Nov 5, 2012

The real cost of opposition policies … or lack thereof

Refusing to release policies ahead of an election is sensible for an opposition. But there's a terrible cost when they return to government -- the muscles need stretching first.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

While Penny Wong was yesterday lamenting how irresponsible the opposition is in not detailing its fiscal policy nine months out from an election, the government was demonstrating exactly why any sensible opposition declines to do so. This morning, via Peter Martin in Fairfax papers, we got a partial analysis of the costs of three opposition policies, which would cost business $4.6 billion immediately. The three policies are the levy for Tony Abbott's paid parental leave scheme, the removal of small business tax breaks as part of the carbon pricing package and the removal of loss carry-back provisions. The analysis was prepared by Treasury. It is standard for government departments to prepare analysis and briefing on opposition policies at the request of ministers' offices. I recall discovering, as a young Department of Transport graduate in 1994, an entire drawer full of "confidential" files devoted to assessing the impact on transport of the Fightback! package and briefing ministers on it. It's one of the privileges of incumbency that not merely can you get an army of public servants to dissect your opponents' policies, you can then pick and choose what part of that dissection you release to the media, with public servants prevented from ever pointing out that you have cherry-picked or willfully misinterpreted their analysis. Today's analysis, for example, didn't include anything on the impact on business of removing the carbon price. Bear in mind, also, these are policies that actually increase government revenue, although in the case of paid maternity leave it's to fund middle class welfare by transferring money to middle and higher-income working mothers. The message from the government is thus: the opposition is irresponsible in not giving us fiscal policy detail, but it reserves the right to misrepresent what little detail the opposition does release. In which case, Joe Hockey is being eminently sensible in refusing to release any detail until the election campaign. While Fightback! was at the extreme end of political suicide notes, we've now gone to the other extreme. There is no benefit for oppositions to release policy detail outside the hurly-burly of an election campaign, when analysis gets lost in the flood of policy detail. And this is a broader, cross-partisan version of the problem that first plagued the Labor Party and now looks set to trouble the Liberal Party. As Labor has found to its immense cost, if you elect to abandon public discussion of policy your capacity to effectively prosecute policy when in government atrophies. For 20 years, Labor preferred to keep policy debate to a minimum, especially at national conferences, for fear of being portrayed as divided. In opposition, it adopted a small-target strategy to prevent the Howard government using incumbency to attack it. The result was that its capacity to sell its policies, to debate and explain them, withered through non-use. The party of Hawke and Keating, of Button and Walsh, "good policy can be good politics", became the party of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, too scared to take on Abbott at an election over an emissions trading scheme. The same thing is now occurring to the Liberals. An extraordinarily effective negative politician, Abbott is, on the few occasions he has tried to be one, a dud positive politician. Sometimes this is because his policies themselves are rubbish. His speech about deregulation last week, for example, was a juvenile collection of right-wing nostrums that betrayed a complete absence of awareness of how government operates. But Abbott struggles to explain the most basic policies. Amazingly, voters male and female actually prefer Labor's paid parental leave scheme over his despite it being vastly more generous. His approach to media management makes things worse. Shadow ministers are discouraged from giving long-form interviews in which they can be grilled at length. And there are rarely detailed policies to discuss if they do them. The emphasis is on the day's talking points. Skills unused atrophy. It's what happened to Labor, right across the party, after 1996. It's what's happening to the Liberals under Abbott. And the real consequences won't be felt until they're back in government, where being negative won't help and you actually have to explain policy to voters. What to do? They'd be mugs to subject themselves to more headlines like today's. And yet the longer they go avoiding putting policies out, the worse they'll be when they return to power.

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43 thoughts on “The real cost of opposition policies … or lack thereof

  1. GeeWizz

    Abbott should dump the Paid Paternity scheme as it’s not a vote winner and the Labor minimum wage scheme is more economically responsible.

