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We Must Remain Vigilant

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, now renamed DisabilityCare is a step closer to becoming reality after the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman signed an agreement with Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Brisbane. The agreement confirms the funding commitment of both levels of government to the disability scheme.

The deal will see Queensland contribute $1.9 billion dollars over the next decade and see the disability reform starting to emerge in 2016, before it is fully operational in 2019-20. In signing up, Queensland now joins New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory as signatories to the funding arrangements. That leaves Western Australia and the Northern Territory as the only governments still to put ink on the page.

Understandably, excitement is growing about the future of disability care in Australia and that has accelerated with each individual agreement reached between the state and territory governments and the commonwealth. People with a disability around Australia, their carers and families, are slowly rediscovering a long lost hope, that their needs might be sufficiently met by government. Of course there is going to be palpable excitement. Of course there will be some celebration.

But we need to be very careful about how we view recent events. As advocates and supporters of this much-needed reform we must not allow ourselves to get too swept up in the emotion of important days like yesterday. There is no doubt that commitments like that agreed to by Julia Gillard and Campbell Newman are a big step forward, but a lot can still go wrong between now and 2018-19. In fact, there is a need to continue to be cautious until well after the scheme is fully operational across the country. Things can still go a bit pear-shaped.

The first, but most surmountable roadblock is getting the recalcitrant state of Western Australia and the Northern Territory to agree to a funding commitment for the rollout with the commonwealth.

Western Australia wants to sign up but wants more decentralised control of the scheme in the state and that is fair enough, because service delivery should be based on a largely decentralised bureaucracy. Negotiations between WA and the federal government will continue and a resolution of some sort appears inevitable. But caution is still the order of the day here and both the state and the commonwealth must continue negotiations with an open mind and a desire for compromise on the specific issues WA has with the policy.

The Northern Territory will also need to get the pen out and sign a deal with Canberra for the full rollout of DisabilityCare. The NT Government just recently penned a deal to have their own launch site in the Barkly Region. In light of this, realisation of the funding for the full commitment surely cannot be too far away. But again, all possible eventualities must be taken into account, including the negative ones. even though 6 of the 8 states and territories have agreed to terms with the Gillard Government.

Bilateral agreements aside, there is still the issue of where the commonwealth, even the states, will get the rest of the money for the disability insurance scheme, despite the commitments to fund the scheme. At present the agreements are simply words between two parties and in the interest of making sure DisabilityCare happens, the positive developments must be viewed with the utmost wariness until the full policy has actually commenced.

The Opposition too, who will almost certainly be in government come September, will need to be pursued just as relentlessly over its commitment to the NDIS. There is bipartisan support but it means nothing until we actually see the policy up and running.

Finally, we must continue to run a critical eye over the policy even when it is operational. There may be shortfalls in standards of delivery and even funding and we should not be particularly surprised if either of these possibilities arises. In fact, it is completely within reason to expect that both problems may exist, though hopefully the  launch sites will allow enough time to remedy most, if not all potential issues.

With the agreements signed to date between commonwealth and state and territory governments, about 90% of Australians with severe and permanent disability and those that look after them can now have a little more hope.

We need to make sure over the coming years that the agreements are transformed from words on a page to deeds.

Putting the Politics Into Public Appointments

The 2013 election result is almost set in stone. In that case, the Liberal and National Party coalition will form government after the September 14 poll, leaving the Australian Labor Party to do some soul-searching on the opposition benches. That means that from late this year, the incoming government would have the ability to make appointments to the various offices and positions across government and the public service. Almost on cue, debate has occurred over these potential appointments.

It has emerged that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sent a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard urging that she not announce a successor to Governor-General Quentin Bryce whose term concludes next March, about 6 months after the election. The letter also chastises the PM for the recent reappointment of the Australian Electoral Commissioner and other public service appointments made recently.

In the letter, the alternative Prime Minister writes: ”The decision to announce these appointments subverts the established convention that no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor”. Yes, that old nugget again about the caretaker conventions which we have already debated during this, the 43rd parliament. You would have thought that little debate was well and truly settled. It is quite surprising it is being raised again, albeit in relation to a different topic.

Under the caretaker conventions, appointments should not be made by a government during the caretaker period of government. Further, if it is necessary for there to be an appointment made once parliament is dissolved, then it should be deemed a temporary role where the person nominated is acting in the role for a short period of time, If it is deemed necessary for the government to make a permanent appointment then, under the conventions, it is agreed that the Opposition be consulted with on that position.

