You reap what you sow

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Sunday, 27 July 2014 18:30 by 2353

During the June prior to Senate changeovers, as June 2014 is, it is traditional for retiring senators to give a valedictory speech. Senator Ron Boswell (LNP Queensland) gave his speech on 17 June after 31 years in the Senate. Although never a cabinet minister, Boswell is renowned for fighting off a challenge from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in 2004. Boswell’s television advertising in the 2004 election campaign was corny but apparently successful. The underlying message of the advertising was, however, very clever: ‘he isn’t pretty, but he’s pretty effective’. Even Senator Larissa Waters (Greens Queensland) tweeted upon Boswell’s announcement that he would not recontest his seat: ‘While I don't share Ron Boswell's views on most things, you gotta respect 30yrs of service.’

The Australian Democrats were formed in 1977 with former Liberal Party minister Don Chipp as leader. They saw themselves as a centrist political party and they claimed on a number of occasions that they would ‘keep the bastards honest’. Meg Lees, the leader of the Democrats in 1999, made an agreement with then Prime Minister John Howard allowing the passage of the GST Legislation, provided some goods and services were exempt from the 10% tax. It has been claimed that the Democrats never recovered from the internal division created by that decision and, by 2012, the Democrats were being written off by Crikey as a spent force. Today they seem to have two presidents, two websites (here and here) and they certainly have no members of parliament.

The Abbott government is currently going through a period of unpopularity similar in metrics to that of the Gillard government, if the opinion polls are to be taken at face value. In fact, opposition leader Bill Shorten ironically suggested at the recent Mid-Winter Ball that ‘much had changed’ in the past 12 months in federal parliament: the government is behind in the polls, the prime minister is being hammered over unpopular taxes and broken promises, unruly backbenchers, a leadership contender saying he’s not interested in the leadership, and so on. Is it that the policies and media teams of each government were/are equally inept or is there a reason that has considerably more logic to it sitting below the surface?

Lets go back to July 2013 when Waleed Aly, writing in The Monthly suggested:

Abbott’s attack on Gillard’s broken carbon-tax promise has made the sanctity of one’s word a litmus test for legitimacy, but he has no compunction about reneging on written agreements that no longer suit him

On April 27 2014, Business Insider reported

Here’s something you can expect to hear a lot about in the coming weeks: the moment when Tony Abbott said a Coalition government would introduce no new taxes.

The Prime Minister today did not deny reports of a new income tax under consideration as part of the Coalition’s approach to reducing the budget deficit. The reports suggest it will be a short-term “deficit tax”, mainly targeting higher-income earners.

If you follow the link above, you can hear Abbott say it at one of the multitude of press conferences at unsuspecting businesses — this time however he is strangely not dressed in the customary, immaculate hi-vis vest. Not all is lost — the language is appropriately mangled.

We now know that in addition to the ‘deficit tax’, there have been a number of alterations to existing financial arrangements that generally affect the less well off in our community. They include the $7 ‘co-payment’ for visiting a doctor, (with the possibly unintended side effect of a reduction in donations for medical research) the raising of the pension age to 70, and those under 30 seeking unemployment benefits will be required to wait 6 months before they are permitted to receive a welfare benefit from the Government.

It will probably be argued for years to come whether Gillard lied about the imposition of a carbon tax prior to the 2010 election — and at the end of the day it’s unimportant. The fact is that Gillard did say the words that there would be no tax on carbon — as reported frequently. The full response to the question by Bill McDonald (then with Channel 10 Brisbane News) is here (from about 2:20 on the video). Clearly, the full answer is too long for a 30 second grab (so loved by the electronic media) especially when the opposition leader seems to believe ‘win at all costs’ should be his overriding concern. Abbott ran hard on no new taxes for the entire period of the Gillard government — calling Gillard a liar on the issue — and while he probably didn’t suggest ‘the carbon tax’ was the reason for the dearth of anything decent on television on a Tuesday night, as reported in The Shovel, he did make a number of claims regarding the effects of additional taxation and how he would not impose new taxes while ‘fixing the budget’ (as recorded by the ABC’s Factcheck Unit).

