Pleasant surprises keep coming. The economic experts just keep on getting it wrong when it comes to the state of the Australian economy. The gross domestic product figures for the June quarter published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this morning showed growth of 0.6% when the median figure of the 20 business economics surveyed by Bloomberg was 0.2%. Through the year GDP growth was also 0.6%.

Let the party’s focus groups take over. What happens now to the recommendations of the Federal Government’s Preventative Health Taskforce largely is in the hands of small groups of people meeting with Labor Party market researchers. How far the Government goes in implementing the sin-tax plans and the nanny-state proposals depends on what the focus groups say can be got away with without losing many votes.

The one hefty tax rise we are bound to get is on the tobacco excise. The Opposition will support a plan that over a few years puts the price of your average packet up to the $20 mark the taskforce recommends. Old smokers have shown in the past that they have no stomach for a fight and with no major party to turn to, we will shrug our shoulders and pay up.

When it comes to alcohol tax, I expect that the likes of Barnaby Joyce will not be able to resist arguing that the plans take the nanny state too far. With his National Party rump opposing excise increases this will be dangerous territory for the Government and the market-research findings will need to be very persuasive and Liberal Party support unequivocal before Labor will take the risk.

In terms of voter reaction, moving to severely limit alcohol and fast-food advertising is a “no brainer”. As long as they can still eat and drink what they want, people will not give a second thought to the absence of being told on television that now is the time to have a pizza home-delivered to go with the case of beer. The opponents in this area will not directly be people who vote but companies and especially those media companies that have an enormous capacity to influence what people think about a political party. Again the courage that Labor shows will depend on the stand taken by the Opposition parties. It is a case of united the propositions will stand but with any division they will not even get to the point where they fall. Without Liberal and National Party support they will not even be submitted to a vote.

Called a greenie! Rare it is when you have worked as a lobbyist for the National Association of Forest Industries and a company that wanted to mine uranium in the middle of Kakadu National Park to be called a greenie but it’s recently happened and I missed the accolade! Crikey’s own First Dog on the Moon did the honours for me  August 14 when he quite delightfully took up the message in one of my daily snippets about those cruel South Koreans torturing dogs to tenderise their meat before eating them. Silly old me didn’t see it.

What can I say after a comment like that except that a really cruel cartoonist would have made the nose on my dog character more of a wine drinker’s red? I have consulted with my American bull dog, Miss Polly, and Paunchy, the mastiff-American bull dog cross, and they are insisting I keep fighting the good fight against Korean barbarity. If you met them you’d know who’s most likely to get eaten if I don’t.

Now, as I was writing. With the rude interruption of John Della Bosca’s affair out of the way, Simon Benson, the Sydney Tele’s man in Macquarie Street, was able to get back to covering the main event — the Labor leadership. Goodness knows how many times in the past year he has written about leadership challenges to come but the fearless forecast this morning is that as Della Bosca is renowned for his ability to do deals, a Sartor/Della Bosca ticket in the new year is certainly possible. “Premier Rees may have bought himself some time with the removal of his rival but Della Bosca will return.” I’m sure John will have to ask Belinda about that but one thing I do know is certainly possible and that is Benson continuing to write about impending leadership challenges.

A Whitlam rethink. It was Gerard Henderson on the ABC’s Insiders at the weekend who made me reconsider Gough Whitlam and his contribution to Australian life. Gerard, the conservative columnist who you might disagree with but who always makes you think, referred to an article in last Friday’s Australian, “Whitlam’s grandchildren”, where Trevor Cook, having studied the maiden speeches of all the new Labor MPs, found they are the beneficiaries and bearers of the Whitlam legacy. What really motivates them is the agenda Gough Whitlam largely created for the national parliament: health, education, community-building and social justice. In the 2007 ALP MPs’ first speeches, there is occasional, and mostly desultory, acknowledgment of the importance of good economic management, but little evidence of any desire for a further instalment of the economic reforms championed by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Gerard sounded as if he was a bit disturbed at that development and my inclination was to agree with him until later in the day when I started reading about the problems Barack Obama is having getting a decent health insurance system through the US Congress. That reminded me of just what a transformation Medicare made to Australian society. That surely was an achievement enough to guarantee Gough’s place as one of the great reformers in Australian history and if new and younger Labor MPs believe there is a role for an activist government in improving the life of its citizens then perhaps we should be thankful rather than concerned.

Peter Fray

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