The Rudd years

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Sunday, 20 December 2009 10:22 by Ad astra

As the Rudd Government begins its third year, it seems an appropriate time to review its first two.  As a mental exercise let’s imagine the words or phrases that might best describe the progress of the Government towards its stated goals, and similarly those that characterize the performance of the Opposition.

For me, the words that reflect the Government’s progress are ‘complexity’, ‘cautious and careful planning’ and ‘effective emergency action’.  Regrettably the words that come to mind for the Opposition are ‘denial’, ‘chaos’, ‘division and dysfunction’, ’lack of due diligence’ andoppose everything’..

The Rudd Government

During election campaigns general principles and aspirations are promoted; detail is avoided.  Kevin Rudd advanced the need to address climate change, “...the great moral challenge of our generation”, and as part of that, the restoration of the distressed Murray-Darling river system; he spoke of the need to review the ailing health care system and troubled federal-state relationships; he promoted himself as an ‘economic conservative’ committed to prudent spending and surplus budgets, but conscious of the need to overcome ‘infrastructure bottlenecks’ that had accumulated over the previous decade, aware of the requirement for a national broadband network and mindful of the need to lift productivity; he elevated to top priority education at all levels, from preschool to university, the so-called ‘education revolution’, and he promised to reform industrial relations and eliminate WorkChoices.  He said he would ratify the Kyoto protocol and say ‘sorry’ to the indigenous people.  There were other aspirations, but these dominated the election campaign.

Tackling these tasks in Government has exposed the enormous complexity of almost every one of them.  In each there are countless people involved; a plethora of different opinions, instincts and values; self interest and conflicts of interest; many areas of turf to be protected or enlarged; power brokers determined to advance their position or those they represent even at the expense of the national interest; and a mountain of data, some of it incomplete, inaccurate or of uncertain validity.  There has not been much acknowledgement of the need for collaboration in the national interest.  This is systems theory in action, in all its chaotic complexity.  Few are oriented to such complexity or equipped to understand and manage it.  Most prefer simple, linear, cause-effect thinking, despite the fact that it is incapable of explaining the intricacies of complex adaptive systems, or managing their inherent complexity.

Cautious careful planning
It is in recognition of this complexity that the Rudd Government has undertaken several reviews, something that has attracted trenchant criticism from the Opposition and unthinking journalists who take the simplistic view that as Rudd said he would ‘fix’ these problems he should just get on with ‘fixing’ them, as if that was as simple as fixing a broken-down car.  As the reviews have unfolded, the extraordinary complexity of the issues have emerged and slowed the process of resolution.  This is why there has been such cautious, careful planning in addressing, for example, such complex issues as climate change and all its sequelae for human health, families, agriculture, industry, business and employment.  There was the Garnaut Report, the Green and White Papers and the CPRS legislation, developed over several years, but to date with an outcome frustrated by a hostile Senate. 

Since in the health field similar levels of complexity exist, the Government has carried out an extensive review via the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission.  The Commission has reported and has made over one hundred recommendations that the Government is considering.  Impatient Opposition health spokespeople and journalists want immediate action, but should rapid action result in unfavourable outcomes, the Government would be accused of rushing in and bungling.

The same caution has been applied to federal-state relationships where fiefdoms so often act in their own, rather than the national interest.  Progress is occurring but slowly, too slowly for the critics, who want the problem fixed at once.  ‘Abolish the states’, ‘place decision making close to the action’, ‘drastically cut the number of bureaucrats’ – are just a few of the simplistic solutions offered by armchair experts who themselves don’t carry the responsibility for the outcomes.

Since the election, the Henry Review, a comprehensive review of the tax and transfer system, a recommendation of the 2020 Summit, has been undertaken.  Its recommendations will be more far reaching than the tax changes arising from the GST, and will be implemented over several years.  There has also been a defence review and a Defence White Paper that is for implementation provided sufficient funding is available.

So not surprisingly, complexity and cautious planning have characterized much of the Rudd Government’s first two years.

In my view, the inexcusable paucity of understanding of complexity is one of the greatest impediments to good governance and the critiquing of government action.  I despair that commentators will ever come to grips with the reality of complexity in so much of what government does.

Effective emergency action
It may have come as a surprise to those who criticized the Government so roundly for ‘hitting the ground reviewing’, that it acted so unfalteringly, or to use the Government’s favourite word, ‘decisively’, in managing the global financial crisis with all its forbidding momentum.  The bank guarantee, the stimulus package starting with cash bonuses (which almost all journalists delighted in calling ‘the cash splash’ or ‘splurge’) and the first home owners’ grant extension; the ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure, mainly in the schools program; and finally big ticket infrastructure items – road, rail, ports and the NBN, much of which is still in planning.    The Government’s fiscal policy worked in tandem with the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy to produce the outcome we saw.

The Government was criticized at every turn by the ‘experts’, the economists and the economics correspondents, who always found some fatal flaw, predicted calamity, and advised a different, and of course more rational course of action.  The fact that most of them were consistently wrong in their predictions and advice never deterred them from unremitting criticism.  Indeed some, such as Michael Stutchbury and Warwick McKibbin, still persist with their censure of the stimulus package despite the fact that most economists, reinforced by the IMF, have lauded it as the principal reason why Australia avoided recession.  The Australian mounted a fierce campaign of denigration of the schools program notwithstanding the fact that most of the 24,000 projects in 9,500 schools were carried out without complaint.  This has now fizzled.

