NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Can the independents agree on a policy agenda?
, September 4, 2010
After the recent federal election, can the independents make a decisive difference in a hung parliament?
At the time of writing, it appears that some combination of independent MPs, and possibly a Greens MP, will be needed in order for either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott to be able to form a government over the coming weeks.
Some commentators and federal politicians are furiously arguing that the independents will destabilise the two-party political dominance of the federal parliament. They argue that the electorate won't wear such instability, and that another election in a year or so will be needed to return to a stable two-party system.
This superficial analysis ignores the fact that the rise of the independents is a sign of deep voter-dissatisfaction with both sides of politics.
The main political parties have come to be seen as standing for less and less, never wanting to offend any section of the electorate and allowing a deregulated market to determine economic outcomes.
However, whether politicians are prepared to acknowledge it or not, the global financial crisis (GFC) is dramatically changing the world economic system, and forcing political change in its wake. The voters know it, but politicians appear to be the last to admit it.
It is no coincidence that the three main independents - Bob Katter (Kennedy, Qld), Tony Windsor (New England, NSW) and Rob Oakeshott (Lyne, NSW) - all come from rural and regional Australia, which has suffered greatly under Labor and Coalition governments since the early 1980s. To this trio should be added a fourth, Tony Crook (O'Connor, WA), who, although elected as a WA National (defeating the Liberals' long-serving Wilson "Ironbar" Tuckey), has declared that he will sit on the cross-benches.
Deregulation of 14 rural industries under National Competition Policy, along with neglect of infrastructure investment, continues to devastate large parts of regional Australia.
If the independents can agree on a new agenda for rural and regional Australia, and use their new-found leverage to ensure that the government enacts it, then voters, instead of returning to the "stable" two-party system, may decide to elect more independents at the next election.
What key issues need to be put on the agenda?First
, there should be no mining super-profits tax or emissions trading scheme (ETS). Instead of the latter, the government should mandate ethanol and other biofuels and look to expanding the use of Australia's abundant gas in motor vehicles, particularly liquid natural gas in trucks and buses. These should form the core of a national energy policy, because within five years Australia will be importing around 80 per cent of its liquid fuel needs at a prohibitive cost of $30 billion annually.Second
, pivotal to developing the Australian economy, the Commonwealth Government future fund should be expanded into a much larger sovereign wealth fund, with an added capacity to invest in infrastructure and industries strategically important to Australia for maintaining its economic sovereignty.
Business fears that the demands of the independents will lead to pork-barrelling and further federal government budget blowouts. This will not happen if the future fund invests in patient, long-term infrastructure instead of in politically expedient short-term stimulus packages.Third
, rural industries and some types of small business should be exempt from National Competition Policy, through changes to the Trade Practices Act.
A framework is needed to restore a measure of bargaining power to farmers. In the sugar industry, final-offer arbitration should be reintroduced to give farmers the ability to receive a fair price for their sugar-cane. Small businesses should be shielded from predatory, anti-competitive practices of large retailers. Indeed, anti-cartel legislation with the power of divestiture is needed to break up large monopoly and oligopoly retailers.Fourth
, the new Murray-Darling Basin Plan should not be finalised until a major socio-economic study of the effects of water buy-backs is completed, and until a more representative consultation with stakeholders across the basin has been undertaken. Further, the government should reallocate part of the $9 billion basin fund for building new reservoirs, including environmental reservoirs.Fifth
, Australia needs major infrastructure upgrades, particularly in regional areas and in northern Australia. New investment is needed for fast commuter and freight rail to reduce congestion on Australia's highways. Australians living in regional areas deserve the same access to basic services as those living in major cities.Sixth
, family policy should include equal paid parental leave for all
mothers (whether in the paid workforce or at home) and tax-free savings accounts in order to reduce personal indebtedness and over-capitalisation of housing.Seventh
, the nation's foreign investment policy needs to be overhauled. There should be a comprehensive public registry of foreign ownership of land and public and private enterprises. The threshold on foreign ownership requiring Foreign Investment Review Board approval must be changed.
No doubt much of this will be denounced as "agrarian socialism". However, it will cost nothing like the recent massive "corporate socialism" bail-outs of the world's financial sector.Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.