Gillard should forget the headlines

It's virtually certain Julia Gillard's government will be consigned to history’s dustbin when voters hit the polling booths, so it's time the Labor leader moved on from the focus groups and instead focused on bold reform.

The historic political massacre in the Sunshine State – and the inexorable seeping Liberal tide – presents Julia Gillard with a special opportunity: to govern for the next 18 months without fear, compromise and with a big, bold and freewheeling agenda.

Cast aside the inclination to be politically timid on any issue – from tax reform, infrastructure investment, size and role of government, immigration and so on.

Jettison the silly focus groups. Forget the media cycle and the obsession with 'winning' the message. The media won’t comply.

Don’t play political favourites with the States. Deal with the premiers as leaders who have a serious job of governing in partnership with the commonwealth and deal with the Greens as a lobby group, not co-partners in government.

Desist from using the parliament as a cheap political stage. Ignore the taunts and the name-calling of Opposition politicians. Cut out the manic obsession with Tony Abbott. Tony can attract enough self-attention without his political opposition intervening – as the past few days have proved.

Stand above it – and simply deliver good public policy as best you can allowing for the cards you have been dealt.

The reason: It is virtually certain your government will be consigned to history’s dustbin when voters trudge yet again to the polling booths.

Their vote will not be on public policy substance, or economic performance, or character. It will be on the governing party’s miserable brand and its standing, and the question of 'trust'. So why waste the next 18 months pretending that business as usual will work? Why waste when time is so short in this age of searing change and market transformation?

Why not use this time to be brave – something that politicians tend to shy away from as the dreaded election year approaches. The Howard government 'give-aways' in election years were legendary.

Some suggestions only – establish a multi-purpose sovereign wealth fund to bank the proceeds of good times for use in down times; hold a referendum ( on election day) that asks for four year terms for the House of Representatives ( from the following election date); bring our troops home from Afghanistan early; legislate for an NDIS; use the budget to revisit the core purpose of long term nation-building; visit China with the resources minister, climate change minister, and treasurer to develop a long term business (manufacturing and agricultural), political and cultural partnership with that country, and overhaul the taxpayer rorted defence procurement system.

Smarter people than I can think of better examples.

There’s little doubt that political decision making in Australia is centred on the 'here and now inside the Canberra bubble'.

There’s also little doubt of how toxic language drives the daily political narrative and generates the headlines, and resultant newspaper sales and online eyeballs.

Veteran gallery scribe, Michelle Grattan, for example, claimed in yet another pointed character assessment that Gillard would be terrified about the consequences of the recent Queensland slaughter. I couldn’t imagine anything about politics 'terrifying' Ms Gillard.

Of course, the contest everywhere has become more personal and nasty. God knows what Anna Bligh was thinking during her contemptible character attacks on Campbell Newman and his family – even talking about him going to jail!

Thus, with that inner fear and an ear and eye on tonight’s and tomorrows headlines, so much of the decision making process – and outcome – is below best practice.

Gillard argues she has no choice but to compromise on best practice. She doesn’t control the numbers in the House and yet has a visible 'scorecard' that includes a MRRT and a carbon tax which morphs into an ETS as well as some decent legislation in other areas.

All true. But she still seems caught up in the fractious petty politicking encouraged by perpetually salivating and cynical scribes.

I’ve written here many times that politics is a tough body contest sport. It takes no prisoners. But it also has a higher purpose – to deliver good governance under intelligent scrutiny from the other side of the aisle.

Good public policy generally morphs into good politics. But sometimes, it’s not until the dust settles and the caravan has moved on that the benefit of bold reform play out and become obvious. Opposition to bold reform always gets better headlines than the reform itself.

That’s the real price of the short term electoral cycle in Australia.

Both the Rudd and Gillard Governments were and are flawed – as was their predecessor. Their policy successes have been swamped by the political debate on 'broken promises' and Tony Abbott’s unerring and resonating 'toxic tax' message. That won’t change much.

And that’s why there’s no point in Gillard looking for daily political wins. Her task and obligation is to deliver visionary public policy the country needs and can afford – at this telling point in history.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.

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