With our political class, and much of the media, obsessed with scandals and personalities in Canberra, what’s happening with the issues that affect real Australians outside the Canberra bubble, which aren’t receiving substantial coverage because scandals are dominating the media cycle? We’ve gone through the biggest policy issues facing Australia to check what the government’s doing and how much coverage it’s received.

Employment: The big success story of the Turnbull government: massive jobs growth well ahead of anything seen in recent years, enough to drive unemployment down to 5.5% while participation remains in the healthy mid-65% range. Much of the growth is coming from state government health and education spending, which also means stronger jobs growth for women. The government has struggled to get its message across on this (as on everything else) but represents its best achievement.

Wages growth: The key economic failure of the government as it has wrestled with the same problem besetting other Western economies: low unemployment and low wages growth. No policy solutions are on offer beyond corporate tax cuts and continuing funding for health and education, where the biggest wage rises are happening. Plenty of media coverage though…

Closing the gap: The Prime Minister’s recent report showed we are at best marking time on reducing the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on health, education and economic opportunity, and going backwards on at least one indicator. Turnbull last year commenced a process to “refresh” the CTR strategy. The issue received virtually no coverage due to Barnaby Joyce.

Indigenous recognition: What was once a bipartisan process with real momentum from all sides has run into the sand courtesy of the Prime Minister’s rejection of the Uluru Statement, and his misrepresentation of the proposal for an indigenous voice to parliament as urging a “third chamber” of parliament. This is a major setback and has received limited attention, but Labor has adopted the proposal (and kudos to The Australian for maintaining focus on the issue).

Energy: What counts as progress here is now a summer without blackouts, but the Commonwealth-State brawling continues and may well sink the government’s badly compromised and detail-lite National Energy Guarantee proposal, the product more of the Liberal Party’s internal wars between climate denialists and people with a functioning brain than of sound policy development.

Climate change: Resolute inaction from the man who once said he wouldn’t lead a party that wasn’t as committed to climate action as he was. Australia’s carbon emissions, which began falling in 2010, have now resumed growing, with the government reduced to referring to emissions per capita, as if the laws of physics give you a pass for population growth. The issue has also fallen off the media radar, despite 2016, 2015 and 2014 being each the world’s hottest recorded years to date and 2017 was the second-hottest after 2016 and the hottest without an El Nino.

Housing affordability: Little policy effort from the federal government, especially around curbing taxpayer subsidies for housing investors. Primarily an issue in Sydney and Melbourne, but with enormous economic dislocation as ordinary workers find themselves priced out of suburbs even vaguely close to where they work, forcing them into long commutes on groaning infrastructure. The media never stops talking about property, of course, but mainly through the eyes of NIMBY home owners and we’ll-all-be-rooned professional doomsayers.

Infrastructure: Despite a tail-off in Commonwealth infrastructure spending (except on rorts like the inland rail farce), the states and territories to their credit have picked up the slack and reversed a long period of underinvestment in infrastructure, helped by industry super funds. Again, plenty of media coverage, but often of the “angry residents fight new tunnel” kind of NIMBY nonsense from Fairfax.

Financial sector: In net terms, the government has actually performed reasonably well on financial sector regulation, despite having to be dragged kicking and screaming to do it. Funding cut from ASIC has been restored; the big banks have to front parliament regularly; there’s a royal commission underway; APRA has effectively curbed riskier lending to housing investors, there’s what amounts to a banking super-profits tax. The problem for the government is, it could have owned all this and made it a political positive, but because it fought every step of the way to protect the big banks, it gets none of the credit.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Australia’s most important, and certainly most expensive, environmental strategy — once bipartisan — has run off the rails courtesy of greedy irrigators, malicious indifference from the Queensland and NSW governments, possible corruption within bureaucracies and an agriculture portfolio that implemented the hostility to the plan of its then-minister, Barnaby Joyce. The result is possible hundreds of millions of dollars gone to waste, and primarily into the pockets of vested upstream interests. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the ABC, this scandal has attracted more attention than previously, but still not enough.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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