As there was with the earlier protestations about the government following caretaker conventions, there is a slight problem – they do not apply to the present political situation. The Prime Minister has still not visited the Governor-General to ask that parliament be dissolved and that writs be issued for a general election. We are however in the unusual position where we have an election date. But for all intents and purposes, it means nothing in this scenario.

Where there is scope for some debate, at first glance anyway, is around the rumour of a government intending to make an appointment at a point in time so far from the present date and one which would take effect after an election they are likely to lose. And that is what has apparently prompted the letter from Tony Abbott to Julia Gillard. There is also a rumour going around the political world that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to make former Prime Minister John Howard Australia’s next Governor-General.

Quentin Bryce was announced as Australia’s Governor-General approximately five months before replacing outgoing vice-regal representative Major Michael Jeffery in 2008. A rather lengthy transition period seems to be the norm and that is not particularly problematic, given that it often involves relocation, though people often move at shorter notice for employment.

It is strange, if true, that the government would seek to make an appointment to the office of Governor-General some time before the election in September. There is absolutely no reason for any government to need to contemplate making an offer of employment for a position which is not vacant until March 2014.

The potential future appointment and the response to the whispers about it point to a disturbing part of our political culture – the need to make senior public service appointments political. Who lands senior public service roles should never be the plaything of political parties striving to make a point and stamp their authority, but it is. The so-called ‘jobs for the boys (and gals)’ culture is an unfortunate blight which rankles with voters in the early months after each election, to the point where many of us now accept it as the norm. Unfortunately, it colours our altogether negative view of politics and politicians.

Who lands what role should be less, though preferably devoid of politics and more about merit. We are a meritocratic society elsewhere, and when it comes to the public service, even largely ceremonial roles should be filled by the best, most accomplished fit.

When will politicians learn that their search for power shapes the way we view them?

Here We Go Again

Julia Gillard has been Australia’s Prime Minister for nigh on 3 years. In that time, the Australian Labor Party’s poll numbers have been disastrous, to the point where a first-term government was reduced to a minority in its second term. Debate has raged about why the poll numbers for the ALP and the Prime Minister have been so poor since that swift leadership coup in 2010. The discussion has only become more frenzied and ridiculous since the 2010 election result.

Of course, many will have you believe that the poor numbers are down to sexism and misogyny, either in combination or separately manifesting themselves.

Speaking last week, the Prime Minister said that it has “not been ever the norm in our nation before for people to wake up in the morning and look at the news and see a female leader doing this job (being Prime Minister)”.

The Prime Minister went on to say  ”I am not a man in a suit and I think that has taken the nation some time to get used to – I think it is probably still taking the nation a bit of time to get used to”.

All things considered, three years is a pretty long time to get used to someone they see on their television screens almost every day. And it’s not like the Prime Minister was a stranger to TV and radio audiences while Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. Julia Gillard did have a significant portfolio of ministerial responsibilities, including education, workplace relations. Julia Gillard was also Deputy Prime Minister, which made her Acting Prime Minister when Kevin Rudd was overseas.

So if it has nothing to do with lack of exposure, or with the unique situation of having a female in the most senior of public roles for the first time, then what might be a problem for the PM?

Well, first, as a direct result of the poor polling, it is the mostly male backbench, or part thereof which has seen fit to leak and background against the Prime Minister and her allies. Are they guilty of misogyny or sexism? No, they are just guilty of trying to do all they can to keep themselves in a powerful position when they are in threat of losing their electorates at the September 14 poll. The backbench MP’s, in doing so, have managed to continue the poor form of the government.

Believe it or not, the continuing poll woes are still, in part, disdain toward the Prime Minister for the way that Kevin Rudd was knocked off. The fact that Kevin Rudd still proves so popular with the public is as irrefutable evidence as the collapse of the vote for the ALP over the same time period.

Funnily enough, the poor showing of the Labor Party is also about policy. It is about both rushed policy and policy that is actually bad, or at least perceived to be substandard by the general public. The public have been lied to a number of times now and they are simply growing tired of it and the vote has collapsed as a result, just like it would take a hit if the Coalition failed to deliver on its promises.

In case the PM was not aware, both her ratings and those of Tony Abbott are not the best in terms of approval. With the personal approval ratings for both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott comparable, maybe Tony Abbott can claim misandry? Ahh, no. They are both unpopular for a mix of historical and policy-related reasons.

