Despite the shortened parliamentary year, politics still served up both policy successes and duds in 2013. Crikey reviews the year of parliamentary and bureaucratic activity in Canberra.
As always, having handed out the horse race-calling awards for best political performers, we high-minded types at Crikey like to hand out some policy gongs as well, in a pathetic attempt to pretend that politics might actually be about, well, competent administration of Australia. So the 2013 Crikeys go to …
Best policy achievement: industry assistance — the end of an era
The spell has finally been broken. Finally, Detroit yet again uttered its decades-old threat to kill car manufacturing here without even more handouts from taxpayers, and a government called its bluff. Decades of regional politics, union and corporate collusion and the reflexive belief among voters that we somehow had to have a car industry finally ran up against a government no longer prepared to be blackmailed by multinational corporations, like the governments of every other car manufacturing country in the world are. Commentators wanted a tough economic decision from the new government, which has been stumbling on all fronts. Well, this was it, a government prepared to do the unpopular but right thing. Treasurer Joe Hockey deserves praise for it, even if the government’s handling of it was on a par with its performance everywhere else.
Runner-up: Labor’s fiscal management. Yes, they could always have done more, particularly in putting in place more savings that would have really accumulated beyond the forward estimates, but former treasurer Wayne Swan and then, briefly, Chris Bowen, didn’t panic in the face of deteriorating revenue. Rather they copped the hit to the budget deficit on the chin and put in place long-term savings to fund Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) — including, it is now forgotten, an income tax rise that even Tony Abbott backed. And kudos to Bowen for demanding that the parasitic salary packaging industry start justifying its tax rorts.
Worst policy failure: education funding
Australia will pay a high long-term price for the Coalition’s abandonment of the Gonski panel’s needs-based funding model in favour of simply throwing more money at schools as a political fix (something Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne explicitly rejected as ineffective). The needs-based model is designed to address the driver behind our deteriorating educational performance, the under-performance of disadvantaged students, along with better performance information to work out how best to prioritise resources. That’s now all gone. The fact that it was accompanied by a spectacular political screw-up made it even worse.
Honourable mention: Operation Sovereign Borders — non-transparent, politicises the military, endangers asylum seekers, infuriates Indonesia. Other than that, a raging success (although the decline in boat arrivals was caused by Rudd’s PNG solution, not Morrison hiding behind a military uniform). P-Rudd — aka Peta Credlin — was right to tell Morrison that he’ll only reveal what the PMO wants him to reveal. There’s only one thing worse than Morrison refusing to answer questions, and that’s Morrison answering questions.
Biggest legislative dud: media reform
It was a light-on year, legislatively — Parliament only sat for 48 days due to the long election break between the removal of Julia Gillard and the first session of the Abbott government. But the early part of the year was dominated by the Gillard government’s decidedly half-baked media reform package, pushed by then-broadband minister Stephen Conroy. The package, and particularly a proposal for self-regulation (!), elicited an absurd reaction from some media outlets, and particularly News Corporation, which launched (yet another) furious campaign against the government. Apart from abolishing the outdated 75% reach rule for television, the package was a dog, and accompanied by a demand for lightning-quick parliamentary inquiries (Conroy having been a vocal complainant about the short time the Howard government had provided for media reform inquiries). Presented with a take-it-leave-it approach from Labor, the Parliament decided to leave nearly all of it, thanks very much. The only consolation for Conroy was that his most vocal and hysterical critic, News Corp’s Kim Williams, didn’t last much longer in his job than Conroy himself.
Best public policy report: Joint Committee of Intelligence and Security on national security reform
Just as the full extent to which our privacy and basic rights have been destroyed by rampant security agency surveillance was becoming evident, Australia’s top national security committee refused to endorse the establishment of mass surveillance in Australia when it declined to recommend a data retention regime (and yes, data retention is mass surveillance). How security and law enforcement agencies and the Attorney-General’s Department tried to establish data retention is a separate story (and one that, sadly, only Crikey appears to have been interested in covering), but the committee’s nuanced analysis of a huge array of proposals, its willingness to challenge the AGD and the fact that it produced a unanimous report is testimony to the hard work of MPs and senators like John Faulkner, Andrew Wilkie and even George Brandis. Above all, it was a win for committee chair Anthony Byrne, the low-profile Labor MP who insisted on taking seriously the concerns of data retention opponents and thereby derailed the most serious threat to privacy and basic rights since the Howard government’s anti-terror laws. Many online activists dismissed the inquiry as a whitewash at the start; by the end, the capacity of JCIS to provide comfort that someone in government wasn’t taking the claims of security agencies at face value had been demonstrated.
Stupidest report: the Business Council
Crikey readers will be aware of my fondness for dodgy economic reports, and I was heartened recently to discover that one of the earliest critics of economic statistics was Adam Smith, who lamented in 1785, after being told that a demographer had revised his estimate of the population of Scotland by nearly 20%, that “I have little faith in Political Arithmetic and this story does not contribute to mend my opinion of it”. I, too, have little faith in political arithmetic, and this year I had least faith in the Business Council’s loftily-titled Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity which set out a variety of policy prescriptions, including one or two the BCA had actually opposed when Labor had done them.
All the usual suspects were there — the lament about poor productivity even as Australia was outperforming the entire G8 in labour productivity growth, the demand for lower taxes on business while everyone else paid higher taxes, the demand for greater workplace “flexibility”. While it didn’t include the sort of outright howlers that the really great “independent modelling” reports frequently contain, it was a brilliant example of how self-interest, ideology and inconsistency can produce a nonsensical mix of reality-defying demands. Thank goodness the BCA will be kept well clear of the government’s Commission of Audit …
Honourable mention: the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’s annual alcohol poll that inconveniently showed alcohol consumption rates falling, dressed up as further evidence of the huge damage alcohol was doing to Australia. Particular favourite: failing to note that the report’s own figures showed the incidence of alcohol consumption had fallen 7% over two years. Nanny state advocates and puritans are no more inclined to let the facts get in the way of a good story than business lobbyists.
*Tomorrow: the best and worst performers in the world of business