CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
PM moves to "reinvent" the Coalition
, May 6, 2000
Can the Coalition reinvent itself into a "compassionate conservative" government over the next 18 months, in time for the next Federal election?
At the Liberal Party's recent national convention in Melbourne, Prime Minister John Howard sought to do just that when he unveiled a $240 million package to help Australian families.
It is the first stage of the government's new public approach to social welfare issues. The package included a number of initiatives designed to help "at risk" families: $47 million to improve parenting skills, focusing on separated families and step-parents; a $6 million long-term study of children's lives to help develop policies on early childhood; and $37 million to find and support community leaders in disadvantaged areas who will work on projects to help the community.
There will also be $65 million spent on bringing childcare into the family home. The $240 million will be spread over four years, and heavily skewed toward rural and regional Australia. While there was plenty of fanfare about the heavily-leaked new package, it is doubtful whether it will have much long-term impact at all on the nation's struggling families.
And it is doubtful in the extreme that it will achieve its stated goal of creating a "happier Australia".
While $8 million will be frittered away on an advertising campaign to "reinforce the significance of good parenting", most of the remainder will have to be spread pretty thinly.
Most will go to facilitators, educators, programmers and social welfare workers in the field, rather than directly to families. Giving shift workers, families with a sick child, and families in regional and rural Australia access to mobile, trained childcare workers "in the home" may appear to be a good idea.
But there are more than one million shift workers in Australia, and, if just half of them had children, each family would be lucky to get $30 a year - maybe enough for a couple of hours break for the mother or father.
In reality, a maximum of 7,000 families will benefit from this initiative. Unfortunately, the whole package smacks of a fairly nervous government trying to come up with a way to clean up its image before the next federal election.
Private and public polling shows that people believe the Coalition is far ahead of the Opposition Labor Party as good economic managers.
However, it is taken for granted that modern governments (both Labor and Liberal) must now be sound financial managers. Voters expect governments to come up with ideas and policies that go beyond simple good management.
So while Howard doesn't receive the credit he thinks he deserves on low interest rates, low inflation and falling unemployment, the public also appears to take a dim view of his government's social policies.
Polls indicate that the government is considered callous and indifferent to those in the community doing it tough.
In contrast, Opposition leader Kim Beazley is seen as a caring leader, and a person of compassion who is in touch with ordinary people.
The government's problems began with the huge cuts to social welfare during its first term to rein in the budget deficit.
Since then it has endured a spate of problems and blunders which the Opposition has been able to gather as evidence of a government that is basically "mean".
Recent issues that have helped build this profile of "meanness" include the Bronwyn Bishop nursing homes fiasco (which came on top of the first-term bid to make nursing home patients sell their family home to fund their care); the fiasco of the stolen generation; the government's refusal to overturn mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory; and its hardline stance over the return of the Kosovar refugees.
Ministerial bravado, including claims that the long-term unemployed were "job snobs", does not help. Whether the government acted correctly or foolishly on any of these issues is not the point. Pitted alongside the dreaded GST, they add up in people's minds to an administration that appears to be more interested in the welfare of the haves than the have-nots.
Which is why Mr Howard is desperate to recreate his government over the next 12 months. One of the bright spots in the Howard social welfare package is that it belatedly acknowledges and identifies some of the key reasons Australia is actually in the mess it is.
While most of the package consists of band-aid measures, it is at least a recognition that much of the "unhappiness" and misery in Australian families is caused by the high divorce rate, broken families, injustices of the family court, and the strains of families having to struggle for an income to survive.
But John Howard will have to come up with much more than a $240 million public relations exercise to convince Australia's families he is serious about tackling some of the underlying issues that are harming the fabric of the nation.