The worst government ever? Not yet

While the government and media bash each other with regulatory threats on one side and economic tax straw men on the other, the real problem is parliament's not being held to account for its biggest failings.

Is the Gillard government the worst government for generations, as Coalition MPs have been asserting for months?

Well if they are, we are yet to hear most of the reasons. As stated last week (Who’s afraid of Stephen Conroy? March 13), some of the issues have had a good airing, but many have not even appeared on the radar.

‘Boats’ and ‘debt and deficit’ both had a good run in the media (including in my own columns). However, little attention has been paid to how the Coalition refugee policy could work without tow-backs to Indonesia (which that 230 million-strong nation says it won’t accept), or how the Coalition will be able to find a budget surplus without armies of sacked public servants linking arms with unions to march through our capital cities.

The NBN has had plenty of coverage as an expensive white elephant, but how much attention has been given to the fact that it’s costing the budget very little – just the interest costs on the government bonds issued to cover government equity injections? And where are the headlines proclaiming that the IT industry and many innovative businesses think the NBN will unlock competition and productivity gains that will easily compensate taxpayers for their investment?

Individual articles do get published, but ‘coverage’ is not the same thing as front-page news.

The government’s strong economic record also receives little emphasis – recovering business and consumer confidence, some small gains in house prices, strong gains in equities, contained inflation, decent jobs growth and low unemployment should be front and centre news.

The historic NDIS legislation, which will ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Australians – and deliver substantial economic benefits – was largely ignored on the day it was passed, due to the virtual civil war between media proprietors and the government over the Conroy media regulation package.

Now, much as that sounds like a one-eyed apologia for Labor, let me continue – the point is that we’re familiar with the other side of all those stories, but less so the ‘success’ that Labor claims for the 400-plus pieces of legislation it has passed through parliament.

And while Business Spectator readers are across many of the other sides to those many coins, the opinion polls, plus qualitative polling responses, show that many voters think the economy is struggling – which it isn’t – and that their lives are being ruined by Gillard’s landmark reform, carbon pricing – which they’re not.

How did this come to pass? How, in one of the economic high points of our history did we accept that the government that oversaw all this was ‘the worst government ever’?

Journalism is failing voters in a quite astonishing way.

But rather than lay the blame at the feet of individual publishers (News Ltd, publisher of Business Spectator, is most often in the frame), let’s consider what is really driving the news cycle in such a lop-sided manner.

Put simply, the people shouting Labor down have a deep, visceral conviction that the country is in the grip of un-democratic processes. That’s right – while to the left-leaning voter ‘faceless men’ such as Paul Howes, Bill Ludwig and Joe de Bruyn are not as important as their critics say, to right-leaning voters they remain the unelected old men running the country (with apologies to the boyish Howes).

Now flip the coin.

Labor is utterly besieged by a media industry furious at Stephen Conroy’s determination that one of the most concentrated media markets, in ownership terms, in the ‘free’ world must not become even more concentrated and that its self-regulation bodies must have real teeth to enforce their own rulings.

The backlash has been vicious, but how do Labor figures, and left-ish voters, see that assault?

Many see it as the response of a media industry in thrall to the big end of town. That is, the left also thinks the country is being run by unelected old men – those on company boards. (Okay, women hold key positions in both the unions and on corporate boards, but in fewer numbers.)

That’s what this symbolic civil war is about. And the first casualty is truth.

A front page story in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper yesterday read, under the headline/subhead “Carbon collapse – catastrophe as a firm fails every hour” thus:

“More than one business is going to the wall every hour in Australia – even more than during the global financial crisis. And the carbon tax is among the top reasons being blamed.”

But a short time later, minister for climate change Greg Combet issued a release saying: “The Daily Telegraph says a ‘record’ 10,632 companies collapsed in the 12 months to March 1, 2013 due to carbon pricing. What they don’t tell their readers is that during the same 12 months, 186,583 new companies were registered, according to Australian Securities and Investment Commission [the source of the figures].”

Labor has little choice but to sit back and quietly utter those kinds of figures – because too many journalists have lapsed into a kind of innumerate, illogical group-think.

Labor has made lots of mistakes and many of them don’t get a mention because they are also Coalition policy. Not tinkering with generous super tax concessions is one; maintaining much of the current ‘middle class welfare’ provisions is another; and with Labor having adopted virtually all of the Howard government asylum seeker processing measures, ‘boats’ policy is yet another.

But off we will march to vote on September 14, as a nation confused and misled as to what the big issues even were. Votes will be cast based upon the overarching misrepresentation that the carbon tax is a much bigger factor in Australia's economic future than it really is – while major economic cancers are left to fester.

The Australia Institute is fond of quoting figures that show Aussie households spend more on pets and chocolate than on the carbon tax (before receiving compensation). But while the carbon tax accounts for around 10 per cent of a household’s energy bill, the average Australian pays more than their entire power bill each month to their super fund in fees.

That’s a system Labor created – and fixing that would have a much more positive effect on the economy than cancelling the carbon tax and bringing in a bureaucratic grants scheme, ‘Direct Action’, to replace it.

Labor’s not held to account for major policy problems, and nor is the Coalition.

While major media outlets fiddle with carbon nonsense, Australia is burning.

That’s a failure of the fourth estate.