Labor must get real on the economy

Ditching Julia Gillard has put Labor back in the game. To stay there it will have to ditch her economic narrative.

Ditching Julia Gillard has put Labor back in the game. To stay there it will have to ditch her economic narrative.

Gillard's narrative was dishonest, incapable of coping with changing developments and denied Labor its best selling point.

Unveiled in the keynote address to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia just days before the spill, it said the economy was "growing, stable and strong".

"Growing" is the only one of those three words that is demonstrably true. "Stable" is rubbish. Gillard herself acknowledged in the speech there were "some complex transitions under way". And the economy isn't "strong". If it was, demand wouldn't be shrinking in four of Australia's six states and the Reserve Bank wouldn't have cut interest rates seven times in 18 months and be weighing up the need to cut further.

Gillard's narrative went beyond the merely rosy. In last Monday's speech she came close to branding as a traitor anyone who thought differently.

Amid jokes about reporting journalists to the Australian Communications and Media Authority and attempts to belittle the growing number of forecasters who have pointed to the risk of a recession, she said low expectations could "themselves become an economic problem".

"The biggest mistake we could make would be to talk ourselves into unnecessary economic weakness," she said.

A much bigger mistake would be to shut down such talk. Smothering discussion builds distrust, in this case a feeling that the government doesn't know and doesn't care what's happening on the ground. It's the opposite of the exemplary approach Labor took during the financial crisis when it shared what it knew. And smothering discussion, insisting things are "growing, stable and strong", leaves Labor with no easy way out when the daily drip feed of economic news turns bad.

It could try to ignore the bad bits of news and ridiculously hype the good, as Gillard did in March when she latched on to a one-off blip in the employment numbers to boast to Parliament: "We have seen an increase in the number of jobs of 71,500 in the last month. For the information of the House this is the largest monthly increase in jobs since July 2000, the best monthly job creation result in 13 years."

The blip has since been revised away, as blips often are. Employment grew by a less remarkable 29,300 that month. It's now growing at just a third of that rate and trending down.

Or Labor could act surprised when the news turns bad. "We had no idea", "we've been blown off course" ... it's the approach Wayne Swan used just before Christmas when reality caught up with his assurances that he would be able to deliver a surplus.

Neither approach would play well during the campaign. The scrutiny will be even higher with the arrival of fact-checking units. Gillard had backed Labor into a corner. And she had robbed it of its strongest selling point.

It's Labor you would want on your side in a crisis. Just as John Howard happened to be in office during the Port Arthur massacre and became an international legend by flawlessly handling the guns buyback, Kevin Rudd happened to be in office during the global financial crisis.

Labor has been tried by fire. It is Labor - in particular Kevin Rudd - you would want on your side in an economic downturn. I am not saying the perception is fair. Tony Abbott and the Coalition may turn out to be just as good in a crisis. But I am saying the perception is reasonable. Labor has been tested. Abbott has not.

Playing down the economic risks facing Australia, insisting the economy is "growing, stable and strong" gives waverers a licence to vote for Abbott. The alternative strategy is to level with Australians. Resource investment has peaked, commodity prices are slipping and China's outlook is uncertain. Australia needs a safe pair of hands.

Rudd is already adopting it. Ending the week with a statement the polar opposite of Gillard's, he said Australia's biggest economic challenge was "the end of the China resources boom". "This will have a dramatic effect on our terms of trade, a dramatic effect on living standards, and a dramatic effect also potentially on unemployment unless we have an effective counter-strategy," he said.

It's a truthfulness likely to draw Australians close to the Prime Minister and to make them feel he has a handle on what's happening.

The opposition's Joe Hockey has already wised up. Back in January he was committed to a surplus "to the core of my bones". Now he is less certain, saying that in returning to surplus it is "important to be prudent".

"I would not be doing my job if I had not already given some thought as to how economic activity could be safeguarded should the downturn in the private sector become more protracted," he said last Monday.

Rudd and Hockey are embracing reality. It'll keep Labor in the game.

Peter Martin is economics correspondent.

Twitter: @1petermartin

Ross Gittins is on leave.

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