The Labor Party made Julia Gillard leader because it thought it was in trouble and it needed a trouble-shooter, a fixer.
She delivered immediately; the first fix is in and the big miners are off the government’s back.
The small miners aren’t too happy about it, but they were never the problem; it was BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata, with the backing of the Minerals Council, who were running the advertising campaign. That has now stopped, and Ms Fixit is getting all the credit.
Actually we now know that Kevin Rudd and his old mate Twiggy Forrest (who is also miffed at being left out of the final champagne-cracking) had already done most of the work; Gillard’s role was to make the final capitulation, a lowering of the tax rate from the previously untouchable 40% to a headline 30%, which, when the other concessions are taken in, falls further to 22.5% — just over half the original proposal.
But the result, if you believe the Treasury figures (and Tony Abbott is not the only one who thinks they are a bit too good to be true) is that the big boys will still be paying $10.5 billion in the first two years that they would not have done otherwise. As fixes go, it’s not too bad.
Of course, there are other changes: the government has dropped its offer to pick up 40% of establishment costs, the threshold at which the tax cuts in has been effectively doubled and the only mines affected are those producing coal and iron ore; for all other minerals, including bauxite and aluminium, it’s business as usual. Actually this is not as big a cop-out as it sounds because these commodities have not seen the huge price rises, and consequent windfall gains in profits that have made coal and iron such bonanzas. Should the same thing happen to them, there will no doubt be moves to bring them into the new system.
So it isn’t the neat, inclusive policy package that Rudd, Wayne Swan and Ken Henry envisaged. But at this stage of the electoral cycle it doesn’t need to be; what is required is not policy but a fix.
And, as this column among others predicted some weeks ago, it has left the opposition out on a limb. Abbott, in a rare attack of consistency, is standing his ground: it’s still a great big new tax and he’ll abolish it and the election will be a referendum on tax, he cries. But it won’t; the fix is in and the issue is dead.
Gillard is now turning her attention to the next problem area, asylum seekers. The outlook is a lot less happy. She has started by talking tough: the anxieties of insecure voters in the crowded western suburbs of Sydney are, she says, very real and must be addressed. We need a fix.
Well, sure they are very real. But that does not mean they are either sensible or necessary. As has been pointed out countless times, the boat people make up a miniscule proportion of Australia’s net migration and in international terms their numbers are insignificant. The suggestion that they constitute some sort of threat to Australia and our way of life is not legitimate anxiety, but rampant paranoia, fuelled by racist bigots and opportunistic politicians.
The way to deal with such worries is simply to give the facts; the truth is that there are no grounds for concern, and the prime minister should be taking the leading role in explaining this. But that’s too difficult and takes too long — it’s a policy, not a fix. So Gillard is instead calling for a full and open debate — at least for the next day or so, until she can announce her deeply considered solution.
Say what you really feel, she urges; abandon all thought of political correctness. And while you’re at it, abandon reason, compassion, humanity, decency, and any consideration of Australia’s international obligations and reputation. Let it all hang out. Gillard will then be able to announce measures which go a long way towards meeting the brutality of Abbott’s approach, claiming the public demands them: the fix she has been flagging all along, and the one the faction bosses who installed her really want.
And then there will be climate change and emissions trading. A short-term fix for this looming disaster might be more difficult, but we can be certain this is what Gillard and her advisers will be seeking. She has made it clear that there can be no real policy until the public consensus that prevailed less than two years ago is restored, but she’s also indicated she is in no hurry to restore it, and that in any case the new consensus that emerges may not be one for firm or urgent action. If that’s the case, that is the one that will guide future policy.
Gillard is offering not leadership but populism, not vision but adhockery, not policy but fixes: whatever it takes. She has had her boost in the polls, and that, for the moment, is all that really matters.
We can only hope that this is just her pre-election mode and that a victory in her own right will give her the confidence and enthusiasm to set a real agenda for the years ahead. Rudd had one, but he couldn’t explain it. Gillard explains things very convincingly, but so far has had nothing much to say.