Yesterday we got to see, in broad daylight, just who is behind the anti-RSPT campaign. Some Liberal MPs, naturally. A bunch of rich people shaking their pearls in anger at the government.  Some office workers dragooned into attending a rally, who couldn’t even be bothered picking up the dozens of carefully prepared placards. Andrew Forrest, the only attendee to miss the “business casual” dress code, dolled up in mining gear to distract from the absence of actual miners.  Some elderly people worried about their mining shares — presumably unaware they’d outperformed the market since the RSPT was announced. Some bozo claiming the tax was “robbing the elderly, the sick and the frail”.

These people represent immensely wealthy foreign mining interests and have powerful allies in the media, of course, but seriously — is that the best they could do?

I’ve been saying for a month that the mining industry is lying.  Bit by bit the evidence is starting to mount, not just in the credibility gap between their words and their business-as-usual actions, but from their own mouths.  Clive Palmer had to admit to the ABC that he wasn’t “canning” projects at all (and we’re still looking for that South Australian mine he said he was shutting).  Forrest made an absolute howler yesterday, claiming the Chinese were cutting mining taxes when they’re considering imposing a resources tax. Hell, maybe even copying the RSPT.

If the Prime Minister or for that matter any senior government minister had been caught out like Palmer and Forrest, there’d be an endless stream of commentary in the newspapers about how the government’s credibility had been shattered.  The diagnoses from the commentariat about backdowns and embarrassment would have come thick and fast.

Instead, we simply hear about “colourful” mining identities.  Quite what the euphemism “colourful” now means, you can work out for yourself.

Lindsay Tanner was reported yesterday as saying economic reform is now harder than it used to be, because of the media cycle.  He’s right that it’s harder, but that’s not the reason.  The media cycle has accelerated and issues are processed more quickly, but the real problem, as I’ve suggested before, is that the template for derailing reform is now well-established.  Moreover, this government did much to endorse that template by its mishandling of the CPRS, particularly in responding to the rent-seeking of our big-polluting resources sector.

In the end, though, the challenge is the same as that faced by Howard and Costello, and Paul Keating, and Bob Hawke — communicate effectively the case for reform, detail the flaws in the arguments of your opponents, and show you’re determined to achieve what you set out to do.

So far there’s not much evidence of this government doing that, but there’s no shame in learning on the job.  John Howard almost managed to make himself a one-term wonder, but went on to do OK.

If Kevin Rudd can lift his game, win re-election and get the RSPT in place, it could be the making of him as a reformist leader, ready to join Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello.  Having discovered that the best way to deal with rent-seekers is with a baseball bat rather than an open hand, it might embolden him to take on some more reforms that will arouse opposition.

The alternative is to remain frightened of his own shadow, constantly looking for the smart play, the quick fix, the announceable that will distract from his problems — the sort of strategy we saw for years from NSW Labor.

That’s political living death.  In power, but unwilling to use it, and a recipe for long-term economic problems.  Better to perish attempting genuine reform than stumble about, a policy zombie good only for dragging everyone else down to your own level, until voters put you out of your misery with a bullet to the head.

Yesterday Rudd announced “a new $6 billion Regional Infrastructure Fund”.  There was, at least, no obfuscation — it was actually a $400 million increase to the existing RSPT-linked infrastructure fund.  “The fund comprises $5.6 billion of revenue from the Resources Super Profits Tax commencing in 2012-13, as previously announced, and an additional $400 million for the fund between 2010-11 and 2013-14. These additional funds have already been provided for in the Budget,” the press release said.

Regional Rorts Mark II, here we come.

Another announceable, another press release with dollars attached, reflecting this government’s impressive capacity to reduce every major policy to an electoral bribe. And, yet again, too clever by half.  Why the month-long wait to reveal it?  Why not just announce it when the Henry Review was released, or on Budget night?  The impression is of a rattled government thinking it can overcome opposition to the RSPT by waving some dollars around, rather than by explaining its case.

If Kevin Rudd can’t win the debate against this mob, he won’t deserve to win the election, and we’ll be well rid of him.  Pity for the national interest that the other side look even worse.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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