Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Show us your ticker, Gillard, before we vote

Excuse me, but what's the tearing hurry? We've had a new Prime Minister for five minutes, but we're being rushed off to an election before we can get her measure. Why? Is there a fear, if the election were delayed until October, the gloss would have worn off and we'd see Julia Gillard in a less hopeful and flattering light?

Is the new leader's fleeting honeymoon all that stands between Labor and electoral defeat? Is Labor's record in government that bad? Is Tony Abbott such a formidable opponent?

I'm not impressed by what we've seen of the Gillard government so far. We've seen the triumph of political expediency over good government. From her first day she's left little doubt three running political sores - the mining tax, resentment of boat people and the vacuum left by Labor's abandonment of its emissions trading scheme - needed to be staunched quick smart if the government's re-election were to be secured.

But what hasty, amateurish patch-up jobs we've seen. Wayne Swan has fudged up figures purporting to show the revenue cost of the deal done with the three biggest mining companies was minor, whereas sharemarket analysts are saying the extra tax to be paid by the companies will be minor. Then we had the fearful muddle over the Timor solution the Timorese hadn't agreed to, and now we're getting the climate change policy you have when you don't have a climate change policy.

The trouble with all this is it's terribly reminiscent of Kevin Rudd. Lacking in courage, not thought through and thrown together at the last moment. None of these stop-gap solutions will have been legislated before the election. So is that to be Gillard's agenda for Labor's second term: finishing off all the stuff not finished in the first term? Is that to be as inspiring as it gets? First re-elect my government and then I'll have time to think up my own agenda?

I'm sure the government has plenty of announcements up its sleeve to make between now and election day, but I'm not sure they'll add up to anything more than a grocery list. Bit of this, bit of that, tinker with this, fine-tune that. Nothing controversial, of course, and (given the budget deficit) nothing too expensive.

Before we vote on whether to retain Gillard we need to know a lot more about her and, more particularly, where she proposes to take us.

She tells us she believes in hard work, egalitarianism and the value of education, and she's proud of her mum and dad. I doubt if there are many who'd disagree, but if that's as big as her vision gets she's not ready to be our leader.

One of Rudd's biggest problems was he couldn't set priorities for himself. He took on too much, wanted the biggest and best in everything, and ended up not getting much achieved. He took on a couple of big economic reforms - the emissions trading scheme and the resource rent tax - but took them far too cheaply, underestimated the amount of explaining that needed to be done, then when the going got tough, turned turtle.

So what are Gillard's priorities? What does she plan to devote most of her attention to at the expense of all the other things she could focus on? Does she know but doesn't want to tell us, or hasn't she had time to think about it? Will she work it out as she goes along?

We know, despite her protestations, climate change won't be one of her second-term priorities. She says (correctly) we need to put a price on carbon, but then says she won't get ahead of public opinion and won't act on a carbon price until after 2012. Her next term will be spent doing the explaining that should have been done this term.

I fear most of what passes for economic debate in the election campaign will be of little consequence. Labor dumped its emissions trading scheme and emasculated its resource super profits tax for fear of being accused of introducing "a great big new tax", but that won't stop both sides accusing each other of planning to do just that.

Both sides will express their determination to get the budget into surplus as soon as possible and eliminate our (tiny) public debt post haste, while accusing the other of profligacy.

If there's one thing we don't need to worry about it's deficits and debt. Why not? Because we worry about it so much. The Libs make such a fuss about it it's a crime Labor wouldn't dare to commit.

The big economic issues facing us include how we'll make room for a greatly expanded mining sector in an economy already close to full employment, whether there's more tax reform in the Henry report we should be getting on with, and how we'll fix the ever-growing shortage of housing, including improving public transport to make homes in the outer suburbs more accessible.

Far from spending the next three years chatting about whether to get serious about combating climate change, we need to debate our unquestioned commitment to unlimited economic growth.

Does ever-rising affluence - much of it used to fuel an unending status competition - make us happier as both sides of politics assume? Are we paying a hidden price for it in damage to our family and social relationships? Is it really possible for the rich world to keep increasing its consumption of natural resources while the developing world - led by China and India - rapidly raises its standard of living towards Western levels without this irreparably damaging the ecosystem?

A bit too much for a prime minister from the left desperate to prove she's not left-wing? Far too threatening a subject for either of the political parties? I fear so. Much safer to have a furious argument about great big new taxes and the budget deficit.