Very few people would doubt that misogyny does exist in the community. But there is enough evidence to point to it not playing a significant role in the political situation facing the Prime Minister and the Australian Labor Party and certainly not a vote-changing one. That does not mean we do not need to address it, but implying or flat-out stating that it is a significant stumbling block for the Prime Minister in terms of the vote is to be disingenuous.

It seems a pretty weird thing to tell the public that they are not used to you. But then, this 43rd parliament has been quite strange.

A Recipe for Chaos and Fatalism

The Prime Minister paid a visit to the Governor-General today for the swearing-in ceremony of her latest ministry. This is the second visit to Yarralumla in as many months for Julia Gillard and it comes just a matter of days after the ALP again found themselves facing a leadership spill, which this time did not happen. The election date was obviously firmly in mind in the ministerial considerations the Prime Minister again had to make ahead of the May budget session. The result – the continued perpetuation of some of the same issues which have plagued the Gillard Government.

Perhaps the most striking think about today’s announcement is the decision made by Julia Gillard to create multiple ‘ministers for everything’. Five existing ministers in the Gillard ministry now have extra portfolios.

Anthony Albanese has had Regional Development and Local Government added to his title, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus takes on the dual role of Special Minister of State and Minister for Public Service and Integrity and Craig Emerson snares Chris Bowen’s former role in Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. Finally, Greg Combet becomes Minister for Climate Change, Industry and Innovation and Tony Burke adds Minister for the Arts to his already lengthy ministerial title.

Gillard backers have clearly been rewarded with the exception of Anthony Albanese, the conciliatory Rudd backer who has received the key portfolio of Regional Development which is a very neat fit with his existing responsibilities in Infrastructure and Transport.

There are just six months until the election. Obviously that has had a major impact on the distinct lack of change and renewal in the changes announced today at Government House. It would have been wise to promote existing talent, despite the electoral prospects of the ALP at the September 14 election. Some would consider that a waste of good people, but the best team should always be made available regardless of the state of play.

There were a number of new additions to the ministry, but for the most part they were underwhelming choices. Andrew Leigh and Gary Gray were the best appointments in the new ministry. Others elevated were Sharon Bird, Don Farrell, Catherine King, Michael Danby, Senator Jan McLucas, Senator Matt Thistlethwaite, Amanda Rishworth and Shayne Neumann.

If the Prime Minister was looking for a way to continue to foment chaos within her government, today she found it. Having so many ministers, already struggling with burdensome portfolios is not a smart political move at all. Yes, there is only six months to go until the polls and there will not be much more legislative work undertaken, but the policy effort must continue and will be stifled by the mega portfolios created today.

If ever you wanted a glimpse at the thinking of our leaders, without actually needing to hear an answer, you got it. Far from the bloated portfolios simply making policy work more difficult, the ministerial announcements also portray a fatalism within the Labor Party. That fatalism is obviously at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s mind, the reshuffle was designed by her.

If there was one strong positive about the announcement it is that there will apparently be a decrease in the size of government, or at least a bit of a streamlining of it. The Department of Climate Change will now merge with the Department of Industry and Innovation.

Like many problems, the solution to the personnel issue was rushed and ill-considered. There was a small amount of good done in the selections made, but it was cancelled out by the poor decisions.

Chaos will continue to reign and now the government quite clearly looks to have given up all electoral hope.

The Labor Leadership: the Winners, the Losers and the Journey to Unity

The Australian Labor Party had another very ordinary week last week. They have had a lot of ordinary weeks over the last two-and-a-half years, but the events of last week made that period of time for Labor one that they would surely rather forget. The ALP have also had two other periods of time they would rather forget, so the spill which never went ahead was not exactly a unique event. Labor has now had three leadership spills since coming to office in 2007. The first one was successful and the last two unsuccessful for very different reasons.

The spill which never was, happened to be truly bizarre. One of Rudd’s detractors, Simon Crean called on the Prime Minister to bring about a leadership spill and in the process got himself sacked from the ministry. It appeared he was trying to bring the issue to a head at the very least and quite possibly attempting to portray at least a facade of unity. Why else would one of Julia Gillard’s most vocal supporters stick his neck out like that?

