Peter Smith

Labor unity? Only in denying its follies

Wall-to-wall Labor luminaries all fronted the cameras and appeared in newsprint with the same view. It was all down to disunity. "We could have won if we’d have had unity," Mr Beattie opined. According to Bill Shorten, defeat was down to “disunity within the ranks”. Neither their defeat nor the disunity behind it had anything to do with their performance in government apparently. Disunity simply appeared. It had a life of its own.

Their performance in government was marked by achievement after achievement; all unappreciated because of that pesky disunity. Self-congratulatory reminiscences abound among the light-on-the-hill crowd. Here is one example, among many, courtesy of Paul Howes.  “We should absolutely lament the fact [that] a government which produced six years of world-leading economic management and introduced a raft of historic policy reforms nevertheless managed to lose the support of voters.”

If not united in their political allegiances over the past six years they are now all united in their shameless audacity in recreating the past. The myth-making has begun. And it is bound, in due course, for the school textbooks, where it will become historical fact.

We’ve had exemplary government performance on the one hand, and yet two prime ministers unceremoniously dumped by their colleagues on the other. Sane people of independent mind might question the consistency of these events. And then we have the Labor Party faithful.

For the information of Anthony Albanese, Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek, and Tony Burke, all of whom have rated mention as leadership material, Rudd was dumped because the government had ‘lost its way’. We know that because his successor Ms Gillard told us. So that is the first three years down the tube.

How was this period marked? What significant achievements were wrought? Grocery watch, fuel watch, the digital education revolution, the green loans scheme, Garret’s free pink batts fiasco, Gillard’s building the education revolution rort. It was a wasteland of aborted schemes and taxpayers’ funds thrown away in the billions of dollars. Then there were the boats let loose on Australia as Rudd dismantled Howard’s effective border protection regime and put nothing in its place. But wait there’s more. Straight from the ministry of silly models, otherwise called Ken Henry’s Treasury Department, came the resources super profits tax. Here was a magic pudding tax which gave the government untold billions of dollars without affecting mining investment by a single dollar. End of Rudd. Thanks, Ken.

For the further information of the aforesaid leadership aspirants, Ms Gillard was dumped after the next three years. So that is most of the final three years down the tube. But how was this period marked?

Well it was certainly marked by a prime minister who had trouble telling the truth but leaving that aside, a carbon tax was imposed on Australian industry despite a solemn pre-election undertaking to do no such thing. The tax was set at a level of at least four times that of any comparable tax elsewhere, and in context of Australia’s competitors in world trade imposing no such tax at all. At the same time, a new mining tax (the MRRT) was imposed and the revenue spent or promised in advance. This tax earned the dubious triple distinction of damaging the perception of Australia’s sovereign risk, raising no revenue to speak of and, therefore, of adding to the budget deficit and debt. It is perhaps unique in being the only tax whose collection costs exceed its bounty.

The boats kept coming, and in larger numbers. To spare Gillard’s blushes the less said the better about the imaginary Dili deal and abortive Malaysian solution. The boats kept coming. Then there was all that unsavoury and unedifying business with Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, and Gillard’s own problems with her then-boyfriend at the AWU. And there was more.

Those budgets deficits kept coming against the background of illusory promised, and promised, surpluses. None of that prevented Gillard from pressing ahead at speed, in the cause of her lasting legacy, with immensely expensive reforms to education and more particularly to disability care; both without the exhaustive scrutiny and consideration that they should have been given. These announcements; which are effectively all that they are at this stage, have now, of course, become Labor achievements. The real achievement will be implementing them in the face of the budget and debt position left by the Labor government..

Running through both regimes was the immensely expensive decision, decided on the back of an envelope, to construct broad-band fibre to every home. To commit to a project of this magnitude without a cost benefit analysis was beyond complete recklessness.

But there was no end to the incompetence and recklessness. On the basis of a TV program, Joe Ludwig summarily halted the live cattle trade to Indonesia, while cattle were in transit and on the docks. Farmers were not impressed. Indonesia was not impressed. Even the small things were messed up: ineptitude over awarding the tender for the overseas television service or appointing a new chairman of the Future Fund. They could not get anything right. And yet we are told that but for disunity all would have been fine.

Maybe the last six years were saved by Rudd’s return? No, that didn’t quite work out either. He upset a make-up lady and to make matters worse, at a whim, he moved the naval base from Garden Island without telling Barry O’Farrell, built a very fast train from Sydney to Brisbane, and cut the company tax rate in the Northern Territory. Fortunately for us these were all simply figments of his fevered imagination. Then there is his solution to boat arrivals which apparently involves transporting thousands of people to PNG’s Manus Island, which is too small and ill-equipped to accommodate them, and subsequently resettling refuges in PNG, which clearly won’t accept them. Brilliant!

I don’t know what we should do to prevent myth from becoming historical fact. We can’t depend on the media. They just let this stuff about disunity pass without challenge. We will be left, if we’re not careful, with a brilliant six years’ of government undone only by personal animosity between Rudd and Gillard. In fact, this was six years of unparalleled incompetence, ineptitude and waste, which has left the country in a looming financial mess, with porous borders and tens of thousands of so-called asylum seekers to take care of.

The disunity arose precisely because of this incompetence, ineptitude and waste. Anyone who has been in a failing organisation knows that disunity is a symptom. It is a symptom not a prime mover. Look at the internal dissention among sporting teams at the bottom of a league. Compare that with the relative internal harmony among those at the top.

Success breeds harmony. Failure breeds dissention. And we’ve had a doozy of a failure. Thank God a new government is in power. Some complain in the media that the Coalition has not articulated a grand vision. Save us from governments with visions. We are not as well off as we are because of governments with visions. The free market has made us rich. What we should demand of governments is that they be competent, secure our borders, provide adequate and affordable safety nets, and not waste our money.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

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