ANALYSIS: Why we have no long-term federal policies
DO you tire of election promises that change almost as soon as the vote is counted? Do you despair at the millions of dollars wasted on policies that never reach fruition dashing hopes and emptying the coffers of much-needed funds? Are you left exasperated by the number of projects that stall or disappear altogether when a new government sweeps in, its brooms at the ready?
Well, you are not alone, with pre-polling research indicating that although Australians remain interested in politics, they have become disillusioned with the way it is delivered by those in power, in particular, the lack of substance and style and the cookie-cutter approach that belies the fluidity of constituencies.
It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same and although power has swapped between the two major parties just three times in the past 15 years, the rhetoric remains, irrespective of whether we are talking health or education, superannuation or tax reform.
In fact, it is on the important policies, the ones that make a very real impact on our lives that we see both the Liberal and Labor camps often changing tack, shifting course for a ride many of us do not want to be on.
Australia’s climate change policy is a case in point. One would think that a long-term global problem could do with consistency in strategy but our commitment has been anything but. John Howard believed the claims of global warming were exaggerated, Tony Abbott was known as a climate change sceptic and Julia Gillard lost the top job for implementing a tax to help lower emissions. Way back in 1991 the Hawke Government decided against a carbon tax despite the advice from business and environment groups but still signed Australia to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose objective it is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations. The Howard government refused to adopt emission targets in 1997 saying it would devastate industry but the following year opened the Australian Greenhouse Office dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and signed the Kyoto Protocol treaty but then refused to ratify it. In the last decade we have oscillated between Howard’s domestic emissions trading system, Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reductions scheme, Gillard’s temporary carbon tax and long-term emissions trading and Abbott’s direct action plan.
Our education policies, too, are far from transparent or long-standing for that matter. Howard countered criticism that his government was allocating money to independent and private schools at the expense of state schools, with the philosophy that a good education depended on better attitudes and better teaching, not just money. Yet, the program for international student assessment showed a definite decline in our mathematical and literacy rates on his watch. You can’t talk about education reforms these days without mentioning the Gonski report – an independent review that warned too many Australian children were getting an inferior education due to lack of resources. While Gillard embraced the reforms, allocating $14.5 billion to primary and secondary schools to implement changes, the incoming Liberal government was not as accommodating. Although Abbott promised to match Labor funding, he soon reneged on the deal before again reversing his position with a policy that had much reduced levels of funding.
There are more examples to be found in Medicare, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the NBN, paid parental leave, the work for the dole program and of course in a vacillating asylum seeker policy deemed by the United Nations as lacking in compassion.
This climate of constant amendments, of moving goalposts, where voters are forced to make repeated adjustments to changing government priorities and policies makes a powerful case for long-term planning especially in the areas that hold common importance to the majority of Australians. If nothing else, it could streamline processes, cut costs and improve efficiency.
The business sector certainly seems to think so with a report released by the Australian Institute of Company Directors showing the Federal Government needed to pursue long-term policies that addressed fiscal deficiencies and infrastructure planning to encourage investment while Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingstone opines Australia needs a 10-year transition plan for the economy with the country’s lon- term interests at heart.
“My contention is that, give the disruption of a hyper-connected world, many of our policy settings are simply not fit for purpose. They have exceeded their design tolerance limits,” Ms Livingstone told the National Press Club.
“If we manage these (health, education and retirement income) properly, with the required degree of policy granularity and design sophistication, our productivity, the contribution of population growth and our capacity to increase participation will dramatically improve. It will take a decade of transition but it will mean that we will be designing policies that are fit for purpose for 2025 and beyond.”
There is no doubt that five changes in Prime Minister since 2007 has taken its toll on the electorate and the country’s top politicians. The latter seem too scared to make any decisive moves for fear of losing power while the voters are disenchanted by what they see as broken promises and leaders who have forgotten how to do just that. A politician with vision is hard to find.
But are Australia’s two majority too far apart on priorities and policy to find the common ground that could bring long-term stability?
The reality, says, Professor Graeme Orr, an expert in the law of politics and elections, is quite the opposite with Labor and the Liberals sharing more commonalities than you might think.
“There are few real points of difference between the Liberals and Labor,” he said. “What we have is two major parties in inexorable decline in their share of the vote. That then creates the rise of the possibility of hung parliaments and more variegated upper house the Senate in particular and we are going to see that again in this election. But if you look at the election campaign it’s a whole lot of battles to inflate small differences. Certainly we have had volatility with the changeover of governments at federal and state level and that may create uncertainty but there is significant policy stability.”
It is natural, says Professor Orr, for incoming governments to rattle the cage as they look for room to stretch and it is inevitable projects will fall by the wayside. It is how a democracy works.
“Fiscal politics is about compromise and trade-offs,” he said. “There are going to be differences and there is always going to be the question of what we can afford with the changing times. There are some projects that are major election issues. If you are talking about major projects like a highway, yes, pulling a policy in that regard is going to lead to the appearance of waste and risk but if we are talking about NDIS, health funding and so on, the parties are essentially looking for similar outcomes but they might be adjusting the amount of money they can spend.
“Within a government, even a long-term government, they will promise one thing, work towards it and then discover the costs are blowing out. That is the nature of technocratic business in government.”
Professor Orr suggests that while five and 10-year planning can work in some circumstances, it can fail too as we saw with the Soviet Union. Politicians, he adds, may make promises but are ultimately governed by circumstance, changing climates and public sentiment.
“The problem we are facing is a declining sense of trust because of our recent history,” he said. “Democracy is not a contract but it is the value you get out of a system where your voice matters at opinion polls and your vote matters at election time but we are not voting on individual issues. Representative elections are about putting trust in people who will then manage legislation through parliament and the budget through the executive.
“Yes, people are going to complain. They want their cake and to eat it too but that is an inevitable part of a democratic system. The alternative is either we all vote on every issue and then you have the problem of no holistic planning or go for total planning and have a sort of totalitarian state with electoral authoritarianism like Singapore where one party rules the roost.”
Long-term planning may be cloaked in shades of grey but most voters who grace the polls on 2 July will be hoping for some sort of middle ground. Democracy may not be contract but an election is a commitment. Is it too much to ask that the people we elect attempt to follow through on their word? Our immediate and long-term future depends on it.