There were some definite winners and losers last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard came out of the botched spill itself a winner, but still damaged nonetheless. But there were other big winners last week and they were conservatism and liberalism. Simon Crean was obviously a big loser from what transpired. His ministerial colleagues who have backed Kevin Rudd since he was deposed have also paid a price, except for Anthony Albanese. And of course the last week will take a heavy toll on the Labor Party.

Julia Gillard again emerged victorious from a period of destabilisation. At each attempted coup the PM has triumphed. That in itself makes the Prime Minister a winner, but unfortunately for the Labor Party, it leaves them without electoral hope.

Conservatism is clearly a winner after last week. The Coalition returning to government becomes even more of an electoral certainty than it was the week before the failed leadership ballot. Voters will certainly crave government stability and willingly forego a more policy energetic government after the last three years.

Liberalism is a winner on two fronts. Obviously the Liberal Party does subscribe, in part, to the liberal tradition, even though the party has long been hijacked by the conservative ideology. So of course liberalism is, in part, on an electoral winner.

Liberalism also wins for another reason. Senior Labor MP and now former minister Martin Ferguson gave a considered speech about the future of the ALP upon resigning his post. He said that the party must regain the reforming mantle of the Hawke and Keating governments. Both these governments, though Labor in brand, can be considered to have a not insignificant association with the liberal tradition.

Some talented ministers and whips have now resigned their posts, all because of their association with the Rudd camp. This seems counter-intuitive when  there has been absolutely no question of ministerial wrongd0ing by any of those in question. They simply backed a man with an ego who, when push came to shove, failed to turn up. If showing unity is the game, then there should have been no resignations, whether they were pushed or took the plunge themselves.

In the case of Simon Crean it is not easy to argue he should have been spared. Sacking Simon Crean on the day was the only option available to Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, but she could consider bringing him back and that would not cost any political capital.

It is quite possible, even likely, that those ministers who have resigned do not wish to serve under Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But we will likely never know.

Some healing needs to take place within Labor to save some seats at the September 14 poll, but that cannot happen with former ministers heading to the back-bench.

That healing and quest for unity needs to go deeper than Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard electioneering together in August and September and it needs to start today.

When Politics Gets Ugly

Parliament is often very loud. Parliamentarians are regularly seen raising their voices at one another across the floor of the parliament. But it is not very often that a lot of noise comes from the public gallery. But earlier this week that is exactly what happened. A group of protesters, as they have once or twice before in this the 43rd parliament, raised their voices and heckled and called the Prime Minister those most creative and under-used names which will not be repeated here.

This week’s interruption, as the last one did, raised two main questions. The first is all about the standards of the public discourse and any improvement it requires. The second question is the most important and that is who is ultimately responsible for the tone and demeanour of political communication – any communication for that matter.

The tone and manner of all forms of communication, especially that of a political nature actually matters. We the public get frustrated with the behaviour of our politicians, frequently referring to them as different kinds of animals because of their rambunctious and at times obnoxious behaviour in parliament, most notably during Question Time.

Parliamentary debate, even during the hot-headed hour and ten minutes that is Question Time should be much more subdued and civilised. Obscene statements and generalisations should be kept to a minimum. More importantly, name-calling, despite our larrikin nature as Australians simply should not take place.

Despite the poor behaviour of our elected representatives, we should not be engaging in equally poor behaviour ourselves. Parliament should be treated with respect, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day. That means no childish name-calling from the galleries, despite what’s happening in the chamber.

What happened the other day was simply too much. The whole spectacle was ugly. The way the protesters chose to interact with the Labor Government demeaned the parliament. More importantly, it made the protesters look just as silly as the politicians they dislike. The actions of the protesters also unfortunately and rather unfairly. tarred with the same brush, those who might have a similar view of the current government, but express their disquiet in a different manner.

That’s not to say that protest is not a vital part of democracy. It is. But as with protest elsewhere, it should be conducted in a sensible manner and in a sensible forum or it does the cause behind it much harm.

The response to the loud behaviour of the observers was both fair and unfair. The Speaker was right to chastise the rowdy actions which took place this week. There should be a zero tolerance approach to an interruption of the parliament that is loud like that. Very few people outside of those involved in or sympathetic to the particular cause involved, ever take such actions seriously.

What was quite unfair about elements of the response was the apportioning of blame for the actions of those in the public gallery. The Coalition were singled out and blame was apportioned. Yes, the Coalition have been responsible for some pretty ordinary moments during this minority government, as have the ALP. But that was their actions and again, a rational response from those which view such behaviour is not to repeat it.

