Mistakes, They've Made A Few
By Mike SeccombeMay 2, 2012
If a Labor policy fell in Canberra, would anybody hear?
Sometime in the past couple of days, Prime Minister Julia Gillard made an important announcement. Hands up those who know what it was.
No, we're not referring to her announcement on Sunday, April 29, in relation to Speaker Peter Slipper and Labor backbencher Craig Thomson, although it would be completely understandable if that's what you guessed. After all, that's been the big news of late, judged by column inches and airtime. The next day's lead story in The Australianprovides a good measure of how exciting this was.
The very first sentence, a triumph of hyperbole and mixed metaphor, said Gillard had "jettisoned" the pair as part of a "dramatic political backflip" to "avert a revolt" over the "scandals engulfing her government" and "clear the decks" for the next week's budget. The breathless coverage occupied most of page one, two more news pages inside, the front page of the features section, the main editorial, the cartoon, the gossip column, et cetera et cetera, ad nauseum. And lest this be viewed as criticism of The Australian, the other media were all likewise over the top.
But we're talking about another announcement, made the following day, Monday, April 30, that the government would begin funding a national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) in the budget.
Gillard also waxed a little hyperbolic in her speech, comparing the NDIS to big social reforms of the past, like the pension and compulsory superannuation and Medicare.
"I'm tremendously proud of these great Labor reforms, which responded to real community needs and shaped a better future. Now we're here today because it's time to respond to another group of Australians who are missing out," she said.
Of course the NDIS is not reform on the same scale as those other things, but it is pretty big all the same.
As she noted, some 400,000 Australians have significant and permanent disabilities that require ongoing care and support.
Yet as things stood, more than 100,000 of them got no help, and were "left behind … to rely entirely on family, friends and other informal support".
And the other 300,000, who did get care, did not always get all the care they needed.
"Instead, you basically get a ticket in what can be a very cruel lottery," said the PM.
From the middle of next year, she said, "select sites around the country" would begin serving some 10,000 people with disabilities, increasing to 20,000 by mid 2014. And it was happening a year ahead of the timetable laid out by the Productivity Commission report which recommended it, and even before agreement by the states as to how much they would kick in.
Now, you might suggest that Gillard's NDIS announcement, scooping her government's own Budget, was a bit desperate. And you might be right. It was still a major commitment, though; still a major piece of policy, which will make a major difference in many lives.
But after the announcement, what was the major focus of questioning of the Prime Minister? Her leadership prospects.
Here's what she said:
''I will be leading the Labor Party to the next election and I can tell you very clearly right now what that election will be about.
''It will be about who you stand for, whether you stand for the privileged few or whether you stand for working Australians and their families.''
Yeah? Not if the response to her NDIS announcement was anything to go by. That story was, as we say in the trade, buried. Tuesday's papers were still full of the scandal, and contemplations of the demise of Gillard and her government. And — here's a surprise — another poll, showing the Gillard government was more unpopular than ever.
The NDIS announcement went down like a lead balloon, just like the government's previous attempt at seizing the initiative with a policy preview from the budget. That one was a measure to wind back one of the great inequities of the tax system, the concessional tax rate on superannuation, by clawing back $1 billion from people who earned more than $300,000.
And it followed a previous decision giving greater concessions on super to low-income earners.
These things — making greater provision for the disabled and restoring some progressivity to the tax applying to super — were policies in the classic Labor social justice tradition. And who noticed?
It makes you wonder what this Labor government can do now to save itself, or whether, as the chief executive of Newspoll, Martin O'Shannessy said when we went to him this week, the Australian people have just stopped listening.
And that raises two further questions: If the people have stopped listening, when did this happen? And how could the Labor Party get people to start listening again?
Let's take the second one first.
Kristina Keneally, the failed leader of the Labor regime in New South Wales, popped up with a suggestion recently. The federal party, she said, needed a game-changer of a policy. She suggested it should revoke or wind back its carbon tax, one of its two or three biggest reforms.
This is almost certainly a bad issue to pick, for reasons we'll come back to.
But it does start the game of "what if?"
What if Julia Gillard did revisit some of her government's decisions? What if — just to pick a few — she came out and said she was wrong in her opposition to gay marriage, and put her leadership muscle behind legislation to make it legal?
What if she acknowledged that the mining tax — the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, to give it its proper name — has been misconceived and needs to be strengthened in order to ensure the big mining companies put more back into the general economy?
What if she revisited the issue of poker machine reform?
Gay marriage is strongly supported by the public — more than 60 per cent of them, according to recent polls. It is also Labor policy. Yet Gillard herself has opposed it, for reasons that flummox even her supporters. The only possible explanation is that she fears the reaction of the religious right of her party.
