Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Labor dogged by the big issues

The Gillard Government seems to have a lot of trouble putting issues to bed.

John Howard and Bob Hawke on the other hand had a knack for bringing issues to a conclusion. Sometimes it took time, as it did for Howard with gun control and the controversy over Wik, and for Hawke it was means testing pensioners. But once these issues were dealt with, they stayed off the agenda.

For Prime Minister Gillard, most of her big issues seem to stick around.

The carbon tax will not go away; how can it when the increased costs have been so obvious on energy bills in the last month or so?

The mining tax is still an issue because there is real doubt about the revenues that will accrue from the deal done with the big miners. Maybe when the details of the first quarterly tax collections are announced next month, the issue might be put aside; but even then it should remain an issue all the way to the next election because the miners are under pressure from falling prices.

Peter Slipper is still being paid as Speaker despite not turning up for Question Time and Craig Thompson remains a daily embarrassment.

The boat people are also a continuing issue for Gillard and, despite the cave-in to reopen Nauru, the failure to 'turn back the boats' and reintroduce temporary protection visas will continue to dog the Government as the boats keep coming.

The Government got some exaggerated coverage last weekend as 18 Sri Lankans decided to accept free flights home at the expense of Australian taxpayers, but this does not mean the new approach is working.

Sri Lankans are in a different position to Afghanis and the arrival of more asylum seekers over the weekend only reinforced the Government's predicament. Unless Gillard can bring this issue to some conclusion, it will haunt her at next year's election.

At least Labor cast aside two issues last week; gay marriage and a referendum. Enough has been said about gay marriage - it will linger only as an issue with the Greens, but not more generally given that the parliamentary vote was overwhelming.

Labor has dropped its proposal for a referendum on the recognition of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution. It was doomed from the start by bad process. The idea is at best tokenism or at worst an attempt to make substantial changes to the Constitution without proper disclosure of the legal consequences.

Fortunately, although the Coalition is not opposed to the principle of recognition, in practise it is opposed to the interim measure proposed by Gillard. Apparently the interim measure would be a parliamentary 'Act of recognition' (paywall). It is a typical piece of flummery from Gillard, full of hot air and a disguise of her likely real intention to permanently drop the whole idea.

Australia would be better managed if politicians more regularly decided to do nothing.

The Indigenous proposal has been linked by Labor, in their formal agreement with the Greens, to a second proposal to recognise local government in the constitution. This idea was put to the Australian people in a referendum in the past and was deservedly thrashed. It should be dropped again.

Local government is a creature of the state parliaments. Local government does not need a second master and Australia does not need another jurisdiction for contests between the states and the Commonwealth. It is bad enough for a council to have to deal with a state bureaucracy without burdening it with having to bow and scrape to distant bureaucrats in Canberra.

An additional reason for dropping both proposals is to remember that Labor has only ever put up one successful referendum, and so the prospects for success suggest more taxpayers' funds wasted on another lost venture.

On the Coalition side, one issue that has not been been put to bed is party reform. The Liberal Party is a federal organisation which provides a lot of flexibility for the state divisions to manage their own affairs. This system has many advantages, but there are times when a national approach is in the party's interest. In particular, there is a need to adopt a more uniform approach to pre-selection and to harmonise plebiscite processes for preselecting federal MPs.

The concept has been widely accepted, but not in every state. Even though the concept has had in principle support at the highest levels, the NSW party has not accepted the proposal.

Sadly, the Liberal party federal executive has failed to act as an honest broker in NSW to hammer out a way forward on plebiscites. As a result, the party was faced with a court injunction that prevented the party's scheduled meeting last weekend.

Last year Tony Abbott voted down a more activist approach to party reform and now he has to face the consequences.

In the two years since Abbott complained about the outcomes in NSW, the Federal Party has buried various reforms that could have helped avoid this latest mess. Maybe now Abbott might accept that modest party reform could help him into the Lodge.

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