There is also a very important concept in liberal thought which is completely ignored by this purely political accusation levelled at the Liberal and National Party Coalition. That concept is one of responsibility for one’s own actions. Despite the sometimes over-the-top actions from the Opposition, it is the protesters and only the protesters, who are responsible for their actions.

It is important that the standards of political communication improve. It would cut down on some of the cynicism which surrounds politics, though not necessarily the political process itself. Both politicians and the public need to improve how they discuss and engage with politics.

First and foremost, politicians and punters alike are responsible for their own actions, not one side of politics or another.

Latham Ignores History

On breakfast radio, former Labor leader Mark Latham gave his two cents about the predicament that the Australian Labor Party finds itself in at the present time. Latham’s views on the Australian Labor Party and the election came less than 48 hours after a thumping victory for the WA Liberals and Nationals at the state poll in the west. The former Opposition Leader made clear on the ABC’s AM program this morning, his views about Kevin Rudd and the question of the leadership of the Australian Labor Party as we amble towards the September 14 election.

To put it quite simply, Mark Latham’s thoughts on how to deal with Kevin Rudd appears to have been, like some of his past actions, the result of a brain snap. It is clear that Mark Latham has forgotten much of Australia’s recent political history. Or perhaps he like many Labor supporters, is simply wishing it away in his mind. Whatever the reason, the thought process was lacking.

Mark Latham’s brilliant advice to the ALP was for the Prime Minister to give Kevin Rudd a ministry, preferably Climate Change Minister. In making this point, Latham said that giving Rudd a ministry would be a “much better utilisation of Rudd’s talents than being Labor’s destabiliser-in-chief”.

Well Mark Latham is right about one thing here: it would be much better for the Labor Party to have a man of Rudd’s popularity in the ministry. People, on the whole, still seem willing to listen to what Kevin Rudd has to say and having one of the smarter members of the Labor team actually in the ministry would be a wise tactical decision.

Where Mr Latham’s argument fails him is his inability or perhaps unwillingness to remember what happened when the former PM was the Minister for Foreign Affairs. There was open hostility towards Prime Minister Julia Gillard from the vanquished and it all culminated in a leadership spill after which Kevin Rudd retreated to the backbench, becoming simply the MP for Griffith.

For Kevin Rudd and many of his supporters, being a part of Labor’s inner-circle would simply not be enough. We know that the backgrounding and sniping at the Prime Minister would continue right through until polling day. The only thing which would come close to bringing an end to the divisions within the party would be if he were to be given his old friend Wayne Swan’s portfolios – both of them. Even then, that most likely would not be enough for the man.

Something that needs to be kept in mind is that the worry within the Labor Party about the leadership is now far less about causing trouble for Julia Gillard because she knifed a first-term PM, and far more about worried backbench MP’s considering their best hope for electoral survival as election day nears.

The backgrounding and destabilisation now far less about causing trouble for the Julia Gillard than it was in the early days and far more about the poor poll predicament Labor find themselves in. For as long as the polls are bad for Labor, the rumbles about leadership change will continue.

In the interview Mark Latham also cautioned against Labor re-installing Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. If the polls are to be believed, there would certainly be a positive change amid a reversion to Kevin Rudd and Labor would become at the very least competitive, but poll-winning heroics would appear to be a far-fetched idea.

The long and the short of it is that Mark Latham is wrong on Rudd. There is no way to stop the ructions in Labor except to do much better in the opinion polls. The question of leadership change is more complicated, but ultimately, if we choose to believe the published numbers, then going back to Rudd, at least in theory, is a better decision.

A Tale of Two Election Campaigns and What One Means for the Other

The Australian Labor Party in Western Australia were roundly defeated at the state poll on Saturday. It would appear that the ALP have been reduced to just 19 seats in the 59 member lower house of the West Australian parliament. The WA Liberals could govern in their own right after Saturday’s election drubbing, but will not. Despite the huge win, Colin Barnett’s Liberal Party will again join with the WA Nationals to form a coalition government in the westernmost state. Together they won an estimated 40 seats.

It was not as big a win as the New South Wales Liberals experienced, nor the Queensland LNP, but it was a very significant victory for the Liberal team in Western Australia and an extra painful loss for the ALP in the state.

After such defeats – in fact, after almost all election losses, the usual questions are asked. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? Was the campaign strong? Were there external factors which influenced the result?