The Government was advised by Treasury to ‘go early, go hard, and go households’.  It did and the result is there for all to see – recession avoided, unemployment restrained, retail activity sustained, business and consumer confidence rising, school infrastructure in place.  Even Joe Hockey had to admit its success, although he has four other and presumably more cogent reasons for the outcome.  The debate has shifted to how the stimulus should be wound down, a subject that still gives columnists something to write about with misplaced authority.  The ‘debt and deficit’ mantra, the ‘$315 billion Labor debt bomb’ trumpeted so loudly by Malcolm Turnbull, and carted around on his ‘debt truck’, has faded as the debit and deficit promises to be much lower than so direly predicted.

So for those who labelled the Rudd Government as indecisive, ‘all talk no action’, ‘all spin no substance’, its handling of the GFC confounded this characterization.  Only those whose mouth is set to automatic still utter these tired, inappropriate mantras.

The Opposition

TPS has commented many times about the denial that afflicts the Opposition, the chief purveyor of which is the current leader, Tony Abbott, who has always maintained that ‘the Howard Government was such a good government’, and did not deserve to be removed.  This belief has been reinforced recently with Abbott’s return to some of Howard’s IR precepts and border protection policies, and his appointment of previous Howard ministers to his Shadow Cabinet.  He is determined to return to Howard policies – because they were good – determined to preserve the Howard legacy. 

No better evidence need be advanced to support the attitude of denial.

There is no need to look beyond the regular change of leader – Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and now Tony Abbott, with Joe Hockey waiting in the wings for Abbott to implode – to see the chaos that has afflicted the Coalition since it surprisingly elected Nelson instead of Turnbull in the first place.  The conservative elements were covertly instrumental in that outcome as they were overtly in Turnbull’s downfall.  Add to that the dissonance in the Coalition between the Nationals and the Liberals, particularly over climate change, and you have another layer of chaos.

Surely no one would challenge the ‘chaos’ label.

Division and dysfunction
This is the product of chaos.  The Nationals and the Liberals are divided.  Some Liberals are divided from other Liberals, over issues such as climate change, immigration policy and the ‘alcopops’ legislation.  As a result, the Coalition is dysfunctional.  The conservatives are in a power struggle with the small ‘l’ liberals and are now in the ascendancy.  Turnbull is threatening to disrupt the Coalition with his verbal interventions, particularly about climate change issues, and just might consider forming a breakaway grouping.

There is no debate about the savage divisions that simmer just below the surface, always ready to  erupt damagingly, and the consequent dysfunction that so cripples the Coalition.

Lack of due diligence
The Grech OzCar affair exposed Turnbull’s lack of due diligence, something not to be expected from a past barrister.  But it was consistent with his impetuous character, and his ‘crash through or crash’ approach.  He crashed and put paid to his leadership, finally destroyed by his support for the Rudd CPRS, an anathema to the conservatives.

Could there have been a more convincing exhibition of lack of due diligence?

Oppose everything
Tony Abbott quotes Randolph Churchill who said ‘Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing and kick the government out.’  That is precisely what Abbott is saying he will do, as the last post The pugilistic politician argues.  He talks of creating alternative policies and has promised one on climate change mitigation by February, but I note already he is making noises that cast doubt on whether we will really see a policy that can be readily dissected and appraised.   He intends to ‘give the Government the fright of its life’, and ‘take the fight right up to the Government’.  So far every utterance is consistent with that intent, but whether anyone in the Government or for that matter anyone in the public is listening is speculative.  The latest Morgan face-to-face at 59/41 suggests not too many are.

‘Oppose everything’ looks like being the Coalition pattern while Abbott remains leader.

In summary, these last two years have been ones that have shown what this Government can do, what it is made of, how it operates, and what future it is likely to have.  2010 is likely to be a year of implementation of recommendations of several of the reviews now underway or completed.  Substance will replace the words, hopefully to the long term benefit of the nation.  The stated intent of the Government is to be a reforming government; 2010 will provide it that opportunity in abundance.

It would be better for our democracy if one could record that the Opposition, while holding the Government to account, which is its responsibility, produced a profusion of attractive alternative policies, collaborated with Government when that was in the national interest, and opposed only when it honestly believed the proposed legislation seriously needed amendment, instead of opportunistically opposing simply for the sake of opposing.  Idealists may wish for this, but shouldn’t hold their breath hoping.

What do you think?

This is my last post on TPS for 2009.  I will post again in early February when parliament resumes.  You will be delighted to know that during January, Bushfire Bill, one of the most admired contributors to The Political Sword, The Poll Bludger and other blog sites, will make guest posts on TPS.   Watch for them.

May I take this opportunity of thanking the many visitors to this site and the regular contributors who enrich this site immeasurably with their thoughtful, insightful and often humorous posts.  I look forward to your company again in 2010.

In the meantime I wish you the compliments of the season and a restful end-of-year break from the tumult of federal politics; there will be plenty more next year.