The moment of truth

Both major parties have announced policies that will be difficult to implement after the election, writes Ben Eltham

18 August 2010



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Photo: Dave Sag/ Flickr

BARRING a hung parliament, by Sunday morning we should know whether Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard will occupy the Lodge. Given how negative this campaign has been, it’s fair to ask whether either really knows what the first item on his or her agenda will be.

Sure, Gillard has said she will get on with the job and move forward, whatever that means, and Abbott has said he’ll install a boat phone. But in a broader sense neither leader or major party has outlined a particularly comprehensive plan that explains what they will do in government. And many of the promises they have made will be tough – if not impossible – to implement.

Let’s start with the Liberal Party’s twelve-point “action contract.” Point four is “stopping the boats.” It’s a slogan of populist xenophobia which makes many Australians cringe, although it seems to play well in the outer suburbs. But how plausible is it, really?

To accept that Abbott can “stop the boats,” you need to believe a number of things. First, you must accept that extremely punitive immigration measures really will deter desperate refugees fleeing persecution, famine, poverty or natural disasters – as well as the people smugglers who assist them. There is no evidence for this. As Kate Gauthier notes in a recent paper from the Centre for Policy Development (where I am a Fellow):

Australia’s varying asylum numbers have largely followed global trends over the years. Some small variation exists which is claimed by some to be caused by domestic policy changes.

Since there are similar ebbs and flows for plane arrival asylum seekers as boat arrivals… the statistical analysis implies that domestic policy focused on boat arrivals has, at best, only a marginal impact on numbers.

Abbott’s claims are also undermined by the history of law-and-order efforts to shut down illegal immigration in other parts of the world. People smuggling has much in common with drug trafficking, another illegal trade that governments have been unable to shut down despite vast expenditures of blood and treasure. Like drugs, the demand is high: people are willing to risk their lives to travel across borders and oceans in shipping containers or leaky boats. And, like drugs, people smuggling is also highly lucrative. Though the risks are high, the rewards are great. Thus, there seems little likelihood that increasingly extreme border-protection measures will crimp the demand for the services of people smugglers.

So the boats will keep coming. Abbott understands this – otherwise, why would he need a boat phone?

Second, to believe Abbott’s slogan of stopping the boats, you must also have absolute confidence in the integrity of Australia’s northern maritime surveillance. But, like the boats bearing asylum seekers, this system is leaky. Australia’s northern coastline is vast, and our naval and civilian surveillance assets relatively sparse. While most boats simply make for Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef, there have been instances of boats arriving unnoticed on islands in the Torres Strait and at many other locations along our northern shores.

In fact, no politician can guarantee to stop the boats. The only humane and indeed honest policy would be to acknowledge that seaborne asylum seekers are no threat and that Australia has an obligation under international law to assist and assess them promptly. This was basically the position of the Labor government until shortly before Julia Gillard became leader. But honesty doesn’t go very far in politics, especially in the face of virulent campaigning by a cynical opposition and the tabloid press.

The repelling of asylum seekers is not the only promise Tony Abbott could have difficulty keeping. Promising to “never, ever” implement a price on carbon may also prove difficult, particularly if our major trading partners move to introduce schemes of their own.

Admittedly, there is not much risk of that just at the moment. In the United States the Democrats have recently abandoned their attempts to pass cap-and-trade legislation, vehemently opposed by Republicans, through an increasingly dysfunctional Senate. Nor will China impose a price on carbon in the immediate future.

But in the medium term, particularly in the post-2012 period, international negotiations on capping global carbon emissions are likely to accelerate. The Eurozone and New Zealand already have a carbon price. Eventually, some form of global action on carbon emissions will emerge, probably driven by those nations with the most to lose – not just the obvious candidates such as Bangladesh and the small Pacific states but also more unexpected powers.

The recent drought and forest fires in Russia have begun to shift elite opinion on climate change dramatically in that country, for example. Here in Australia, another devastating bushfire or major natural disaster may play a similar role. As a report this week by the Australian Academy of Science highlighted, the science of global warming is now unambiguous and exceptionally detailed. Despite the best efforts of sceptics, it is likely that ordinary voters will continue to recognise the gravity of the situation and begin to demand action, driven by one of the greatest political emotions of all: fear.

JULIA GILLARD also faces some difficult policy challenges. It’s hard to know what “moving forward” really means, but there is no shortage of big-ticket spending programs among Labor’s campaign promises that could come back to haunt a second-term Gillard government.

Top of the list must be the National Broadband Network, a remarkably ambitious piece of infrastructure which will demand superb project-management skills from NBN boss Mike Quigley and his responsible minister, Stephen Conroy. The $43 billion project will require perhaps $22 billion of public expenditure, and the potential for IT glitches, costly delays and budget blow-outs is nearly boundless.

Delivering the NBN will be made still harder by the opposition and the conservative media, who have portrayed even well-managed government infrastructure roll-outs as rorts and bungles. Under its take-no-prisoners editor Chris Mitchell, the Australian has had a field day with Gillard’s schools stimulus program, despite the fact that two separate inquiries have found the program to be generally well-managed and cost-effective. Luckily for Gillard, the pro-NBN lobby is a lot more effective and media-savvy than the bedraggled defenders of our public education system.

On top of the NBN, Gillard has Kevin Rudd’s massive health and hospitals reforms to roll out in her next term. As ever in health, this is not going to be cheap or easy. Labor struggled to get even a handful of GP super clinics opened in time for this election, despite promising them during the 2007 campaign. Driving through the complex and intensely challenging health financing reforms negotiated by Rudd and Nicola Roxon this year will demand patience, determination and much better media skills than the government has so far demonstrated.

These are just a few potential pitfalls for the future Gillard or Abbott government, but other risks await the unwary. Who would have predicted that one of the biggest disasters of Labor’s first term would be an environment-friendly home-insulation program that promised to lower the heating and air-conditioning costs for millions of Australian householders? Indeed, who would have predicted that the biggest threat to the re-election of Kevin Rudd would emanate from within his own party?

There is a further problem for whichever major party wins this Saturday: the Senate. With the Greens currently polling 12–14 per cent across the country, the minor party will almost certainly hold the balance of power after July 2011. That will give Bob Brown and his party a veto on every piece of legislation a Gillard or Abbott government may want to pass – even supply.

So far, the Greens have indicated that they will seek to use the balance of power responsibly, negotiating amendments to bills to reflect their policy positions and a voting base that now covers a seventh of the electorate. But there seems no doubt that the Greens will block bills that they see as too conservative or not green enough, much as they voted against Labor’s carbon pollution reduction scheme. We could expect the Greens to oppose many aspects of an Abbott government’s legislative program, such as amendments to the Migration Act or pro-business changes to Australia’s industrial relations laws. And if Gillard wins, she will probably have to offer significant environmental concessions on a series of bills if she wishes to pass them into law.

Of course, none of this will be concerning Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard or their respective staffers this week. They’re concentrating on the only poll that counts. •

Ben Eltham is a writer, journalist and creative producer.

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