Super delivers a policy heart-starter

For the first time in over two years, public policy debate isn't being framed by the question of Labor leadership. Instead the facts about super have room to breathe.

It’s almost politics as it used to be.

Julia Gillard is in China with senior ministers on a government-to-government mission, at a time when the world is looking at China’s reaction to the words and actions of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Meanwhile, back home Wayne Swan and Bill Shorten rush to the microphones to explain proposed changes to the taxation treatment of superannuation savings.

And Tony Abbott – inevitably – weighs in with factually nonsensical arguments that we are entering an era with “the shades of Cyprus”. As a sideline, he also argues with straight face that the Commonwealth has no role in rail infrastructure, and should stick to its historic link to roads-only funding.

The news treatment and commentary on all this has been predictable. The tabloids still run the big super scare stories and headlines. SBS slavishly joined the fray with “Super Slug” headlines. These days that broadcaster’s domestic coverage of politics is lightweight and low grade.

Not surprisingly, the commentary from the old hands like Laurie Oakes, Michael Pascoe, Laura Tingle and Bob Gottliebsen is balanced and reasoned. As Gottliebsen points out “The government has not wrecked the superannuation structure but has made it more equitable for the wider community”.

What’s missing in all this and why is politics seemingly so normal?  Well, for the first time in more than two years the argument about public policy is not being framed by the question of ALP leadership.

The bubble has been pricked. The unmentioned one has cut and run. He no longer provides the sub-text and the narrative in which these stories on the PM’s trip to China, the super changes or infrastructure priorities are predicated.

Now Gillard, theoretically, can go about the never-ending business of government without looking behind her.

Yes, Gillard was forced to pre-empt her budget with the super changes. She had no alternative after people like the relevance deprived Simon Crean and Joel Fitzgibbon went public with their concerns about “Labor values”.

But as it turned out, given the frenzied speculation and wild predictions the electorate must now be saying “what was all that about?”

There’s no argument that this government is lousy at selling decent public policy – even when it comes up with that policy. Wayne Swan – in the same job as Paul Keating and Peter Costello – looks to be hesitantly reading from a script that’s just been given to him. “Here, Wayne, read these lines – and don’t say what you really think”.

But while these are issues of process and politics, the facts now have a chance to percolate in a political environment that is slowly moving from a debate shaped by internal politics to a debate about public policy priorities.

It’s taken too long, but it’s arrived. It will make the next five months a little more unpredictable, and enjoyable. It will force journalists, editors and commentators to do genuine policy comparisons.

It may even force Australia’s next prime minister to argue his case and his cause away from private functions held for the true believers and Catholic Archbishops, away from the fawning microphones of shock-jock radio land and to be prepared to argue his credentials and character to all-comers.

As the election nears an Obama and Romney style series of debates on domestic policy and foreign policy would throw up a fair chance of public assessment without the hovering presence – and distractions – of the unmentioned one.

And from that there is just one winner – democracy.