Minister of Australia.
2. Romney on Abortion
We’re back with Mitt Romney again who, to be fair, could fill the whole list with his flip-flopping. This time he’s on the subject of abortion, which he apparently continues to be ambivalent about. In 2002, he stated “I respect and will protect a woman’s right to choose” which the media, not unreasonably, interpreted as a pro-choice stance. That was backed up by his lengthy statement on the subject in 1994, in a debate with Edward Kennedy. In that statement, he said “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country….I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice.” So, it might have been a surprise to all concerned when he claimed to be pro-choice in 2007. But at least he was honest about it, saying he changed his position. Although the sentence immediately before admitting that might have confused the issue further – “I never said I was pro-choice, but my position was effectively pro-choice.” No wonder Edward Kennedy accused him of being “multiple choice”!
1. No New Taxes
And in the number one slot we have one of the most famous political quotes of all time – “Read my lips, No new taxes”. the speaker was then-President George Bush Snr, the year was 1988 and the promises were ambitious, if popular. You can probably guess what happened next – yes, new taxes. The 1992 election was, by this time, looming and Bush’s opponent Bill Clinton made great use of the quote in his case, hammering home the message that Bush was a liar. Clinton won, and Bush Snr went into the great book of political quotes, later to be joined by his “misspoken” son George W. Bush.