Pondering a political game-changer
Julia Gillard's election bombshell included some thorough coverage of the problems facing the nation. Hopefully, the move will allow the focus to turn to policy.
So: will Julia Gillard’s naming the election day pay off? Will it backfire on her by abandoning the advantages of incumbency? How will voters react? Has it wrongfooted Tony "I’m not taking questions" Abbott? Will it shore up the PM’s position within the party? Will it provide certainty for business, or will the provision of a certain election date create, in John Hewson’s words, "massive uncertainty"? What about Yom Kippur? Is the prime minister anti-Semitic? (But wait it’s OK, the Jews are fine with the date!)
And those glasses … what image is the prime minister seeking to convey with those glasses? What is the meaning? Who's winning? Who's losing?!
Gillard’s narrowing of the election date from a period of a few weeks between August and October to September 14 has deprived many political journalists of a solid chunk of their column inches for the first half of the year.
It’s also deprived them and their editors and producers of one of the set pieces of the political calendar, the Yarralumla stakeout and the "we’re off" pieces surrounding the commencement of the campaign. The morning of August 12 will now be a rather quiet one, as the PM's car turns down Dunrossil Drive and heads to the governor-general's residence.
Quite a bit of that, however, has been hastily brought forward into today’s press. The result is press coverage almost entirely focused on an election date. The other ~3500 words from the PM yesterday have sunk without trace, which is a shame because it was one of the more unusual speeches given by a major party leader in a while, and an unusually downbeat one for a prime minister heading into an election year.
Gillard’s broad point was that voters are unhappy, industry is struggling, we need to plan for the peaking of the mining investment boom and transition back to a more traditional economic environment and governments have bugger-all money to do much about it, so there'll be cuts to programs to fund the important stuff of the Gonski and NDIS reforms.
It was the PM’s opening tour d’horizon that most intrigued. Rather than the usual boilerplate about cost-of-living pressures, Gillard acknowledged inflation and interest rates were low, but spoke of flat house prices and super returns, a high household savings rate, the challenge of an ageing population and long commuting times. The venerable phrase about the punters "doing it tough" got a run, but it was a far more accurate assessment of the economic condition of many Australians than we usually get from politicians anxious to pander to voters' self-delusion.
It was not entirely devoid of cheap rhetoric, of course. Gillard admitted that Australia has low crime rates compared internationally but that "some communities are understandably concerned about crime and cohesion" – a statement that, in the mouth of Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison, would have drawn accusations of dog-whistling. And odd how federal Labor only discovers state issues like electricity prices or law and order when it’s a conservative government involved.
Gillard offered little comfort on the impact of the high dollar. It hasn’t fallen despite the sorts of pressures – falling terms of trade – that have traditionally driven it down, she noted. And it might not even fall when the mining investment peak arrives and passes. We might be stuck with it, and have to deal with it. Accordingly, the government "must focus on increasing skills, building a national culture of innovation, rolling out the national broadband network, investing in infrastructure, improving regulation and leveraging our proximity to and knowledge of a rising Asia into a competitive advantage".
They’re the five pillars of Labor's economic policy.
Tony Abbott has five pillars, too, but they’re five pillars of the economy – mining, agriculture, manufacturing, services, and what he used to called the "knowledge economy" but which he’s rebadged as "education and research", possibly because "knowledge economy" sounded too intellectual, or possibly because it just reminded people of Kim Beazley’s ill-fated Knowledge Nation.
In fact many politicians, from Barack Obama on down, have pillars, three, four, five, however many can create an impression of solidity and substance.
Gillard was also straightforward about the fiscal difficulties facing governments, reeling off a number of domestic and international reasons why, as she noted, "even compared to what was forecast once the worst of the global financial crisis had passed, annual revenue is tens of billions of dollars below what was expected".
The Coalition line, of course, is that the government simply wastes money and that is the reason why it has been unable to return to surplus. If that were true, the Coalition’s own fiscal task would be straightforward, there being billions of lazy dollars in wasteful spending just waiting to be scooped up by Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb once they’re in government.
Strangely, that’s not quite how opposition sources portray the fiscal task currently engaged in by Joe Hockey.
That led the PM to talking about the need for significant "structural savings" in order to pay for Gonski and NDIS. But we’re none the wiser about the nature of these "structural savings". In a speech light on boasting, Gillard discussed Labor’s "record of cutting wasteful programs". It’s fair to say Labor has made a fair start on cutting back middle-class welfare, but no more than that. In some budgets, it has promised The Texas Chainsaw Massacre only to deliver the fiscal version of an Ed Wood film, in which tax rises masqueraded as spending cuts.
Still, for a government facing an election and trailing by anything from two to six points, "new structural savings" are a big call, albeit one tempered by the fact that the fiscal task is to identify savings that will accumulate as years go by, rather than ones that deliver a one-off saving right away.
The speech lacked substance in terms of policy detail, but it presented an unadorned and mostly accurate picture of the government's key policy challenges and how it wants to address them.
Tony Abbott's speech to the National Press Club may also lack policy detail, but if he is prepared to offer a similar approach to the PM, that would be a good start in ensuring at least politicians are focusing on policy, even if the media isn't.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on January 31. Republished with permission.