EDITORIAL: News Weekly
Federal election: Australia's stark choice
, August 31, 2013
Despite the rapid decline in the Rudd Labor government’s standing during the early days of the 2013 election campaign, there is widespread agreement that neither side is addressing the larger challenges facing Australia in the years ahead.
On the government side, Mr Rudd promised, at the outset, that his election campaign would end the negativity in Australian politics and put forward a positive vision for the country.
He immediately proceeded to launch a fear campaign targeted specifically against Tony Abbott, ranging from the weird — that Mr Abbott would be facing sexual harassment charges if he were an employer, for remarks he made about a Liberal female candidate in Sydney, to the unbelievable — that Abbott would slash thousands of jobs if elected and push the Australian economy into recession.
This was followed by “attack ads” in which a woman acting as a mother of young children accused Abbott of being “angry”, and a succession of announcements that an Abbott government would increase the goods and services tax (GST), abandon the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), abandon the National Broadband Network (NBN), attack penalty rates for employees, as well as cut family support, health care and industry assistance.
This was followed by repeated attacks on Liberal economic spokesmen, such as the shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, that the Liberals lack economic responsibility and credibility.
The fact that the previous Rudd and Gillard Labor governments squandered the surplus of over $20 billion left in the last year of the Howard Coalition government and, despite repeated promises, has not returned the budget to surplus since 2008 shows that Labor is in no position to criticise the opposition.
In fact, if one compares the last Coalition government with Labor, the striking fact is that, in almost every year, the Coalition produced a budget surplus, often softening the size of the surplus by reducing corporate or individual tax rates.
To sell itself, the Rudd campaign is characterised by an almost daily promise of government largesse to try to lock in one or other constituency around the country.
For example, during a visit to Adelaide, the Prime Minister promised $500 million extra for the troubled Holden car manufacturer. In western Sydney, he pledged a hospital upgrade for local residents. In Darwin, he announced a northern development plan based on expansion of the Ord River irrigation scheme, a 20-year strategic growth plan for Darwin and North Queensland regional centres, and concessional tax zones for northern Australia.
When the Opposition last February announced a program of northern development, its plans were ridiculed by one Labor minister as “an absolute disaster”, and by another as “a grab bag of wacky ideas”. Now, the Rudd government has embraced them.
By contrast, the Opposition’s campaign has been based on a “small target” strategy, with a focus on four issues — repeal of the carbon tax, repeal of the mining tax, balance the budget and stop the flow of unlawful boat arrivals from Indonesia.
The only policy issue on which the Opposition leader has come under criticism has been his long-standing commitment to the introduction of a taxpayer-funded paid parental leave scheme, giving mothers six months’ paid leave at their previous salary, up to a level of $150,000 a year.
Yet, even here, Mr Abbott has delayed its introduction until 2015, no doubt to reduce the budgetary impact of the scheme.
Despite a widespread perception that the election campaign is going nowhere, opinion polls have shown a consistent trend. Since the first week of the campaign, Labor’s electoral standing has fallen.
If Tony Abbott is elected to lead the country, he will face major challenges above and beyond dealing with the legacy of a spendthrift government, at a time when the Australian economy is slowing due to a lack of community confidence, slowing growth in China, and the end of the construction phase of the mining boom.
A major task will be to rebuild confidence, not just that of consumers, but of hard-hit Australian manufacturers and farmers who have been abandoned by government policies which have failed to protect Australian industry and agriculture from predatory foreign competition.
Infrastructure to support Australian industry is vital for future development, as News Weekly discusses in Ken Aldred and Patrick J. Byrne’s articles in this issue.
Further, there needs to be a coherent family policy, going beyond the debate over “same-sex marriage” and paid parental leave (which amounts to a subsidy for families with two full-time incomes). We should examine how to nurture and support Australian families, based on policies which encourage couples to marry and have children.
And, further, there needs to be a rethink of Australian foreign policy beyond economic necessities. It should be oriented towards building an alliance with the democracies of Asia — India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia — and maintaining our long-standing Western alliances, instead of kow-towing to the regime in Beijing.
These are formidable challenges, which could be made more difficult if Labor and the Greens retain control of the Senate.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.