Peter Smith

Labor without leadership

Has there been a more irritating time for conservatives in Australia? I can’t recall one.

Gough Whitlam was my first experience of a Labor government in Australia. True I was a little left at the time but in retrospect I can’t help feeling warmness towards Gough and can understand Jim Cairn’s longing for a lost hippy youth with Junie Morosi. And we did have sensible Bill Hayden in the mix. There was cock-eyed thinking but with a certain style and naivety that was endearing.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating had that rare quality of commonsense that elevated them above their political peers. Maybe Gough had been useful in providing a “what not to do” script. Deregulation and selling publicly-owned businesses marked their tenure. I also happen to think in this age of entitlements that the superannuation levy introduced by Keating was one of the singular achievements of our age. Most governments run a giant Ponzi scheme for retirement benefits. You can’t trust politicians to quarantine retirement benefit funds and Keating knew that.

Sure, in an ideal self-reliant world, people should be responsible for making their own provision and deciding for themselves how much to put away. But we don’t live in an ideal world and compulsory personal superannuation is, I think, the best we can do in the circumstances. That is why Abbott was right to support moving to a levy of 12% and, in my view, should go one better and set a target for 15%, as Keating wanted.

Who would say that Australia was not better off for most of Hawke’s and Keating’s major policy initiatives? In any event, that is my lasting impression; I may have forgotten a number of bad bits. There is absolutely no chance of me forgetting the current government’s bad bits.

The sheer incompetence goes on, and on, and on. Can this government get anything right? The latest blunder is the ham-fisted way it has mishandled the tender for provision of Australia’s overseas television service. Quite simply don’t run a tender, and put other organisations to trouble and expense, if you really only want the ABC to continue to provide the service. At least the Greens component of the current governing alliance is honest about that.

But serial incompetence itself doesn’t quite do it in terms of irritation. What did for me was the misconceived triumphalism on the passage of the carbon tax, epitomised by the unseemly clapping and cheering, hugging and kissing, among government members in the House when it passed there on 12 October. I didn’t have the same reaction to Bob Brown and Christine Milne awkwardly embracing to mark passage in the Senate. The Greens believe, even if deluded, that they are the conscience of the nation. This is an onerous and lonely responsibility and it is understandably that their emotion would get the better off them when (to them) good triumphs over evil.

The Labor Party must be held to a different standard. It is a mainstream party whose ambition to govern depends on attracting a majority of voters across quite different segments of the population, based on its policies. For the most part, its credibility and legitimacy in government is based on pursuing policies which have either been taken to an election or which it believes most electors would support given the opportunity.

There may be exceptional occasions, of course, when any government believes it needs to put in place policies in the national interest which it knows are unpopular. This comes with an extremely heavy burden to get it right, particularly if such policies run directly counter to undertakings made during the election campaign and/or would be difficult to undo.

The carbon tax was ruled out before the last election by the Labor Party and will be very difficult to undo. You would think that a government forcing through such a policy, especially one governing in a hung parliament, would be suitably chastened by the weight of responsibility it was taking on itself; and mindful of its duty to do its best to unite rather than divide the country. None of this has been evident – only the most divisive and boorish self-congratulatory behaviour has been on view, with persistent gloating about the impossibility of undoing what has been done; presumably, even if Australians were overwhelmingly to want it undone. That’s democracy, current Labor style.

Like any organisation, the tone and culture of the parliamentary Labor Party is set by the leader. The “bring it on” schoolyard rhetoric is obviously no aberration; it apparently runs deep. And, whatever you think of the carbon tax, the performance of the government and Labor politicians in the House has lacked any semblance of class.

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