Echoes of Gough’s electoral demise
THE coming federal election may well be the most important in a generation, perhaps the most significant since 1975.
There are very close parallels. Both eras were preceded by long periods of economic prosperity and stability under conservative governments before each culminated in their final years in the hands of reformist but chaotic and ultimately dysfunctional Labor governments.
For those who lived through the era of Gough Whitlam, there was a belief that the period could never be repeated – until Julia Gillard came along. The division, the backstabbing, the disorder and the constant call to arms for a class war made her government the most unpopular in the nation’s history.
In his tsunami-like campaign of differentiation from his predecessor, the resurrected Kevin Rudd has adopted a lurch to the political Right – thereby creating one of the more interesting dichotomies of Australian politics.
The “new” Prime Minister has made it clear that Gillard’s was a terrible government and that he is here to fix what’s wrong. This uncomfortably ignores that it was a mess Rudd helped create and then voted to support during his time on the backbench.
Labor’s hypocrisy is breathtaking when we remember Gillard’s rationale – allegedly “in the national interest” – for overthrowing Rudd three years ago was that his government had “lost its way”.
Rudd’s highly orchestrated U-turns on asylum-seekers and carbon tax are decisions that could have come from the office of Tony Abbott or John Howard – but, faux conservative or not, Rudd’s rush to reclaim the headlines and popularity has once again been mired by the process. Rudd’s actions may be fast and furious, but attention to detail is lacking, as it always has been in rushed public policy under this supposedly born-again Prime Minister. Rudd Labor is built on a house of cards and the fragile deck is all about show and little about solutions.
Opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey has been describing Rudd Mark II as Kevin Kardashian, saying Australia doesn’t need a celebrity leader. This gets a laugh but it is a pertinent point that Rudd’s supposedly new persona is the main element Labor has to differentiate itself from what came before.
Behind the scenes – and even to outsiders – Rudd is dismissive of the Labor caucus, but at the moment he has little internal opposition. He bulldozed through the reforms to prevent a repetition of his axing three years ago and the party had no choice but to back him. But what one Labor caucus can approve, another can undo – and equally quickly.
One serious problem for federal Labor is the narrow circle from which it draws its knowledge and therefore how it chooses to act. Take, for example, the recent changes to the fringe benefits tax on salary-packaged motor vehicle leases. It was a policy Wayne Swan reportedly considered but dropped before the Treasury – itself largely a closed shop – convinced its newly minted minister Chris Bowen it would be easy pickings of $1.8 billion to cover much of the carbon tax budget shortfall.
No one likes a tax reform but the instantaneous reaction from across several sectors proved the government had not done its homework. It had a significant impact on ordinary Australians who were doing nothing wrong. With the car industry facing a savage reduction in sales and mass sackings in the leasing industry, it was curious that only then did Treasury boffins call the salary-packaging industry to explain how it worked.
Like his Prime Minister, the new Treasurer is another Labor politician seemingly keen to jettison the party’s past. In the book ‘Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor’ that Bowen penned during almost four months in cabinet exile, he suggests that Labor’s socialist heritage be replaced by what he calls “the party of the individual that helps individuals grow to fulfil their aspirations”.
Even Robert Menzies would have been impressed with that line. But in a party dominated by unions that represent barely 12 per cent of the population, it is more a thought bubble than a Bowen-driven agenda. The unions are not going to give up their power that easily, and given the book was written when Bowen presumed he would never be treasurer, the best he could diplomatically tell ABC1’s 7.30 recently was that it is a “debate the Labor Party will have in coming years”.
On paper Bowen seems a solid candidate for the role of Treasurer. With an economics degree, a successful period in local government and previous ministerial experience in Treasury portfolios, he is a close Rudd ally who is regarded by most as a safe pair of hands.
But so far Bowen has presented as a small target and done little to rein in the excesses of Rudd. A recent speech to the National Press Club was seen more as perfunctory than enlightening.
In his book Bowen argues for a reduction in the company tax of 30 per cent, but now as Treasurer he knows too well the fragile nature of the Australian economy. While Labor basks in the success of having survived the global financial crisis, we are still highly vulnerable to the slowing Chinese boom, the European crisis and quantitative easing in the US.
Dramatic policy announcements are one thing, but Australian voters are savvy and they are yet to be convinced the Prime Minister and Treasurer are in control and have the answers for debt levels that will soon rise above $300bn, – plus more budget deficits.
If Rudd were to pull off an election win, it would be a political miracle. But, as the Opposition Leader points out, “Does Australia need another three years of this?”
Moreover, the longer Rudd remains exposed to public scrutiny, the likelier it is that he and his government will unravel before our eyes.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is now availableas an e-book.
The Weekend Australian July 27-28, 2013, Inquirer, p 22.