The mounting evidence of Rudd’s style over substance
The evidence that the Rudd Government is more concerned with presentation than substance is building daily.
This week, it had a chance to rebut that argument via a reform entirely consistent with its lofty claim to the genes of the Hawke/Keating governments.
The Productivity Commission had recommended the removal of parallel import restrictions on foreign published books.While this was a relatively minor matter in the larger scheme of things, it was nonetheless, a key test of those reform credentials. It would mean creating losers and taking on a vocal constituency - namely, the cultural/literary elites normally well disposed towards Labor.
The long-standing import ban effectively ensures that, aside from the internet, Australian consumers cannot get access to cheaper foreign titles unless a local publisher has waived its right to reprint the title here. The ban is protectionism plain and simple. Its effect is more expensive books for consumers and an industry shielded from international competitors.
But after months of hand-wringing, in which all kinds of spurious arguments were floated about the threat to Australia’s cultural identity, Labor this week took the path of least resistance electing to do nothing. It was a telling moment lending credence to the Opposition criticism that the only big decisions the Government’s been courageous enough to take have taken no courage at all because they have involved spending money.
More importantly though, the decision, shows the Government’s preference for image and for fighting battles on ground it has established for that purpose.
Much as Kevin Rudd is known for asking questions and then answering them, his Government prefers to frame challenges it then proposes to solve. That way, it is always in charge.
Take climate change. Here, an overwhelming case was built for massive structural change to the economy by imposing a new carbon price, a complicated trading market, and a diabolical array of industry and consumer compensations and exemptions. But the debate was carefully controlled. It might be one of the great moral issues of our time, as Mr Rudd has said, but the policy debate specifically proscribes even a cursory discussion of the politically odious nuclear option.
This, despite Australia’s role as the major global supplier of uranium, and the fact that more than 40 countries derive some of their baseload power from the more greenhouse-friendly nuclear energy. This approach is taken on all areas of contention.
Australia’s taxation system is currently under the policy microscope in what is billed as a root and branch, top to bottom, examination. Yet one of the biggest and most controversial elements, the 10 per cent goods and services tax, is off-limits to the review. Apparently the GST is now regarded as such brilliant public policy it cannot be improved. And this is despite Mr Rudd (no less) describing its creation in the following terms: “When the history of this Parliament, this nation and this Century is written, 30 June, 1999, will be recorded as a day of fundamental injustice - an injustice which is real, an injustice which is not simply conjured up by the fleeting rhetoric of politicians. It will be recorded as the day when the social compact that has governed this nation for the last 100 years was torn up.’’
That’s what he said in June of 1999 and yet before even one decade has elapsed, it is so ingrained into the “social compact’’ that it is beyond scrutiny. A similar risk-averse approach is taken on any issues as they arise. No matter how big, the pattern of political management is the same - to generate what ordinance experts call a “shaped charge’’ of voter interest rather than an undisciplined explosion. Consider the global financial crisis. This is a classic of the discipline because, like the climate change issue, it involved both whipping up concern, in order to maintain high levels of public support for radical action, but then ensuring that public concern is channelled in a very particular way.
Again, a compelling case was made out to voters warning of the massive threat looming. This was necessary to justify the most radical stimulus spend the country had ever seen. Crucial when you are overturning decades of consensus, and your own claims about small government and economic conservatism. Yet the policy response was proffered not as a solution, but rather as the solution.
Any reservations regarding the particulars of the formula hit upon by the Government were pilloried as advocating no action whatsoever. Questions over the splurge of well over $55 billion in special stimulus measures, were characterised as blanket opposition and worse, denial of the problem.
You can see the pattern. Opposition to emissions trading is reframed as simple denial of human induced global warming. Whether it be the stimulus spend or the ETS, there are no shades of grey. You are either for it or against it. Those “for” the emissions trading scheme are morally good, socially responsible, citizens of the future. Those against emissions trading as proposed, are climate change deniers and troglodytes.
In terms of the GFC, this strategy is becoming increasingly thread-bare as the depth of the global recession and the mild nature of Australia’s downturn, have caused upward revisions of official estimates. Such is the rapidly improving outlook, that even last week’s nearly two percentage point downward revision of the jobless forecast, is already looking pessimistic. Yet, the Rudd Government has steadfastly stuck to the original logic of its spend despite it being tailored for much harsher conditions. This raises the question, was the spending package too little for what was expected or is it, as seems more likely, too generous for what has emerged?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a straight answer on that one.
On presentation skills, the Rudd Government leaves all in its wake. It’s a pity the list of its hard fought reforms is thus far, a more modest one.
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