Likewise, the indications are that the public would support poker machine reform. The problem there is that the power of the clubs industry scares the heck out of some of Gillard's troops. That would make it hard to get through the Parliament, but even a brave failure would surely be better than what Labor managed last time — ratting on a deal with independent Andrew Wilkie, which entailed that grubby deal that made Peter Slipper the Speaker.
The mining tax, history records, was watered down in the face of a huge advertising campaign by the big miners and now is widely predicted to yield not much in the way of revenue, at least in the short-term.
The common thread to all of these decisions is a lack of courage to do what, in classic Labor terms, would be the right thing.
And, as one of Labor's leading thinkers, Senator John Faulkner, noted in his April 28 Evatt Memorial lecture:
"Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked, some two centuries ago, on the tendency for politics that begin in fear to end in either folly, or failure.
"And today," Faulkner continued, "we find ourselves in the midst of a political climate increasingly dominated by fear. Not fear of an external enemy, but a fear felt by many in our political class of an open contest of ideas."
Other Labor luminaries we spoke to suggested similar things: that Gillard's and Labor's current problems flowed ultimately from a failure to stand firm on principle.
Said one: "Every time they have gone in the direction of a half-way decent policy, there's so much wheeling and dealing and trading and compromising, they end up with a reality that falls well short.
"The classic examples were the carbon price/tax/trading scheme [and] the mining tax."
What, then, if Julia Gillard were to come out now and make an admission that the government had got some things wrong?
We went to one very successful Labor politician who is widely credited with making something of an artform of such admissions, former Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie.
He didn't think it would help a lot.
"If a man changes his mind — and I did because sometimes circumstances change and facts change — it can be a good thing," he said.
"However, I do think it is harder for a woman to change her mind. If women are seen to have said one thing and then done another… I think there is a double standard in Australia."
He did say, however, that gay marriage was something Labor should do, if only because it was "the right thing".
As for suggestions that the government should wind back its mining or carbon taxes, no way, he said.
"Now that the mining tax is through, the carbon tax, all that stuff, when the benefits roll out, things can change, provided they have a massive campaign to explain the benefits.
"The problem is they've been slow off the mark selling things. The mining tax is about sharing the wealth from the mining boom with all Australians. The carbon tax is about getting the energy mix right for the future. As [US President Barack] Obama said, the country that leads the world in new energies will be the leading economy this century," said Beattie.
That Labor and Gillard have not sold their policies well is now pretty much the accepted wisdom. But there is reason to doubt whether there is anything they can do now to sell them more effectively if, as Newspoll's O'Shannessy says, people have stopped listening.
He suggests, in fact, that people stopped listening even before Julia Gillard inherited the Labor leadership from Kevin Rudd.
The evidence is in the public reaction to each and every policy reform that Labor has implemented.
Take what happened when the Rudd government greatly increased the age pension, way back in September 2009. Or when Gillard Labor introduced its paid parental leave scheme in January 2011. Did it have any effect on how Labor went in the opinion polls?
Says O'Shannessy: "With Kevin Rudd, nothing went up or down; it stayed in the stratosphere until Rudd said he didn't expect too much from [the climate change conference in] Copenhagen in October/November 2009.
"The following week he lost about five points off his vote. He started to recover and then when he put the ETS [emissions trading scheme, the predecessor to the carbon tax] on the backburner completely … [he] continued to fall and was got rid of.
"Julia Gillard came in and ruled the carbon tax out and just made it through the election. When she ruled it back in, she lost another five per cent off her primary vote."
So, one can only imagine what might happen if the government took Keneally's timorous advice and walked away from it again.
O'Shannessy cited other examples where government decisions have pushed Labor down in the polls, but none which pushed it up.
"When they took a hard line on asylum seekers, they disappointed their own heartland," he said.
But they made "such a mess" of implementing it, they gained no support either.
"The issue over the treatment of cattle exported to Indonesia was another one. They couldn't close the two topics. They managed to mismanage the process. Not only did they alienate people by playing hardball — the traditional left wing supporters — they actually made a mess of the response and lost the other side as well."
While he stresses he is just a pollster, not a seer, O'Shannessy has trouble seeing any way back for the government.
Of course, politics is an unpredictable business, but it doesn't look good for Labor, to put it mildly.
So what can they do? Well, I recall a bit of wisdom from John Kerin, who was primary industries minister in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1991. His philosophy, given that he dealt with a section of the population — farmers — that overwhelmingly supported the conservative side of politics, was this:
"Well, they're not going to vote for me anyway. So I might as well do the right thing."