It is abundantly clear that there were a number of factors which, when put together, led to the election result we saw at the weekend. The electoral age of the Barnett Government was a factor as was the campaigns run by both the major political parties. The result was also undoubtedly influenced by the state that the federal ALP finds itself in.

We can learn a number of lessons from the WA result.

The first is that most political parties will almost automatically spend more than one term in government. That happened here after four years of minority rule by Colin Barnett and his team of Liberals and Nationals. But what might have shocked was the extent of the voters’ desire to see the Barnett Liberals serve out another four years in government. And in truth, the kind of result we witnessed cannot be simply explained as the electorate giving the government another chance. Voters clearly wanted to deliver much more than just another four years.

Both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party ran strong campaigns. And both were praised in the media for their strong campaigning efforts. But obviously the Liberal Party ran the stronger campaign. It is impossible to argue against that assumption given the result. And both campaigns were also very positive and based around further developing Western Australia.

Since the results came in late on Saturday night, thoughts turned to what this meant for the Labor Party locally and nationally. Discussion, as it does after a string of poor poll results, also turned to the question of leadership. Funnily enough, there was no questioning of the suitability of the ALP leadership team in WA. Instead, talk turned to what the result might herald for the Gillard Government and its figurehead, Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

There is no doubt that the Labor brand is toxic. We discovered that pretty quickly after seeing Labor Governments fall around the country, in two cases, into a deep electoral abyss. But it is not WA Labor that is on the nose in a particularly major way, it’s the ALP in the federal parliament which people are particularly weary of.

Because it is the Labor name that is toxic, it really does not matter much about who the federal Labor leader and Prime Minister is. Even though polls say Kevin Rudd would win an election if he were to become PM again, realistically, the electoral prospects for the party are still dire. So if the federal parliamentary Labor Party heeded the calls of former WA parliamentarian Alannah MacTiernan, apart from an initial bounce and a prolonged narrowing in the election-winning lead of the coalition – there would not be the required poll surge past the opposition.

Perhaps the strangest part of the election result was the unwillingness of commentators to give much credit to the Barnett Government. The people are not particularly stupid. If they thought he was doing a terrible job they would never have given him as Premier, and his government, as much as an endorsement as they did on Saturday at the ballot box.

Saturday too was just another message for Canberra about what is coming their way in September. It has an inevitability to it. The result will cause further leadership rumbles, but whether or not the federal ALP go into a panic is yet to be seen.

It is however, unlikely.

Julia Gillard, Western Sydney and the Art of the Stunt

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is heading to western Sydney. From Sunday Julia Gillard will spend almost a week in Rooty Hill, an area of western Sydney frequented by politicians, particularly during recent election campaigns. Ms Gillard will temporarily relocate to the area from the Prime Minister’s residence in Kirribilli where the aim will be to try to reach out to some of Australia’s most important voters. The move is one of the most obvious examples of a stunt that you could find. But not only that, the mini campaign smacks of desperation and the timing of the visit is incredibly poor.

The poll numbers are bad for the Australian Labor Party and even the Prime Minister’s political stocks are falling against a more positive Opposition Leader in Tony Abbott. The latest Newspoll has the ALP two-party preferred numbers at 55% to 45% in the Coalition’s favour. But it gets worse for the government, because that poll also suggests that 80% of voters have already firmly made up their minds. It would be a brave punter backing a Labor victory at the September 14 poll.

Desperate times have certainly resulted in a desperate measure when it comes to Julia Gillard’s little sojourn to the western part of Australia’s biggest city. Nothing looks more desperate than the most senior government MP spending a week in an electorally important area at any stage in the electoral cycle, let alone this far out from the poll.

The announcement of Ms Gillard’s intentions could not have come at a worse time. Just a matter of weeks ago, the PM nominated a firm date for the 2013 election. During that speech at the National Press Club, the Prime Minister remarked that her decision to call the election this early would clearly lead to a differentiation between the days where the government would be engaging in the task of governing the country and those days where it would be campaigning for re-election. Well, it is now clear that mantra has been thrown out. Next week will be a week of campaigning on the part of the Prime Minister.

Let’s be honest though – regardless of Julia Gillard’s words, we were still going to be in campaign mode. In fact, we have been in campaign mode since day one of the 43rd parliament. Most of that campaigning has been coming from the opposition, but nonetheless, the naming of the election date will only give rise to more feverish campaigning, particularly on the Labor side of politics. Both the Liberal and National Parties will continue to campaign, as they have now for over two years.

