Small vision is not enough for Abbott

The problem of conservative politicians governing as 'small targets' is growing, but there's no excuse for Tony Abbott not to have clear, fully developed policies.

One of the biggest problems in Australia at the moment is that conservative governments are cruising into power without any policies over the demolished remnants of unpopular Labor governments, and then doing nothing once they get there.

The modern Coalition campaign slogan of choice is 'small target' – just keeping ones head down and allowing the ALP to blow itself up. Barry O’Farrell did it in New South Wales, Ted Baillieu did in Victoria, Campbell Newman did it in Queensland and Tony Abbott is doing it federally.

There is now growing disquiet in both New South Wales and Victoria at the lack of action by their new conservative governments. It’s still too early to tell whether something similar is going to happen in Queensland.

In Victoria there is even wistful nostalgia for Jeff Kennett. As I recall, he also campaigned as a small target, but when he got into power he and Treasurer Alan Stockdale became a whirlwind of action with, more importantly, a clear 50-year vision for the state. No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and they were swiftly booted out, but not before doing plenty of good things.

Modern small target campaigners seem to stay small targets in government. It’s a big and growing problem for NSW and Victoria, but the biggest problem of all would be if the federal Coalition came into government nationally with no policies and then did nothing but unwind a few Labor initiatives, such as the carbon tax and the MRRT.

Unless he makes a mistake, Tony Abbott is clearly going to become prime minister with a big mandate, either this year or next year. So there is absolutely no excuse for him and his team not to have clear, fully developed ideas about what to do, although it might be good politics to shut up about them and maintain the small target campaigning strategy.

Joe Hockey’s
speech in London two weeks ago, entitled “The End of The Age of Entitlement” was a fine, but all too rare, contribution to serious policy discussion by an Australian conservative politician.

He actually made a speech that did not just attack the government and took some risks in setting out a clear philosophy, although the fact that most journalists since then have been constantly grilling him about “what entitlements are you going to cut?” and “who will be the losers under your plan to cut welfare?” probably just confirmed to him and his colleagues that 'small target' is still the best policy.

But at least he had a crack, and it was a very good, and very true, speech. Unfortunately the speech was, in fact, another treatise about what government should NOT do, rather than what they should DO.

Governments, he said, should say NO more often, and live within their means. They should – and can – no longer borrow to pay current entitlements. “The bottom line is that our communities need to make a tough decision. We cannot choose both higher entitlements and lower taxes,” he said. Also: “Both sides of the political spectrum are to blame”. And so on.

All good stuff, and his call to rebuild fiscal discipline and restore budget surpluses throughout the western world is worthwhile indeed.

The problem for Joe Hockey and his colleagues is that the Labor Party is already trying to rebuild fiscal discipline and restore the budget surplus. Treasurer Wayne Swan will deliver a surplus next week, although it may not actually happen when we come to look back on 2012-13, but in any case restoring budget surpluses cannot be a conservative government’s plan for Australia because it will already have been done.

So what else should they be planning? In the coming weeks and months,
Business Spectator will be setting out what we see as the key challenges facing this country and the areas of policy that the Coalition needs to think about when it becomes the government.

In my view one of the most important is energy policy, so that’s where I’ll start tomorrow morning.


Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter.

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