Why The Australian gives Michael Costa a regular column isn’t at all clear; as the failed Treasurer of a failed Government, whose handiwork can now be seen in the precipitous manner in which NSW is leading the country into recession, the value of any analysis Costa can offer on politics or policy is minimal. Moreover, the role of lunatic ex-Labor commentator is already adequately filled by Mark Latham in the AFR.
Nevertheless, he is given a regular platform to spray his former party, which must make the editors of The Oz happy — what better op-ed balance than a former Labor minister who shares The Australian’s hatred of Labor?
But the week before last he wrote something that, even by his own peculiar standards, was staggering. It wasn’t the basic errors of fact — the column contains the bizarre assertion about the Government’s NBN announcement that “high-speed fibre to the node has been replaced with lower speed fibre to the home”, which suggests Costa knows as much about broadband as he does about climate change.
Rather, it was the claim that the Federal Government’s willingness to honour its election commitments was “designed to market Rudd in the lead-up to the next election as a person who delivers on election commitments. Political positioning, not good policy, is driving the Government.”
I’ve read a lot of asinine political commentary in my time (and written quite a bit too), but this damn near takes the cake: a politician is guilty of “political positioning” if he wants to honour his election commitments.
Is there no cunning, we must wonder, no Machiavellian plotting to which Kevin Rudd will not stoop to, to actually do what he said he would do? Has he no sense of decency, at long last?
The debate over honouring commitments has now spread — as it did this time last year — to whether the Government should keep the tax cuts it has committed to. Newspoll even added a question on it to its most recent poll.
We’ve all forgotten last year’s debate because, in retrospect, the tax cuts were an early and timely stimulus to an economy on the brink of recession.
Now the Government is again being urged to ditch the tax cuts scheduled for 1 July, this time not because it would be too stimulatory, but because of the Budget deficit and the contrast with an austerity budget likely to cut back on middle class welfare.
Let’s put aside for now the argument advanced by small government types that believe any tax cut is automatically good. According to last year’s budget figures, the cost of the additional tax cuts from 1 July will be about $2.7b, which is relatively small either way, although the cost of course mounts year-on-year. It won’t be much stimulation, nor will it make a $60b deficit much worse, but neither does it mark some sort of breakthrough in small government.
But what’s at stake is something beyond economics and budgets. Kevin Rudd, for all his faults and bullsh-t, has improved the trustworthiness of government, not just through his keeping of nearly all of his election promises, but through John Faulkner’s accountability and transparency agenda.
True, this is partly, or maybe even mostly, because Rudd remembers the unshakeable stigma John Howard garnered through his non-core, a phrase Howard never even used, but which stuck to him like glue promises (helped by the background radiation of his “fistful of dollars” in the Fraser years) and eventually contributed to the public switching off him from 2006 onwards. Rudd has set a higher standard — considerably higher — and it is a key reason why his popularity has remained so high: quite apart from anything else, voters trust Rudd, even if they don’t always agree with him.
But let’s separate the personal from the political here. Whatever benefits Rudd may accrue from keeping his promises, whatever cynical advantage the Prime Minister obtains with his fiendish plans to actually carry out what he committed to, the body politic, civic life, whatever you want to call it, benefits just as much. Australia can do with more trust — a lot more trust — in its politicians, in a greater sense that politicians can be relied on to keep their promises, that failure to fulfil their commitments should be the exception, not the rule. Australia can do with a higher standard, with expecting more from its leaders than it is used to getting.
As, but critics would contend, if Rudd could explain to voters why he was taking the tax cuts back, they would understand and support it. That would be real leadership. It’s also an entirely fanciful idea. In the three seconds a day that most voters focus on national politics, explaining the rationale for backing away from tax cuts, especially when the Opposition is likely to attack the idea, is impossible. But that’s democracy.
Future politicians won’t thank Rudd for his rigour in trying to keep as many promises as he can, even if it isn’t convenient, even if the budget is in a deep hole, but voters will reap the benefits: candidates will be less likely to commit to things they can’t be sure of delivering; party leaders will think twice about every commitment they make, knowing the public will have less tolerance for anyone who feigns surprise and declares “sorry folks, but the budget can’t afford what I said before the election.”
It’s an intangible benefit, sure, and perhaps doesn’t stack up well compared to the economic imperative of getting a structural deficit under control, but it improves the quality of public life, and will do so into the future. In the absence of a compelling case for ditching them, the Government is right to keep the tax cuts.