Peter Smith

The Gillards

Booby prizes for 2011

I think it is fair to say that the performance of governments over the past year lends itself more to condemnation than to adulation. In any event, my own experience of declining wealth (for which I prefer to blame governments than myself) encourages me to have a jaundiced view. So I propose to allocate booby prizes.

Growing government debt in Europe and in the United States finally caught up with politicians used to spending taxpayers’ money with abandon. They must be confused and this showed in their inept management of the crisis. Apparently none of their brilliant Keynesian economists warned them that gross overspending decade after decade would bring them undone. On the home front, the Gillard government seemed intent on mismanaging the nation’s affairs while claiming credit for getting things done no matter how damaging.

European governments certainly earned a booby prize for their handling of the debt crisis, which went from faltering step to faltering step, lifting confidence one day only to dash it the next. As a result, one country after another was downgraded by those revered rating agencies whose incompetence has proved no bar to their influence. It should be no surprise that Europeans couldn’t get their act together; they speak different languages. I often find it difficult to understand what other people are saying in English. Imagine a German and Frenchman talking to each other in English. You might think that this is unimportant but suppose IMF economists say, as they did, that fiscal policy should navigate between the perils of undermining credibility and undercutting recovery. Now imagine you’re German and trying to work it out.

The United States government gave Europe a run for their money. As federal government debt alone clicked over $15 trillion and food stamp recipients grew in numbers to 40 million, billions of dollars were wasted building over-priced solar panels (e.g., Solyndra), and other green junk, while preventing an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas being built (the Keystone pipeline) because it might, among other things, harm migratory birds. What about those birds killed by windmills; aren’t they important too? Seems like bird discrimination to me.

Parochial it might be, but I also think we managed to do a few things in Australia last year to get into the booby-prize stakes. Unfortunately, events prior to last year don’t qualify so the undoubted all time international booby prize winner: Peter Garrett’s pink batts cock-up can’t be included. Nevertheless, a number of notables have done their worst. For this we owe a debt to Joe Ludwig, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Julia Gillard, and not forgetting Tony Abbott, if own goals count for anything.

Mr Ludwig did his agricultural thing in May. He closed an industry worth over $300 million a year overnight. You might be able to say that as an ex-trade union official (what else he’s a Labor minster) he knew little about agriculture. However, you can’t say he wasn’t decisive when it came to putting at grave risk the livelihood of cattle producers and their employees and those who depend on them. Now personally I don’t like the live cattle trade. But closing it down, without notice, while cattle are at the docks and at varying stages of being delivered to the docks, without any idea of what should happen next, is marvellously dumb and puts Joe’s folly firmly on my list.

Greg Combet as minister for climate change is responsible for improving our climate (King Canute was wrong after all). As a result, Australia decided to tax Australian industry at far higher rates than elsewhere in order to have a potential effect on global warming that will be unmeasurable. This has a brilliant side to it. Nobody will be able to say that the policy has not worked. No-one will ever know. On the other hand, to make Australian industry uncompetitive in pursuit of the unmeasurable has such an Oscar Wilde ring to it, and a reckless futility about it, that it positively clamours for a booby prize.

Only just scraping onto my list was Stephen Conroy’s stuttering, inept and forlorn attempt to orchestrate a simple tender to run the Australia Network. I have it in because the same chap that obviously can’t run a chook raffle is in charge of spending $40 billion plus on a national broadband network, without the benefit of any cost benefit analysis. Even in their more cavalier spending moments, governments in Europe and the United States might not go that far.

On my list too is the Malaysian solution. This had Julia Gillard written all over it. Who else could think these bizarre things up? Remember the aborted East Timor deal and the citizens’ assembly. The solution (to mangle the meaning of word) was to send 800 refugees to Malaysia in exchange for accepting 4000 refugees, with Australia bearing all of the costs. Apparently it was thought that the threat of being sent back to Malaysia would deter would-be asylum seekers. First, we are not dealing with idiots. People smugglers would have thought their way around the problem. If you get sent back we’ll get you another boat at reduced or no cost, for example. Second, what happens when the 800 is used up? Another five to one swap? This solution had a lot in common with pink batts. It sounded crazy; it was crazy; and it was bound to fail. It was a bonanza for Tony Abbott. All he had to do was to sit on the sidelines and watch.

Unfortunately Mr Abbott looked a gift horse in the mouth. The legislation he opposed gave the government authority to protect our borders. He could have maintained a rage against the Malaysian solution while still acceding to the legislation. A future Coalition government might have found it very handy to have as a bulwark against high court challenges. It will have no chance of ever passing such legislation while the Greens have the balance of power in the Senate. To carry on the clichés of this paragraph, Abbott snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It was a spectacular own goal and my choice for the top Australian booby prize. That is a bit much you might say? Not so. Protecting Australia’s borders is the first and prime duty of any government and it ought not to be unduly restrained in fulfilling that duty.

Mr Abbott can console himself that the current government has shown itself adept at incompetence so he will no doubt have opportunities next year. I am fairly certain that an Australian booby-prize list will be constructible for 2012.

In no particular order and without being exhaustive, Ms Gillard and her government will have to deal with the Greens who will be as demanding as ever on increasing the reach of the mining tax, and on clean energy boondoggles courtesy of revenue from the carbon tax. Implementation by midyear of the carbon tax itself, with its vast and intrusive administrative machinery, is bound to generate issues, problems and opposition. The boats will probably arrive in greater and greater numbers. Wilkie will be demanding his pokies reforms. The Craig Thompson affair may come to a head. The Peter Slipper triumph could turn nasty. The budget position is likely to worsen as the world economy weakens. It’s easy to imagine the NBN unravelling as costs grow faster than coverage. And then there is Mr Rudd, waiting in the wings, making everyone nervous. If history is any guide at all, it is hard to imagine the current government handling most of this (and any unknown unknowns) particularly well.

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