Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Labor and policy

The personality battle within Labor is intertwined with the party's other problems - its failure to reform and right its policy wrongs, writes Peter Reith.

Nothing much has changed since I wrote at The Drum in mid-February:

"Yesterday's Nielsen poll is just another blow to a Labor Party in decline. It reports that the Coalition leads 47 per cent to 30 per cent for Labor. In my view, despite the reality that the numbers will move around in the months ahead, get used to Labor lagging the Coalition."

As of June 21-23, Labor's primary vote is on 29 per cent and the Coalition is on 48 per cent. And nothing much will change in the 12 weeks to the September election.

The only possible change is if Julia Gillard goes, and even then, at best, Labor might save a few seats with Kevin Rudd back in the Lodge.

Labor's continuing infighting is not about to come to an end this week or anytime between now and the next election, nor will it come to an end after the next election. Labor is tearing itself apart in public. The Coalition's campaign ads will not need to be any more than a few video clips of what key Labor MPs and union bullies think of their colleagues.

Ministers are openly trying to cripple their colleagues. Ministers like Gary Gray, Peter Garrett and Stephen Conroy have all said that if Gillard is voted out then they will retire to the backbench. And by that action alone they will be campaigning against a returned leader by their mere existence on the backbench. Whatever they say or do, the public will not believe that they have buried the hatchet.

Maybe Kevin Rudd will challenge this week and lose. In that scenario, in the time up to the election, unless he retires from Parliament in the meantime, every time he gets out of bed, he will be accused of stirring trouble.

The personality issues are intertwined with the big policy issues and the need for party reform.

The personality issues are important. PM Gillard is the most ideological Australian prime minister I have ever seen. She has little time for the sort of consensus that was pivotal in Bob Hawke's success. She has none of the commonsense pragmatism of John Howard. She is a true believer in gender wars and she is closely allied to the thinking of the radical green movement. She is also an opponent of party reform, opposed to breaking the link with the minority union movement, and thoroughly committed to further reregulation of the labour market. She has changed her position on boat people but not until she was confronted with the consequences of loss of life. Now her policy has been swamped by new arrivals.

The most successful political leader from the centre left on the world scene in recent years has been Tony Blair. He was proudly New Labour. Julia Gillard is old Labor. Blair kept Thatcher's deregulated labour market whilst Gillard has busily overturned the Howard reforms. The unions can't ever admit the reality that old Labor is finished. So, as a result, the failure to reform and their many wrong policy decisions have left the ALP stranded in its own mess. Regardless of which side is in power, the following current Labor policies are all unsustainable: the Hansonite policy on 457 visas; labour market reregulation; shipping industry; car industry protection; the transport industry; and the constant promulgation of green-inspired red tape on environmental projects. Labor's approach is undermining Australia's longer term future.

Australia's last recession was in the Hawke/Keating years. Keating boasted "this is a recession that Australia had to have".

The period after the recession saw the usual lift in economic activity as happens after a downturn. The Howard government benefitted from the upswing and did a good job managing the SARS outbreak, the Asian financial crisis, and the end of the internet boom. Despite all the usual economic ups and downs of the economic cycle, 11 years later, there was never a recession under Howard.

Howard left office with not even a prospect of recession, money in the bank, a new tax system and a more efficient labour market. In contrast, under Labor, debt has grown massively, Labor's signature tax reform was the botched mining tax, the unions have been given a free kick through labour market reregulation, and informed commentators are measuring the prospects of a recession in Australia.

Labor's economic mismanagement has made Australia more vulnerable to economic gyrations. The Reserve Bank has already raised doubts about the resources boom and a well-known economist was reported in the AFR last week (June 19) as follows: "Saul Eslake puts the likelihood of a recession at 25 per cent ... "

Against this background, Michelle Grattan put it well last Friday when she wrote at The Conversation:

Labor's paralysis over the prime ministership has become a disgrace. To have this bitter infighting drag on through the final fortnight of parliament is extraordinary self-indulgence. It reflects the stubbornness of Julia Gillard, the bloody-mindedness of Kevin Rudd and his forces, the weakness of the caucus, and the absence of independent senior figures in the parliamentary party who are willing [to] step up to force a resolution.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Political Manipulation

From Julia Gillard's speech on the so-called gender wars through to the Federal Government's biased funding for the referendum on local government funding, the public has witnessed another week of political manipulation, writes Peter Reith.

