What a deeply depressing place parliament house is this week.

It’s swarming with mining executives, of course, because this is ‘Minerals Week’, an event presumably to remind us of how important the extractive industries are.

For an industry that is highly polluting and damagingly pro-cyclical — that falls in a heap whenever there’s a downturn, but goes gangbusters when economic growth is high, inflicting inflation and higher interest rates on the rest of the economy when it can least afford it — the miners get a pretty good press.

But if you want a nice illustration of all that is wrong with public policy at the moment in Australia, open up pages 4-5 of the Financial Review today. Don’t actually go out and spend any money buying it — borrow someone else’s or go to the library, but have a look.

The Plutocrats’ Gazette has given a five-page spread to yesterday’s ‘Minerals Week’ events, with pictures of the great, the good and the morbidly obese assembled to celebrate the importance of the metals section of the Periodic Table. Tony Abbott, seated between two mining executives, gets the central position in the main photo.

So there we have it: a merry-gathering of rent-seekers and politicians dedicated to purely oppositional blocking of an eminently sensible reform, all endorsed by a major media outlet that is usually the first to decry governments’ lack of economic reform cojones.

This is what reform now faces: deeply-entrenched, well-resourced rent-seekers aided and abetted by a sympathetic media. Living it up at parliament house.

Meantime, we saw some economic data. I remember this time last year — and it seems half a lifetime ago — when each set of economic figures was scrutinised intently for evidence the government’s stimulus was keeping the economy afloat. Yesterday’s data was so comprehensive a demonstration of the continuing importance of the government’s stimulus package that even the Fin and The Australian had to admit it.

You may recall the government targeted two sectors with its stimulus packages — retail and construction. They’re both big employers. The retail stimulus was via those handouts we all got; the construction boost was through an increase in the first home owners’ grant and the schools program, mainly.

The tail-end of the housing construction kick-along generated by the first home owners’ boost is behind us (now we need to get back to fixing up the real, structural impediments to our capacity to build enough houses). It’s the Building the Education Revolution program that is keeping the construction industry from tanking and taking economic growth with it. Those good ol’ animal spirits haven’t quite kicked back in yet in the commercial property sector, where developers basically face a capital strike from the big banks.

It might just be the uncertainty engendered by decades of European profligacy finally coming home to roost over there but, for all the incessant and facile debate last year about whether the government had timed its stimulus withdrawal properly, the stimulus program looks, in retrospect, very well-timed indeed.

But that’s not what you’ll get from the media, which is obsessively focused on the continuing campaign against the BER program.

Julia Gillard spoke on this in parliament yesterday and made a nice point about how the opposition, having demanded an auditor-general’s investigation into the BER, were now demanding a judicial inquiry. ‘Forum-shopping’, she called it, because the opposition didn’t like the result they got from the auditor-general, who gave the program about as close to a thumbs-up as you can get from the professional nitpickers at the ANAO.

Despite the ANAO having discredited the media campaign against the BER, it continues, and as I’ve noted before, now features the ABC marching in lockstep with News Limited. That’s why Kerry O’Brien grilled Julia Gillard exclusively on some half-baked claims about the BER last night, running questions at her that had already been asked and answered in question time.

The BER is currently all that stands between tens of thousands of workers in construction and support industries and joblessness. There is a clear conclusion you can drawn from those campaigning against it: they evidently place no value on keeping those people in work, and have no regard for the vast damage unemployment wreaks on both people’s lives and the economy as a whole.

If this government had the faintest clue about how to explain what it has done with stimulus measures, and is still trying to do with its tax reforms, it might not be in the foul odour it currently is with voters, hanging on to electoral viability courtesy only of the fact that the opposition leader is a wing-nut and the shadow treasurer a lightweight. But it can’t even communicate effectively about how it plans to communicate.

Like I said, deeply depressing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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