    I think Abbott should take a fully-funded pledge of a NDIS paid for by an increase in the medicare levy to the election as well, because as we know Gillard has been all talk about this topic, whereas Abbott could be seen as the guy who actually will make it happen. Most people will support the policy, afterall who doesn’t want to help disabled children?

    Just make sure unions and their heavies are legislated out of the new money pit.

  2. Bill Hilliger

    And the Australian voters certainly can’t rely on the print and electronic media to ask relevant questions of opposition policies. Afterall that’s what an aspiring mediocre media is all about – all fluff and no substance. Isn’t that Tony Abbott and his government in waiting spokespeople lucky …what an easy ride into government. Have no policies and say nothing as the media asks for nothing, no please explain …three of four word slogans are published with glee no questions asked. We the Australian public are less inclined to pay for their respective media products and tend to regard many media commentators with an increasing level of contempt. No-one has ever asked Tony how come Whyalla is still there and how come the sky hasn’t fallen in?

  3. David Hand

    The “real cost of opposition policies” is an oxymoron. Because they are not in government their policy costs can’t be real. They can be analysed, criticieed, disagreed with but cannot be actually paid for.

  4. Jimmy

    For once I agree with Geewiazz – “Abbott should dump the Paid Paternity scheme as it’s not a vote winner and the Labor minimum wage scheme is more economically responsible.”

    However I can’t see how Abbott could take a fully funded NDIS to the election because he can’t even fund the anouncements he has. Just removing the carbon tax, keeoingthe tax cuts and pensions increases and spending billions on top of that for his direct action plan creates a massive black hole, and that is before he scraps the
    MRRT, means testing of numerous things and winds back the health insurance reforms.

  5. Observation

    Abbott and the Liberals haven’t needed any policies as they have their media mates to have us focus on crap. There is no substance in what they say except for this “holding the government to account” line which is wearing very thin.

    Come on boys, come up with something other than “this is a terrible government and things could be done better”. I fear if the government had no policies, just like the Liberals, then Abbott would have nothing to say!

  6. Hunt Ian

    It is hard to work out what Bernard is saying here. With a commitment to democracy one would expect that policies be put forward so that the electorate can think about them. The problem Bernard sees in this is that the other side can misrepresent policies and exploit the help of the public service. This would not be such a problem if the opposition could also get help from the public service and was able to point out the misrepresentation. Bernard is really saying that the opposition does not have any commitment to democracy. He could also have added that it does not need to because MSM will help if its real policies, which it keeps from the public are seen by media owners as being more in their interests than the government’s.

    Bernard then contrasts the Hawke-Keating style with Labor under Rudd and Gillard. The problem with the comparison is that the policies being put forward then were very different. Hawke and Keating won support from the media and a less than totally hostile opposition because they proposed to follow Thatcher and Reagan in boosting the share of profits in the economy. They did it through the “Accord,” which cost the trade union movement more than it cost the government. They also did it through privatizations, which got “privatization” a bad name, and by enthroning neo-liberalism as the source of “evidence based” policy for government. On the positive side, they also freed up trade and finance and removed rigidities, which improved the Australian economy.

    The increase in profit share was fundamentally based on a huge increase in productivity achieved by transforming Australian workers from among the least hard worked to the second most hard worked workforce in the world, in circumstances where business pocketed nearly all the proceeds of this productivity improvement. This style of productivity improvement is limited. It ran up against its limits years ago, and the Howard government took no steps to replace it with other forms of productivity improvement that relied on increasing the sophistication of capital equipment. Instead, the Howard government committed to still increasing the profit share in national income but this time by restraining wages and dismantling benefits

  7. Gavin Moodie

    I understand that it is now orthodox that the Coalition lost the Fightback! election because Fightback! was too detailed. But as I recall the Coalition nearly won that election. I suggest that it lost not because of the Fightback! detail but because of 1 of its proposals, for a gst.

