Monday, September 05, 2011

What Labor's asylum seeker policy says about Labor

The woman who oversaw it, prime minister Julia Gillard, was for two years Labor's shadow immigration minister. Yes - for two years from 2001 in the wake of the Tampa and the children overboard affair she was responsible for immersing herself in immigration and drawing up policy.

It looks as if she merely skimmed the surface, metaphorically slacked off and concentrated on politics rather than designing policies that would work.

I am thinking about this because she joins a long list of shadow ministers who seem to have used their time as shadow ministers to do bugger all.

I wrote about this in response to the George Megalogenis Quarterly Essay Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era. George's essay was published in November, my response in March.

There are exceptions. Philip Ruddock used his time as shadow immigration minister very wisely. He understood everything. David Connolly used his as time as shadow superannuation minister wisely. He knew everything. So too did Nick Sherry as shadow superannuation minister, which is why he removed. He knew boosting the superannuation guarantee was a bad idea. I imagine Barry Jones really knew everything as shadow science minister.

But these are exceptions.

Too many - most - of Labor's ministers appear to have collected their pay but not worked while they were shadow ministers.

Here's what I wrote for Quarterly Essay:

Rudd may as well have had the attention span of a five year old.

Megalogenis berates Rudd (and Howard) for spending far too much time feeding the media.

And he is right. With Rudd in office, not a Sunday morning passed without an email alert as I left church outlining the preprepared "announcement" for later in the day. Those emails have stopped.

Megalogenis says because there was "no grand narrative" to connect the announcements, the bewildering changes of direction left voters confused.

But the deeper problem is they would have been confused in any event.

All that Rudd's flitting from subject to subject and focus on the polls did was draw attention away from the hollowness at the core of his program.

Looking back it is apparent Rudd never had a coherent program going into the 2007 election.

I found myself forgiving him case by case.

The claimed benefits of the National Broadband Network were recycled selective quotations from a woefully dated document Labor hadn't read.

(I know this because Labor was unable to track down the source when I asked and seemed alarmed when I tried.)

The computers for schoolchildren push showed every sign of being thought up at the last moment (if was certainly announced at the last moment) and was presented without clear supporting evidence that it would help, perhaps because there is no such clear evidence.

The Education Tax Rebate further complicated a tax system Labor later said it wanted to simplify and incentivised parents to do the kind of spending most were doing anyway.

Affordable housing was more of a question than an answer, perhaps because presenting an answer would upset existing homeowners and mortgagees. Social inclusion was an idea in need of definition. The Emissions Trading Scheme was what Howard was having.

Swan's policies were particularly poorly thought out.

His First Home Owner Savings Account was so badly designed it would have delivered the highest benefits to the highest earners. After it was redesigned and introduced, Treasury reported in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act "no-one uses it."

Swan's tax policy, pinched from the Coalition and sold as creating an "incentive to people out there who will work additional hours" had the perverse effect of pushing up the tax penalty for average earners considering extra work more by 4 cents in the dollar.

It was tempting to cut Labor slack. The Howard government had been becoming increasingly becoming erratic and Rudd and Gillard had been leading Labor less than a year.

But Swan had held the Treasury portfolio for three years, Macklin had held portfolios including health, education and social security for a decade.

Labor had had years to assemble policies which would make sense and work and hadn't done it.

In contrast John Howard brought to the 1996 election policies he seemed to have thought about. Freedom to choose your super fund, government support if you took out private health insurance... these were ideas you mightn't have liked, but you could tell where they were coming from.

I date the beginning of the end of serious policy effort to 1998. Two years after its election an energetic Coalition was building the case for replacing the Wholesale Sales Tax with a Goods and Services Tax, working on the detail of who would be hit and how they would be compensated in order to put the idea to a new election.

Leader Kim Beazley and his Treasury spokesman Gareth Evans unveiled their long-awaited response. They would leave the wholesale tax in place, making just three adjustments - fruit juice would become untaxed and caviar and business jets would face a luxury tax. That was it. When you looked behind the symbolism there was nothing, merely the merest pretense of being fit to govern.

Labor continued like that, Howard got worse, and Abbott appears to have applied it as a rulebook for opposition.

Need to address climate change? Promise to put electric wires underground. Need to respond to a natural disaster? Talk about building dams.

I agree with Megalogenis about the violence done to the political process by the mining industry's assault on an elected government mid last year, although I am less sure it would have had an effect if we had known what the government stood for in the first place and had had it patiently explained.

Within days of the ministerial reshuffle that followed the election I asked one of the winners who had received a portfolio they sought what they wanted to achieve in the job.

I didn't get a direct answer, merely talk about handling the responsibility well. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

Related Posts

. Locking up asylum seekers costs how much?

. The ABC's word cloud on Julia Gillard's first year in office

. Wednesday column: The great superannuation swindle