Labor troubled by Thomson and Thomson

Backbencher Kelvin Thomson has boldly flagged the demise of live exports and the baby bonus. Why aren't our leaders addressing these big questions instead of squabbling over Craig Thomson and the like?

I'm sure there are days when Prime Minister Gillard and Treasurer Swan would like to put a bucket over Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson's head.

Thomson has twice in the past month stirred controversy on contentious topics. In early October he called for "transition out of the live animal export trade altogether", and yesterday was calling for a scrapping of the baby-bonus altogether too – to help pay for the government's Gonski reforms.

The government would rather keep a lid on live export comments – it's an emotive topic, and a policy area which it pretty badly bungled when it enforced a snap ban on the trade following a Four Corners expos on animal cruelty in mid-2011. That move hurt many businesses in the top end, and enraged the Indonesian government.

The bigger picture, though, is that whatever our government does, that export industry will gradually grind to a halt – Indonesia, the market in question, is rapidly ramping up its own production of those funny-looking, hump-backed Brahman cattle.

But then Labor backbenchers should never say that – such comments invite immediate howls of 'killing jobs', 'wrecking communities' and 'starving Indonesia for our own political correctness'.

On a flying visit to the Northern Territory last week, I was starkly reminded of how much investment, both human and financial, is needed in the top end. A new goldmine or mining services company here, an new irrigation project there, and there are plenty of jobs to be created to replace the live cattle exports.

The cattle industry requires little in the way of human or financial capital, but other more capital-intensive industries will inevitably burgeon. While the top end might seem too hot for lily-livered southerners like yours-truly, 240 million Indonesians would beg to differ. The investment and population that will build major cities in the top end can't be too far away.

In the meantime, while live exports provide a lot of jobs (in relative terms, given the NT's tiny population of just 230,000 people), it is a doomed industry.

But Mr Thomson shouldn't say so. The focus group gurus don't like it.

And he should stop upsetting the focus group members with talk of confiscating their baby bonuses.

Or should he? Once again, Thomson has a real point. We don't need to incentivise people to breed. The infantile mantra coined by Peter Costello, "one for mum, one for dad and one for Australia", should be a source of national embarrassment.

In a region teeming with children, most of whom can only dream of the opportunities afforded Australian kids, just why did we need to set up a national Aussie breeding program?

I don't want to be too harsh on Costello, here – it wasn't really a breeding program, so much as a convenient way of returning windfall tax receipts to Aussie families in a politically palatable way.

And it was never going to make a dent in the fact that we're a migrant nation. A quarter of our current stock of 'Aussies' (including your columnist) were born overseas. Moreover, as Thomson pointed out yesterday, government policy is to keep migrants pouring into the country.

He told The Australian yesterday: "[The baby bonus] was originally introduced on the claim that we need more people. I don't subscribe to that ... Births every year are twice the number of deaths, and furthermore, we have a massive migration program that is projected to bring in 200,000 people this year. That's 4000 more arrivals than departures each week."

Thomson would like his side of politics to scrap the baby bonus to spend the same money on educating our kids instead, whether they arrived on the last plane or not. Bravo Mr Thomson. Bravo.

While Thomson doesn't always get it right – he had to resign as shadow attorney general in mid-2007 when it was revealed he'd once written a reference for, of all people, crime boss Tony Mokbel – he is at least speaking out on big issues and defying the message-managers at the heart of the ALP.

Today's news cycle is, again, full of a different Thomson – Craig – following the police raid on his house as the civil action against him by Fair Work Australia teeters on the verge of becoming a criminal prosecution.

Last week the news revolved around dictionary editors, and just who had to right to define what misogyny means.

Longer term our national debate is dominated by a carbon 'tax' that's really an ETS, and that is having far less impact on CPI, or the economy more generally, than Treasury originally forecast – and certainly a tiny fraction of the "wrecking ball" impact Tony Abbott, and fulminating shock jocks predicted.

We've debated 'stopping the boats' for days on end, without ever putting boat arrivals in the context of the Australia that needs more people, more skills and more capital to build.

Which leaves the really big picture to Kelvin. And good on him for being honest enough to speak up.

Going into the 2013 election, there might just be a chance that these debates are taken up by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott instead. Just what are we building in Australia, and where are the people and money going to come from that will build it?

We have a court system to prosecute Craig Thomson if, indeed, he's done anything wrong. Dictionary editors don't listen to pollies or angry journalists when they decide what 'common usage' of a word is. Treasury aren't a bunch of crooks trying to prop up a corrupt government with phoney forecasts. And locking up boat people in tent cities on Nauru has everything to do with petty politics and nothing to do with a real deterrent or, heaven forbid, the controlled migration that Australia needs.

At some point – and please, please, let it be before the next election – our leaders must rise above the empty point scoring and set out a vision for the nation as a bigger, more prosperous, compassionate citizen of our region.

The government's white paper on 'Australia in the Asian Century', which lead-author Ken Henry has taken four months past his deadline to complete, is expected to be released on Sunday. No doubt it will be chock-full of material to frame the big leadership questions of the next decade – if the PM, or opposition leader care to do so.

Give backbenchers small tasks, and let the leaders lead.

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