Call me troppo but I reckon Abbott’s onto something
Forgive me for my sins, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for Tony Abbott last week when he was forced to kill stone dead a debate on the development of northern Australia just just hours after the policy was announced.
The man who has rightly been accused of turning negativity into a political artform dipped his toe in the tub of positive ideas and immediately got burnt.
The discussion paper set forward a series of ideas to stimulate growth outside established capital cites, including relocating government departments, defence facilities and investment in agriculture. It also flagged the prospect of tax incentives to attract investment and people.
In one of the stranger executions of a policy launch, the issues paper made its way into the public domain under the banner ’Tony Goes Troppo’, complete with red budgies photo montage and a ‘Pineapple Republic’ sign. It had obviously fallen into hostile hands.
Within hours of publication it was being pulled apart by prominent economists and dismissed as the crazed wish-list of mining moguls and neo-conservative think-tanks. By lunchtime the Opposition leader was walking away from the paper and assuring the media it was not Coalition policy. The ‘discussion’ had not even lasted a news cycle.
Now I’m no demographer and maybe the paper was absolute madness and the idea of pushing population north of the Tropic of Capricorn is a folly of Whitlam-esque proportions. I suppose Barnaby’s support is an indication it has a few holes in it.
But I also know that whenever I hear people describe their attitudes to population growth in focus groups, they want to know why it is the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne that always bear the brunt.
They want to know how the economic theory that we need hundreds of thousands of people each year to maintain our standard of living will actually impact on their streets and their schools and their neighbourhoods. Because they feel like they are already full.
And guess what? They warm to the idea of developing new centres like Karratha becoming engine rooms of economic activity that will not place an extra burden on their community. Some even consider moving up there to get a slice of the action.
The growth of Northern Australia is just one of a number of big ideas that I sense the public wants to have: like how will my kids ever afford to buy a home? What sort of jobs will we have if we allow everything to be sent offshore? And can we really afford a health system whose main objective is to prolong already long lives?
All of these questions require complex policy discussions, which start with the airing of all available options and a clear explanation of their implications.
But it seems as soon as either side of politics attempts to open up a debate on these issues they attract bushfires that need to be put out immediately: think about the furore whenever Capital Gains Tax is floated; or protectionism; or palliative therapies.
When a complex debate is reduced to a headline; or worse a cartoon, our leaders swing into damage control; convinced that the risks of being seen to propose big changes outlines any advantage of leading a public debate.
Instead they lock themselves into a narrow debate about surpluses and taxes; being tough on the bludgers or the queue jumpers and playing around with government funding arrangements for core services. All legitimate enough topics, but only part of the job of national providing leadership.
Is it too much to ask that this year a few areas of public interest should be declared off limits to politicking until we have had a look at them? And if so, I would nominate population growth – so much a heart of our national economic interest and our social cohesiveness be given this special dispensation.
Because I want to know how Australia looks with the 30 million people that both sides of politics concedes we will have by 2050; I want to know where they will live, what industries they will be working in and how this will contribute to the nation’s prosperity.
And I think a lot of other Australians want to hear the arguments before they dismiss any policy as too silly to remain in the marketplace of ideas.
In setting the date for the election so far out, the Prime Minister has created the climate for a real debate on the nation’s future that involves candidates, the media and the general public. Let’s hope we don’t waste the opportunity.
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