  8. Hunt Ian

    The real problem for Rudd and Gillard is firstly that business still wants an increase in the profit share and it sees that this can be done by dismantling the welfare state. This dismantling is already going on in Europe, although Europe is also to some extent introducing the speed up policies introduced in Australia in the Hawk era. It is what the Australian Financial Review editor supports. Tony Abbott does not want to talk about it because it might not seem attractive to the electorate as opposed to most of business. The second problem for Rudd in particular was that no attempt was made to explain policies. They were simply dropped on the public with the hope that they would get media support because they were “evidence based”. Why Rudd did this is a bit of a mystery but it possibly reflects his lack of proper sleep, which rendered him less and less effective, and his confidence in his ability to keep in touch with the public. Gillard was initially stuck with the problem of working through the legacy issues, including the carbon tax to be followed by an emissions trading scheme. Now she is hitting her straps with a policy of productivity improvement through up-skilling the Australian workforce and engaging with Asia to trade in complex manufactures, including agricultural products like wine, cheeses, etc etc. So Bernard, the lack of explanation might soon become a thing of the past, although the difficulty of getting explanations into the MSM might continue, as was illustrated in its assumption that opposition to sacking Slipper by parliamentary vote equalled support for his remaining speaker. A fair section of MSM might get on the bandwagon of dismantling the welfare state because the “evidence based’ theories of neo-liberalism tell us that it is “efficient’ even though any such assumption is entirely baseless.

  9. gruy fghyu

    when are we going to hear then end of this “we the people” fantasy? there is no “we the people”. there’s you the plebs, and those with money and power. examine the mining tax, those with money and power got to negotiate their own tax regime and now end up paying nothing. and now “they” talk of raising the gst to make up the short fall. we the people indeed…..

  10. tonyfunnywalker

    The opposition is in a policy gridlock. The decision to use every tactic imaginable to gain early government has put the opposition into a time-warp as the campaign against the carbon tax dissipates.
    Voters need to see hope and progress for all.
    The Liberals are not helped by inept governments in NSW and Qld and a government of shame in Victoria (at least Troy Boswell was sacked).
    The Liberals in SA has its umpteenth re run of the “night of the long knives” Brutus(Pyne) misses the mark badly, he will stab himself soon.
    The Liberals in WA are a mind all to themselves.
    The electorate is fed up of Slipper/ Thompson/ Gillard/ Rudd/ they are non issues, but perpetuating these issues is causing a polarisation which is damaging Abbot as Liberals scream out for change of direction
    Policy release now is a little late as the anti Abbott sentiment takes hold in the quagmire of early success turning to failure.
    Gillard has taken the high ground and at the same time the Opposition oxygen.
    Gillard has delivered the undeliverable with a minority government in a hostile political and economic climate.
    Peoples living standards have been maintained and to many that’s all that matters.
    Gillard can now afford a policy hiatus leading up to the election and watch the Liberals implode as polls become polarised and the re-election of a Labor government becomes more likely.
    Like a poorly coached football team they claimed victory at 3/4 time. But the self anointed Full Forward for the Dogs (Gillard) has thrown off the “Taggers” ( that was what her mysogony speech was all about) and is slotting goals from the boundary lines often outside 50.
    The Liberals will now need to go direct if they have any chance at all and I don’t think a shuffle in the forward line will make any difference.
    The Liberal coaching staff have lost the game plan and to have the misfortune of the National Party making up the numbers. They have no game plan at all and argue amongst themselves too much on the field.
    There is too much ” handball ” and ” kicking backwards” to retain possession.
    And this is where the Liberals lost the game plan, they thought that the 5 minutes to full time started at the first bounce. There are 4 quarters in every game and you cannot guarantee wining at the first bounce.
    There is 12 months to go the election and the Liberal Forward line is tired, bored and boring as they parrot issues long dead or have been neutralised.
    And the voters who may have voted Liberal in the first quarter like any Footy crowd are heading for the car parks and the train station in the forth.

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