During the election campaign, one occasion on which Kevin Rudd displayed a bit of passion was in his most wonkish interview of the campaign, talking to Tony Jones about the importance of the public service and good governance. Rudd promised that Labor’s decisions on policy would be “evidence based”, but the evidence belies that so far.
Richard Farmer wrote in Crikey on Wednesday:
So far the Labor Government has maintained that its promised $30 billion of tax cuts is safe as it scrambles to find a host of spending programs to cut. Far better, and certainly much easier, to blame Peter Costello for misleading everyone before the election about the true state of the impact the world financial crisis on Australia. Scrap the tax cuts for all but the lowest paid and get it over with.
Amen to that. All the evidence suggests the tax cuts are a waste of money and will only fuel inflation. Farmer is hardly alone among commentators in calling for this, and coming up with a plausible political justification should the government not be able to think one up by itself. If promises have to be kept at all costs (no matter how inflationary), there’s also the possibility of doing a Keating, and delivering them via super, which the actual Keating has suggested.
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The problem is wider than the tax cuts.
It wasn’t much noticed, perhaps because Dick Morris so loudly trumpeted his admiration for Latho’s triangulating, that the Rudd campaign was a classic from the Clinton copybook. Narrow the distance, make small and symbolic promises, just as Bill did in ’96. It’s a great way to win an election, but a dumb way to govern. Almost anyone could think of a better bang for the education revolution buck than computers in schools, but it doesn’t look like there’ll be any more bucks because of the tax cut driven need to restrain spending.
The net nanny state plan is a pointless waste of time and/or a very expensive sop to Steve Fielding. Weighing kids in schools makes a good campaign headline, but as this blog thread demonstrates in spades, as soon as people contemplate the implications, there’s a lot to dislike. Julia Gillard’s department produces a report showing that many schools are over-funded, and the government recommits to indexing current levels despite there being no rational reason to do so other than an election promise.
A smart opposition leader (Turnbull, for instance) might be able to make something of the creeping nanny-stateism in a lot of these Third Way-ish like initiatives, but Brendan “flagpole in every school” Nelson isn’t that person.
The government is probably underestimating the goodwill that Australians accord to new administrations, and it’s hard to think that if the net nanny scheme, for instance, were quietly sent off to a review which found it unworkable, anyone would care all that much. The government has a good narrative – building infrastructure and skills for the future – which should easily see it able to ride out any discarding of dumb election stunts.
Now, there’s probably no truth in the claim that Rudd boxed his own party into Howardian promises deliberately (lest the union bosses or commos or someone run wild, presumably), because these sorts of things are actually far closer to the concoctions of clever consultants with a focus group report in hand.
Rudd has a good argument that Howard forever damned the idea of dropping election commitments with the “non-core promises” line. But there is a certain rigidity in his style and he might do well to emulate Bob Hawke rather than continue with the implementation of all this senseless populism. Let’s hope, for the government’s sake as well as for ours, that the “evidence-based” thing is more than an aspiration.