CANBERRA OBSERVED: Both leaders coy about levelling with the voters
by national correspondent
News Weekly, August 17, 2013
It is regrettable that neither party will be telling the Australian people the truth during the 2013 election campaign, when a frank and realistic conversation about Australia’s future is what is desperately required.
Both leaders have fired their opening salvos, each of them promising a “new” era of light, hope and prosperity.
In Kevin Rudd’s case, he is promising a “new way”, a new style of government without the old politics of “negativity” — a promise reminiscent of rural independent’s Rob Oakeshott’s “group hug” at the beginning of the last parliament when he predicted a new political paradigm of co-operation and harmony.
In reality, whichever party wins the September 7 poll will have to manage a deteriorating economy, a radically altered fiscal landscape and, as a consequence, will have to make some very hard decisions.
The heady days of the mining boom are over; the easy days of governing through buying votes from easily-extracted tax revenues are over. Two decades of uninterrupted growth have also lulled the voting public into a comfortable existence that has masked deep underlying structural problems.
The Labor Party is far and away the worst offender in this campaign of unreality, with its years of practice at “spin”, reducing politics to a stream of “announcements” that bear less and less relation to reality.
Even official Budget numbers no longer have any meaning — billions of dollars are thrown around with the result that the official Budget numbers have been revised downwards from $18 billion in the May Budget to $30 billion just 10 weeks later.
Kevin Rudd’s pronouncements since he reassumed Labor’s leadership have verged on the surreal, with so many of his previous positions junked as he hastily grabs new ones.
In politics, a consistent policy line once meant something; but in a modern era that is devoid of ideology or principle, brazen policy reversals are somehow considered smart politics.
But Opposition leader Tony Abbott is also reluctant to tell Australians the truth as he sells his message of “new hope”.
Seared by the disappointment of the last election when he won more seats than Labor but failed to gain power, and desperately trying to avoid losing another unlosable election, Mr Abbott is running a campaign of the utmost caution. (Mr Abbott once worked for Liberal Opposition leader Dr John Hewson who, in 1993, lost an election to Labor’s Paul Keating that almost everyone had prognosticated was “unlosable”).
Mr Abbott knows that, on coming to power, he will be faced with a Budget in tatters; but he has been unwilling to forego any of his planned promises, including extremely generous paid parental leave or his proposed $3.2 billion “direct action” plan on climate change.
Now Mr Abbott is even prepared to match the so-called “Gonski” education financial commitments that are being handed out to state governments.
Tax cuts made by Julia Gillard, which were designed to compensate people for cost-of-living increases and to bribe them into accepting the virtues of a carbon tax, remain in place despite the carbon tax itself supposedly being discarded by both Mr Abbott and Mr Rudd.
In short, both parties are promising the good times to continue uninterrupted, despite the slowly dawning reality of a changed economic epoch for Australia.
Mr Rudd says he is the leader best equipped to manage Australia’s transition from the mining boom to the post-mining-boom economy. But what Mr Rudd doesn’t say is what will actually drive that economy.
A lower foreign exchange rate for the dollar and lower interest rates are somehow miraculously going to transform Australia into a booming economy once again. It seems of little consequence that those particular two policy levers (together with printing money in the United States) have been used by various distressed governments elsewhere in the world without much effect.
Decades of deliberate policies by successive Australian governments of allowing manufacturing industry to wind down, and of throwing farmers to the mercy of ruthless, and often government-subsidised, exporters from other countries, have left the country with precious little with which to restart the economy.
In the meantime, tax revenues are falling while demands on government are rising, and will continue to rise as health and aged-care costs climb inexorably each year.
All areas of government have expanded over the past six years of Labor’s Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, and efforts to trim government expenditure have been risible.
Both leaders would be better-off levelling with the Australian people about the difficult decisions that will have to be made.
In Mr Rudd’s case, however, such a conversation would have little meaning because it would simply be yet another insincere and vacuous dialogue.
For Mr Abbott, the sooner he explains the difficult times and difficult decisions Australians will have to face, the better.