George Megalogenis’ quarterly essay titled ‘Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the end of the reform era’ highlights the worrying lack of political leadership on both sides of the parliament in the aftermath of the 2010 Australian federal election. It argues that political short-termism and party politics has become the order of the day, leaving proper policy debate and detailed analysis out of the picture. It means that governments are focussing on winning the next 24-hour news cycle, or the next opinion poll rather than focussing on creating an enduring economic reform agenda that builds on our prosperity in Australia. Many prominent Australian journalists, including Megalogenis and Annabel Crabb of the ABC, have vowed not to discuss opinion polls to reflect their distaste of the current political atmosphere.
Has anything changed since the election? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it at all. On key economic policy issues, the debates have been simplistic at best. Whilst the opposition has continually opposed any policy initiative from the Gillard agenda, they have done little in regard to policy development at all this year. Their alternative agenda is minimal at best – destroying all current government initiatives if elected. The reason why is simple – it is because their one-line slogans, constantly repeated every day in every part of Australia, are good enough to gain good polling numbers from the voting public, and place them in a very comfortable position heading into the 2013 election.
In contrast, the Gillard government has introduced some significant economic policies to the parliament – including the carbon and mining taxes. However, the carbon tax was only introduced to win the Greens’ support to create government – and was a policy that the Prime Minister herself dismissed before the election in 2010. The mining tax is also a bungled policy that is revenue negative, only included the bigger mining companies in discussions, and is far removed from the more substantial proposal by Dr Ken Henry in the Henry Tax Review. Furthermore, it was rushed through parliament with many amendments to garner the support of the Independent MP’s; all so Gillard could look like she succeeded in what she dubbed her ‘year of delivery’.
The government would point to their latest national party conference to illustrate their commitment to proper policy debate. The conference did discuss important policy issues, but MP’s simply took positions on policy based purely on the faction they represented within the party. It meant that political commentators could already predict with much certainty how the votes would fall in each policy debate at the conference – a quite farcical situation.
The changing media landscape has also impacted on our public policy debates in Australia. The shrinking revenues of major media outlets, coupled by the shift to a 24-hour news cycle, and the emergence of online portals and social media sites as a source of news content has placed immense pressure on journalists to produce interesting stories quickly for the information-hungry public. As Malcolm Turnbull said in a speech at the University of Melbourne recently, this shifting landscape is leaving “too many important matters of public interest…either not covered at all or covered superficially”. Furthermore, Turnbull lamented that the “the vast bulk of its coverage of federal politics is now about personalities and the game of politics” (bar a few notable exceptions). This is because it is much easier and cheaper to produce stories about Tony Abbott’s budgey smugglers or Julia Gillard’s new hair cut rather than investigating the real impact of a carbon or mining tax on our economy.
It is a sad state of affairs – this lack of proper policy debate amongst politicians, journalists and hence the voting public means that economic policy outcomes will begin to suffer as a result. If there is to be change, it requires political will from the politicians to make policy stands based on conviction and good rational economic judgement, rather than vote-getting and party politics. It requires journalists to not short-change the public by thinking they prefer the simplistic stories about personality politics. When it affects their well-being and future prosperity, people care about the real issues. These issues need to shape out future debates if we are to continue with the prosperity that makes us the envy of the rest of world.
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