With the single consistent theme of the week having been Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, its cost and, to a lesser extent, that no one other than Abbott on his side of politics thinks it’s good policy, the puzzling thing is why the scheme hasn’t been nailed down to the last dollar. It’s now well over three years old, yet Abbott and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey appear to still not have a clue about how it will be funded beyond the corporate levy, which would get them about halfway, offsets from Labor’s scheme, which would get them a little further, and maybe the states chucking in some loose change — an option rather quickly kyboshed by the senior conservative Premier, Colin Barnett, early in the week.

In Hockey’s case, it looked less like he didn’t know than that he just couldn’t be arsed when he told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that he couldn’t recall the funding details offhand because he was in a car.

This is, remember, a “signature policy”, and yet despite having — we’re told — been examined by the Parliamentary Budget Office, it still hangs together with all the confidence of a detergent bubble. It’s one thing that the Coalition’s Direct Action policy doesn’t add up and can’t logically work. That’s merely a figleaf for Abbott’s climate denialism (or, to be pedantic, his belief that the planet is cooling), and to the extent that the policy even survives the transition to government, it will be shredded in the search for budget savings. But the PPL scheme is Abbott’s own, his commitment to the women of Australia that he has matured and changed on issues affecting them. Yet, like Direct Action, it seems to have been scrawled on an envelope back in 2010 and left more or less as-is since then, even with the PBO available.

Hopefully Coalition MPs would be be less lazy in government, with armies — albeit somewhat diminished armies — of public servants to order about.

Anyway, it all goes to show that the Australian media can subject Coalition policies to scrutiny. They just have to be policies that even business and the prostatariat at News Corp dislike.

If the week hadn’t been dominated by the collective effort to work out how PPL worked, there might have been an actual debate about manufacturing policy, with Labor releasing its policy to be a giant ATM for Detroit and Tokyo car companies last weekend and the Coalition releasing its “policy to boost manufacturing” on Wednesday.

In what is otherwise an election about marginal differences on key policy issues, on manufacturing there does appear at last to be a breach in the bipartisan consensus to prop up a sector that, despite the billions of dollars pumped into it by government of both stripes, has been undergoing historic decline since the 1970s. The Coalition’s manufacturing policy, released by its industry shadow, the universally loathed Sophia Mirabella, has little of substance — $50 million in business welfare via export market development grants, another $50 million to provide transitional assistance to communities bailing out of manufacturing, a minister for trade and investment who, it seems, most importantly won’t a xenophobic National, and something about “Strategic Growth Action Agenda”, which for mine is the winner in nonsense bureaucratese for 2013.

It’s excellent manufacturing policy, in the sense of being not much policy at all. Labour productivity has lifted significantly in manufacturing, as it has elsewhere in the economy, compelled by more intense competition from a stronger dollar. That greater competition will do far more to drive down costs and encourage productivity than any number of “Strategic Growth Action Agendas” or sending Andrew Robb around the world to try to drum up investment.

Labor, on the other hand, still sees a big role for government in guiding, assisting, enabling, facilitating and coordinating manufacturing — any verb but protecting. It’s a far cry from the Hawke-Keating years, when Labor understood that less government assistance, rather than more, was required to help manufacturing become more competitive and innovative.

It might have been an interesting debate over a genuine policy differences. It’s doubtless one Labor wants to have — Industry Minister Kim Carr was trying to get it started again today — given how much voters like propping up industries, while the Coalition, despite having the economically pure position, might not be so enthusiastic about discussing industry policy once the talking point of abolishing the carbon price has been uttered a few times. In any event, only the wonks noticed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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