The debate over whether the first months of the Rudd Government have seen real achievement, or have only merited His Bitterness Mark Latham’s faintly racist description of “a corroboree of the chattering classes”, might be assessed in the context of progress on a number of major initiatives.

Or lack thereof, more correctly.

The failure of Penny Wong and Nicola Roxon to finalise agreements with State Governments on the Murray-Darling Basin and health funding has illustrated that sharing a political party doesn’t help when key issues remain in dispute between governments. Wong has made some progress recently on the issues that remain between the Commonwealth and the States, but Victoria is still refusing to join up. Roxon has now flagged that the timetable for negotiations for the Australian Health Care Agreements, which form the basis for public hospital funding, is likely to slip beyond the middle of the year.

The reality of wall-to-wall Labor Government, if it hasn’t exactly ushered in a red dawn of socialist tyranny as predicted by John Howard, isn’t quite living up to the sales pitch offered by Kevin Rudd before the election either.

Elements of the Government’s accountability agenda also remain in limbo. Delays to the Register of Lobbyists – which has been “coming soon” for weeks – have become sufficiently concerning that the Prime Minister was asked about it in Caucus on Tuesday. And as Michael Ronaldson helpfully pointed out to the Senate, the code of conduct for ministerial staff is still, apparently, being drafted. Given the length of time it has taken to prepare, it should be an absolute cracker when it arrives.

Not that the Coalition, given to hiding behind staffers when in Government, can exactly claim the moral high ground on that issue. It was also fun to watch Ronaldson deal with the political donations issue this week. He has called for the Government to refer donations to a Senate Committee, but when asked about the Howard Government lifting the reporting threshold, earnestly declared that the public wasn’t interested in going over past issues. Perhaps, Senator.

Minister for Zeroes and Ones, Stephen Conroy, has also now come out to admit that the timetable for the Government’s massive broadband rollout will also be delayed. Conroy apparently blames Patricia “Anger Management” Scott and her happy band of bureaucrats in the Department of Bacardi. In reality, Labor’s initial timetable of six months from taking office – which would have seen the tender awarded in late May – didn’t have a hope in hell of being met.

As the long and storied history of Commonwealth procurement litigation shows (anyone up for a re-telling of the Hughes case?), either you have a proper tender process, or you have a quick one and then spend several years in court.

Accordingly, don’t bet your house, or even your PC, on Conroy’s revised deadline of September being met, either. However, do expect that something, somewhere, will be done by 31 December, even if it’s a single bit of cable strung across the lobby of the office of the successful tenderer. That will enable Conroy to stand up, hand on heart, and declare he has met the Government’s timetable that work begin by the end of year.

As experienced bureaucrats will tell you, a commitment to “begin” something by a certain date doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Peter Fray

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