Considerable attention will be devoted over the coming 11 days to the fortunes of the government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission bill. A successful navigation of the Senate — most likely with some minor amendments — will be the cue for much talk of a major victory for the government, of how it is learning how to master a difficult Senate, how the year has ended on a strong note for Malcolm Turnbull. A failure to pass, conversely, will be portrayed as a disaster for the government, which is ending the year with a defeat, amid more questions about Turnbull’s judgement. Expect a lot of obsessing about who wants what amendments and fevered speculation about the bill’s chances of passing.
But neither success nor failure with the ABCC bill will be relevant to the policy or political future of this government — and those two are closely linked. it doesn’t matter a great deal if failure or success meet the government’s legislative efforts.
The ABCC is a nothing bill: it achieves literally nothing for the economy, unless you think a flat-lining of productivity growth in the construction sector — what happened last time there was an ABCC — or increasing the number of construction workplace fatalities (ditto) is good for the economy. Even if, against all evidence, it yielded a rise in productivity (that is, as big as the rise that occurred after Labor got rid of the ABCC), construction forms less than 8% of the economy. It might well be successful at curbing the power of the CFMEU, leading to poorer wages and less job certainty in the industry, but like the argument about penalty rates, it appears perverse, given Australia’s current stagnant wages growth and its impact on the budget, for the government to be working hard to facilitate attacks on wages — especially when the government itself is imposing billions of extra costs on the construction sector via its anti-dumping regime.
If passage or non-passage is irrelevant from a broader economic point of view, it’s also irrelevant politically. The direction of this government is set: it’s a do-nothing government with no plans for genuine economic reform, its rhetorical fixation with meaningless free trade agreements wrecked by the election of a protectionist as US president, and its signature policy, a tax handout to multinationals at a time when our credit rating is under threat, stymied by the Senate. Its political strategy is to focus on the opposition and use such well-worn tropes as border protection and union links to (so far unsuccessfully) demonise Labor, while having to constantly pander to a fractious far right both within its own ranks and without. None of this will change if the ABCC bill fails or succeeds.
While the government is fiddling with distractions like the ABCC and internal stoushes over 18C and same-sex marriage, others are making the running on economic policy. Labor has ramped up its 457 visa campaign and caught the government on the hop. The IMF and the Reserve Bank have repeatedly pushed for more infrastructure investment; the IMF has subtly criticised negative gearing. The Productivity Commission is calling for new reform ideas. The crossbenches continues to push on protectionism and curbs on foreign investment.
Not merely is the government not driving policy ideas itself, it’s barely in the discussion. The Abbott government at least provoked discussion, even if it quickly lost the debate. The only real resonance of the ABCC bill is that it elegantly symbolises this government: an outfit so bereft of ideas it is stealing those of previous political generations to convey the impression it has an agenda.