You could argue that Abbott, himself, came to power on a lie. His ‘promise’ to rescind the ‘carbon tax’ immediately was clearly not achievable. The legislation to remove the emissions trading scheme was before parliament in the middle of this year, some nine months after the election. Ironically while attempting to steer the removal legislation through the parliament, Abbott is attempting to reintroduce fuel excise indexation — a de facto carbon tax (the more you consume through either driving a greater distance or using a vehicle with higher fuel consumption, the more you pay).

While refugee boats have slowed, others will tell you that it is not solely due to Abbott’s ‘stop the boats’ promise.

The ALP’s report on the loss of the 2013 election blames disunity within the ALP, as well as some questionable campaign decisions, but notes that, if Gillard had led the ALP to the 2013 election, the result would have been worse. The mantra of broken promises would have contributed to the loss, along with a clearly identifiable division within the ALP. Abbott had a considerable part in crafting the message of ‘broken promises’.

Now that Abbott is the prime minister, there is apparently a higher standard of truth expected from him and his government. John Hewson, former Liberal Party leader and Abbott’s former boss, has been reported in the Fairfax Media as critical of Abbott’s approach:

His broadest critique is that Abbott, for four years his press secretary and political adviser, has failed to communicate a vision: “They had a chance with the budget to pull all these bits and pieces together; the end of the age of entitlement, fine; not supporting industry, fine; now pull it all together,” says Hewson.

“Where the jobs are going to come from, where the growth is going to come from, what Paul Keating called an ‘overarching narrative’. Have a consistent message.

“There’s no clear, consistent message, other than, ‘We have to cut and cut more and more just to get the budget numbers’, not with any reform purpose. It’s unfair and it’s inconsistent. A bit of vision is what’s really called for.”

Maybe the real issue with the ‘vision thing’ is that people really want to know what their politicians can deliver, rather than what they would like to deliver. Without getting into the semantics of ‘budget emergencies’; ‘class warfare’; ‘trickle up or down economics’ etc., are politicians failing the community by attempting to be too clever?

Ron Boswell’s campaign advertising from 2004 didn’t claim that he could fix everything — all it did was claim that he wasn’t pretty (true, he has a great face for radio) but he was pretty effective. As Larissa Water’s tweet on his retirement announcement suggested, 31 years in the Senate is a distinguished career, and if he wasn’t ‘effective’ (in the eyes of his political party) as claimed, he would have been removed long before being allowed to retire on his own terms.

The Australian Democrats came to prominence on the slogan of ‘keeping the bastards honest’. For a long time, they appeared to do just that. Rightly or wrongly, Meg Lees’ agreement to the GST created a lot of division inside the party and throughout the wider community, to the extent that the perception of the Democrats changed from one of keeping them (the two major parties) honest, to being just another grouping of the ‘bastards’.

Rudd called climate change ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’ until he lost the vote in Parliament. Then somehow it went away.

Gillard managed to legislate a response to climate change through the Parliament which wasn’t sold well by the Government of the day. By agreeing in interviews that the fixed price for carbon trading could be construed as a tax, it made her whole ‘there will be no carbon tax’ claim unsupportable. Certainly there were external factors at work as well, but the claim of lies over the introduction of a carbon price could be the bedrock on which all other claims had their foundation.

Abbott came to power on slogans: ‘no new taxes’; ‘stop the boats’; ‘fix the budget’, and the impression was that action would be immediate. The reality was that very few of his promises could be immediately implemented. You would have to wonder if Abbott and his campaign team ever wondered how they would ‘fix the budget’ without changing taxation or benefits; or commence the process of repealing the ‘carbon tax’ on Day 1 (as promised). This ABC opinion piece written the day prior to the election demonstrates some of the problems Abbott faced, and still faces, in matching the actuality with the rhetoric prior to the 2013 election. Clearly it hasn’t gone to plan — if, in fact, there was a plan.

Waleed Aly’s piece in The Monthly claimed that Abbott ‘has no compunction in reneging on written agreements that no longer suit him’. Isn’t that the root cause of Australians’ current opinion of politicians? Rather than ‘promise’ whatever it takes to win and then reneging, wouldn’t Abbott (and his predecessors) have been better off taking a leaf from Ron Boswell’s campaign and suggesting they will be effective in responding to issues as they arise? Surely Australians deserve more information than could ever be contained in a 30 second sound bite — which seems to be the current ‘gold standard’ for truth in Australian politics?

After all, as John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have said ‘When the facts change, I change my opinion — what do you do, sir?’

What do you think?