When columnist Peter Hartcher of the SMH describes Julia Gillard as having made a "blatant effort to manipulate voters by dividing them" over gender then mere bloggers should take note. A bit of manipulation is nothing new. And gender is not the only topic for manipulation. But is some manipulation OK and some not?

The latest Fairfax Nielsen poll shows another disastrous fall in Labor's election prospects. Labor's primary vote has dropped to 29 per cent. Last week's manipulative speech about gender and the role of women by PM Gillard was badly received by men but a ringing testament to the popularity of blue ties.

I suspect that Gillard's attempt to divide men and women in the hope she would get many more women's votes (than she would lose men's votes) will go down as Gillard's signature miscalculation. I will certainly continue to wear my blue ties as a reminder of the futility and plain stupidity of the Gillard tactics.

The idea of gender wars is overdone; as my late father, a doctor in Sandringham for many years, used to say, you only have look at the large crowd at the MCG to realise they are all the result of not war, but close relations between the sexes.

The 7 per cent drop in the men's vote for Gillard following her speech strongly suggests that the 'gender war' is not well received. The whole incident will not only be an embarrassment for Gillard but also for Gillard supporters like the daughter of the Governor-General and wife of Minister Bill Shorten, Chloe Bryce, the president of Women for Gillard. But as for the word 'manipulative', the public have already had their say without putting a label on the speech.

But gender wars were not Gillard's only problem; both Gillard and Rudd have been manipulating Gonski for political advantage. At the end of the week, the Gonski claims by Gillard were allegedly being opposed not just by Abbott but also by Rudd. The Weekend Australian (Paul Kelly) reported: "The Rudd camp believes the Gonski school agenda is a saga of policy mismanagement where funds are pledged without prospects of better results. Rudd is worried about the fiscal cost. He can be expected to act decisively against the half completed Gonski agenda."

By Monday, in the same paper Gillard people were confirming Rudd's intentions and Rudd people were denying the first report. This skirmish is par for the course; it might be political suicide and it might be a case of manipulation but there is nothing wrong with it.

And then for good measure, up pops the issue that can't go away even if many are not interested i.e. the referendum. It is turning out to be another one of Gillard's attempts at the manipulation of public debate.

Speaking to the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) on Sunday night, the Prime Minister said, "I know you are putting together money to fight for a Yes vote. Tonight, I pledge that the Government will also assist with additional resources for your campaign."

On Monday morning also at the AGLA Conference, Minister Anthony Albanese announced that an additional $10m would go to the 'yes' case and $0.5m would be given to the 'no' case. That makes the total 'yes' case $10m from local government, $11.6 m already announced and the $10m announced by Albanese; a total of $31.6 versus $0.5m for the 'no' case. The last time a political party tried to manipulate a result (in 1988), Labor spent taxpayers money on the 'yes' case until the High Court stepped in to stop Labor from acting in breach of the law.

This time round, Labor repealed the law so as to allow the Gillard Government to bias their spending in favour of the 'yes' case. The repeal is for 12 months only - so it was a special deal to 'fix' the local government referendum campaign only. In addition Labor has reduced the brochures that go out to all voters so as to reduce the flow of information on the 'no' case. Of course, the brochure will start with voluminous pages of the 'yes' case before the 'no' case, obviously in the hope that voters will not read the 'no' case. This is a form of manipulation that breaks all the rules and undermines the legitimacy of the ballot outcome.

To me it looks like the Government is using the local government referendum to bolster their real objective and that is to try and stay in government. Their first hope is to swamp the media so as to curtail space for the Coalition's election campaign. But the main plan is to have the 'yes' advertising full of comments about how grateful everybody should be to the Labor government and especially Gillard for their support of local government. This is a naked attempt to buy votes - not for local government but for Labor. And of course the ALGA has fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

All of these above are examples of manipulation but in most cases the public can sort out the nonsense. The one really bad case in recent times was the treatment dished out to Mary Jo Fisher, formerly Senate for South Australia. She has suffered for many years with a mental health problem. And when you are in the fish bowl of Australian politics you are under more scrutiny than most experience in a lifetime. She left Parliament and is now back at work. The latest Weekend Australian told her story; a story of resilience and courage. Sadly, when she was in Parliament, too many people manipulated her circumstances to mount a defence of Craig Thomson. That was one form of manipulation I hope we never see again in the Federal Parliament.