CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Julia Gillard's dwindling policy options
, August 7, 2010
Win, lose or draw, Tony Abbott has had an impact as federal Opposition leader, setting the campaign agenda and performing in the national debate well beyond expectations.
John Howard's controversial WorkChoices reform has been declared dead and buried by Tony Abbott, even though Labor has been trying desperately to resuscitate the issue to win votes. On other matters, however, Julia Gillard is marching to a policy song-sheet being sung by Mr Abbott, rather than the other way around.
When he won the Liberal leadership Mr Abbott was castigated as a religious zealot, an arch-conservative and a dangerous throw-back to the John Howard era; but Julia Gillard appears to be rebadging the Labor Party as a pale imitation of the same conservatism her party condemns.
On same-sex marriage, climate change, population policy, on reducing the debt, and numerous other issues, Ms Gillard's campaign is attempting to tap into, or at least placate, the social conservatism of Australians in the outer suburbs and regions.
It is a touch ironic that the 2007 campaign is being waged on the twin issues of reducing immigration and stopping the arrival of asylum-seeker boats - and this from two leaders who were themselves born overseas (Ms Gillard is an immigrant from Wales while Mr Abbott was born in England).
Yet it is Ms Gillard who was forced to prove her credentials as being tough on asylum-seekers and in reining in Australia's immigration to sustainable levels.
A re-elected Gillard Government would demolish Kevin Rudd's plan for a "big Australia" and instead replace it with a population policy based on sustainability, thus overthrowing decades of bipartisan support for immigration.
In truth, Ms Gillard is simply tapping into voter discontent over poor planning and infrastructure, which are undermining the quality of life in Sydney and, to a lesser extent, in other capital cities.
Ms Gillard attempted to pick up on the frustrations of people living in outer Sydney, with poor public transport and infrastructure, by arguing for a "sustainable Australia", but without saying exactly how she would achieve this.
Now, Mr Abbott has pledged to slash immigration by 130,000 to a maximum of 170,000 under a Coalition government.
"The immigration program should focus on immigrants who will make a contribution to our country and who are likely to be proud of their new nationality," Mr Abbott has written.
He says that Australians are concerned about the fast-growing population and the pressure it is putting on cities that are choking on traffic.
"An incoming Coalition government would maintain skilled migration numbers within the 170,000-a-year limit by cracking down on dubious applicants."
In reaction to Mr Abbott's "real action" on climate change, the Labor Government has had to strip its policies to the bone, to the extent that it is now left with no policies at all.
The prime reason most commentators cited for Kevin Rudd's demise was his backflip on an emissions trading scheme (ETS), something Mr Abbott had a pivotal role in engineering after he withdrew Coalition support for the proposal.
However, in response to the climate-change policy vacuum, Ms Gillard has not only passed up the option of re-submitting the ETS to the Parliament, but has also put an alternative carbon tax on the never-never.
In fact, the alternative route - the so-called "citizens' assembly" of 150 voters proposed by Prime Minister Gillard - may turn out to be the pivotal moment in the campaign.
The idea has been universally condemned as superfluous and nonsensical. Voters are rightfully asking the obvious question: what is the point of our existing 150-member House of Representatives if that same Parliament is going to forfeit its power to make decisions to an assembly of 150 unqualified individuals picked in the same manner as a jury?
A Quadrant poll taken after the proposal was unveiled revealed that 62 per cent of voters were unhappy with the idea.
Quadrant pollster David Briggs told News Limited newspapers, which published the survey, that most voters agreed with the Coalition's charge that Labor was "decision challenged".
"This claim would appear to resonate with voters, with the majority of the opinion that the citizens' assembly idea proposed by the Government merely confirms that it has difficulty making decisions," Mr Briggs said.
On asylum-seekers, Mr Abbott has successfully prosecuted the case that Labor has been an abject failure in stopping boat-loads of asylum-seekers coming to Australia's north.
For months Labor attempted to deny there was a problem, but Ms Gillard's answer has been found badly wanting.
The cobbled together "East Timor Solution" has turned out to be no solution whatsoever, and will not eventuate.
In fact, it is likely that after the election (whichever party is elected) there will be a move to reinstate the "Pacific Solution" using Nauru as a processing centre for people attempting to reach Australia to claim refugee status.
On the issue of paid parental leave, Mr Abbott produced a policy which did not please his supporter-base at all, but has set the agenda for Labor to follow.
Labor cannot criticise Mr Abbott's paid parental leave plan because it is more generous than its own policy. Instead, it has to attack it on the basis that it imposes a new tax on big business.
Labor has also admitted that its debt binge is now costing taxpayers $100 million a day in interest and repayments, and is attempting to undercut the Coalition in terms of promises made during the election to prove for the second election in a row that it is fiscally conservative.
The female factor is the biggest thing going for the Labor Party mid-way through the campaign as it attempts to limp through to election day with vague promises of "moving forward".
Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election by trying to be as much like John Howard as he could. This time around, Julia Gillard is not trying to be Tony Abbott, but she is doing a very good job of imitating his policies.