A storm of propaganda will hit WA

Western Australia's election looks set to showcase a sorry wave of hyperbole from each side of politics - and ignore Australia's real standing and urgent needs.

A freak storm hit Geelong mid week, dumping 49 millimetres of rain on the economically embattled city in just 20 minutes and generating 68 emergency calls. And the Bureau of Meteorology didn’t even see it coming.

Perhaps they were too busy contemplating the giant storm about to hit Western Australia – a political storm that will dump not rain, but propaganda, across that great state.

Following the High Court decision to declare void the 2013 WA senate election result, the major parties will go all out to convince WA voters that the things they worry about day-to-day – job security, the housing shortage, utility prices, the supermarket duopoly, over-indebtedness – don’t matter at all.

No, fixing those things is too hard. Instead, both sides of politics will roll out their favourite political delusions to bamboozle WA voters into either giving the Abbott government an effective balance of power in the Senate, or preventing the same.

Labor, most likely, will re-run its hackneyed “return of WorkChoices” pitch. Employment minister Eric Abetz is about to introduce tweaks to the Fair Work Act in parliament that would allow greater flexibility to be negotiated between employer and employee – trading, for instance, some penalty rates for more flexible hours. Whether or not those changes are extensive, the propaganda will be “WorkChoices by stealth!” 

Moreover, because the Abbott government is reviewing the entire Fair Work Act, Labor will do its best to cloud the issue – its best chance of doing well is for workers to think the Abbott government is going to “tear up” the Fair Work Act in this term of government, just as Labor did with WorkChoices in 2008.

In reality, Abbott has promised not to do that – rather, he will take the recommendations of that review to the 2016 election. And it’s extremely unlikely Abbott would take IR back to its Howard-era settings. His government is presiding over a period of economic pain that will make the Coalition difficult to re-elect anyway. Arming the unions with WorkChoices 2.0 is almost unimaginable.

Labor will also seize upon evidence from the SPC Ardmona dispute that Abbott government figures urged the company to lower basic pay for some workers to $33,000 in return for approving a grant of $25 million, which it ultimately refused to pay.

And then there’s the Commission of Audit. Opposition leader Bill Shorten said on Thursday that Abbott could not possibly delay the release of its findings until after the WA Senate re-run – which is likely to be in late March or early April.

For Labor, the release date doesn’t matter much. If the report is released, its ugliest cuts will be paraded before voters. If it’s not released in time, the line will be “what are you hiding Mr Abbott?”

Labor’s propaganda machine will, therefore, stick to familiar themes – ‘your rights at work’, ‘Abbott’s attack on wages’ and ‘cuts to health and education’. Not very helpful, but it should cut through with voters.

A braver, more honest Labor Party would be talking up the ‘grand compact’ announced by AWU leader Paul Howes, and trying to show that electing Labor senators means electing people who know what’s actually happening in Australia, rather than in the ALP’s own ‘delusion machine’. Wages are going to be squeezed in the years ahead no matter what Shorten says – explaining his plan for managing this process would be much more helpful.

On the other side of the political divide, Abbott himself will be campaigning to make everything about the carbon and mining taxes.

He will argue that the $4.1 billion in carbon tax raised in 2012/13 – half of which funds tax cuts and pension increases, and half of which is recycled through the Clean Energy Finance Commission – is ruining everything. By and large, journalists have backed this view and it is that fact, more than the actual sums of money involved, that has damaged consumer and business confidence.

Alan Kohler wrote on Thursday: “Obviously the carbon tax, however justified it might have been in scientific terms, was a business and economic disaster.”

I cannot agree. If that $4.1 billion is a disaster, then what of the $5.5 billion expected to be reaped from a ‘levy’ on the nation’s biggest 3,000 businesses to pay for Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme? To date I have not seen a newspaper front page saying that will be a ‘wrecking ball through the economy’.

As explained in detail previously, most firms' cost structures make the carbon tax impost tiny relative to other costs and energy intensive firms were heavily subsidised with free permits (Carbon tax Groundhog Day, August 23, 2012).

While it’s true there are productivity gains from treating women and men better when they take time off for child rearing, there are far greater productivity gains to be had in funding childcare, or even sticking to a more equitable PPL scheme.  

Likewise the mining tax. We are still talking about very low revenue from that scheme – an expected $450 million. If this has put the fear of god into miners, then it is only because journalists have too quickly repeated Coalition spin around this flawed tax.

So Abbott will try to convince sandgropers that repealing the carbon and mining taxes is all that’s required to get the country going again, when in fact they are hardly relevant to the investment, retraining and regulatory change necessary to deliver what people need – secure jobs, more affordable housing, more competitive supermarkets and lower utility prices (remembering that the lion’s share of electricity and gas price rises are due to factors other than the carbon tax - see A souring carbon tax victory for Abbott, January 30, 2013).

The Greens and minor parties will have their own core topics – refugee policy will be a big one – but overall voters are being asked a simple question: “Do you want the Abbott government to control both houses of parliament, or do you want Labor and the Greens to be able to block legislation?”

That’s why the propaganda storm from both sides will be so fierce. Facts and real economic arguments will take a back seat, and WA voters will have to peer through a cloud of hyperbole and misinformation to see where the nation’s best interests lie.