Julia Gillard’s sudden immense interest in western Sydney, if not an act of abject desperation, is a stunt. Well actually, it’s almost certainly both an act of desperation as well as a stunt, a public relations exercise – call it what you will. That is a pretty lethal combination.

It is true that all politicians engage in stunts. Politicians often take part in stunts on a daily basis. Even press conferences can be little more than stunts from time to time. The hard-hat however seems to be the prop of choice for political stunts, albeit a necessary one – most of the time.

Voters are generally very cynical about even the most tame of stunts engaged in by our elected representatives. Most of us wish they were not a feature of politics, but they are an unfortunate but necessary reality. They are aimed at the less politically attuned. Political displays are used as a subliminal tool to try to convince the unwary voter of the bona fides’ of politicians.

A stunt should look more natural to even the most discerning voter. Political grandstanding is always going to look a little ugly to the clued up elector. Subtlety is the key to faux displays of political action.  There is nothing subtle about the Prime Minister spending five days in an area across town from her residence, when we know how important western Sydney is.

A very helpful point was made on The Drum tonight. One of the guests remarked that it was odd of the PM to decide to stay in western Sydney rather than make the daily commute. The argument was that the daily drive would have shown just how difficult it is to commute between the city and the suburbs. And that is true. Infrastructure and overcrowding is a big issue in Sydney, and increasingly so in the west of the harbour city.

Some very dodgy and panicked choices have been made by the Prime Minister and Labor and they have all been painfully obvious to the electorate. A more subtle approach to western Sydney would have been appropriate, though as it is – the little campaign on the other side of town will matter very little in the bigger picture.

Manufacturing a Half-Baked Manufacturing Policy

Another weekend, another big political announcement. The Gillard Government today unveiled what is to be their big plan, their attempt to keep manufacturing viable in Australia. The plan involves money, lots of it, and will also require legislation of a somewhat coercive nature enacted by the parliament. When it all boils down, what we are left with is an expensive set of ideas which will not have much benefit for the Australian manufacturing industry. On top of that, government interference in industry decision-making markedly increases – again for little material benefit.

The Gillard Government’s attempt to keep manufacturing jobs in Australia will cost $1 billion. To fund this new manufacturing policy, the government announced it will remove a tax concession for big businesses with a turnover of more than $20 billion, which is aimed at promoting research and development.

The government would want to be absolutely sure that removing this tax break will not hamper the research and development efforts of Australian companies. Who knows, perhaps research and development conducted in Australia might discover a way to produce Australian manufactures more cost effectively.

The move to end the tax concession is also effectively a hit on the bottom line of those companies.

Under new legislation to be introduced into the parliament, large companies with projects worth more than $500 million and business opportunities which receive $20 million in state or federal funding, will be required to give local firms the ability to bid for contracts before any off-shoring can occur. They will be required to compile Australian Industry Participation Plans. All this does is increase the length of time businesses will have to take in order to make commercial decisions.

Individual ventures which are worth $2 billion dollars or more will be required by law to employ Australian Industry Opportunity Officers. They must do this in order to receive a five percent tariff reduction on imports. Further, these businesses will need to report on their efforts twice a year. Again we have another cost to business and more red tape to negotiate.

Neither of these two initiatives place any emphasis on improving the competitiveness of Australian manufacturing. For there to be any real benefit to the whole economy, it is essential that aiming to improve the manufacturing side of the equation is not neglected by government policy. All efforts the government can make which help cut the cost of business should be explored and implemented.

The Gillard Government also plans to spend $500 million dollars of the money raised to establish ten industry precincts in manufacturing hubs around Australia, starting with Melbourne and Adelaide. This will go part of the way to improving the manufacturing industry in Australia. It will bring manufacturers closer together so that collaboration is easier. This is however just a small element in the overall policy framework required to improve the lot of manufacturing in this country of ours.

Other elements of the policy include plans to help SME’s attract business and an increased vigour in the area of venture capital which is an integral part of modern business.

Like other policies the government has announced, the manufacturing policy is an attempt to influence decision-making that only looks at half of the policy equation. It’s also a further attempt to pursue big government at the expense of smart government.

It is quite intriguing that the plan which will cost $1 billion over four years, according to government figures, may add as little as $1.6 billion dollars to industry. This is not a particularly large sum when taking into account both the cost of the new framework and the susceptibility of the industry to internal and external shocks.

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