Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Where Gillard gets the Greens wrong

Never has it been more important to understand the Greens. Never has a prime minister had less of a clue.

From July the Greens will decide which bills become law and which don’t. The prime minister says they "will never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of every day Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation”. Maybe, but that’s not what they will be called on to do.

They will be asked to vote on tax bills, on corporate regulation and on all manner of measures relating to economic management.

There are clues as to how they will vote, and if we are to believe her, the prime minister has missed every one.

Gillard thinks the Greens don’t get economics. They “wrongly reject the moral imperative to a strong economy,” she told the Whitlam Institute.

Her sidekick Anthony Albanese says they “tend to be a grab-bag of issues, tend not to have a coherent policy that adds up”.

Her resources minister Martin Ferguson says they want to “sit under the tree and weave baskets with no jobs”.

Its a forgivable impression until you examine what their supporters actually think...

Asked to rate issues in order of importance in an Essential Media poll in January more Greens rated economic management number one than rated protecting the environment number one.The gap was closer amongst Greens voters than other voters, but the point is there was a difference - Greens put the economy number one.

Polled in November about a specific issue - regulation of the banks, Greens voters were on every measure more closer to economic orthodoxy than Labor voters.

Asked if banks should be restricted to lifting rates only in line with Reserve Bank, 87 per cent of Labor voters said yes. Even amongst Coalition voters 82 per cent said yes. But amongst Greens voters the result was 73 per cent, suggesting they are more likely to have studied economics.

Asked if bank fees should be kept to the cost of providing the service, 93 per cent of Labor and also 93 per cent of Coalition voters agreed. Only 90 per cent of Greens voters thought so.

Asked about a cap on bank salaries 88 per cent of Labor voters were for it. Coalition voters were far less keen at 83 per cent. In the middle, less in favour of hobbling the market than Labor voters although more so than Coalition voters, were the Greens at 86 per cent.

The views of Greens supporters are not outside the mainstream, except that they are likely to be more in touch with orthodox economics than the mainstream.

Greens voters are far more likely than either Labor or the Coalition to support higher taxes on mining profits, a view in line with the International Monetary Fund, the Henry Review and the Australian Treasury.

They are less likely than the majors to be fussed about a return to a budget surplus by exactly 2012-13 (as are orthodox economists although interestingly slightly keener than labor voters on spending cuts in the budget to come.

They are more likely than Labor voters to act against self interest. Only 17 per cent of Labor voters would accept a tax on products purchased online form overseas. A higher 19 per cent of Greens voters would.

And they know more.

An astonishing 10 per cent of Labor voters and 12 per cent of Coalition votes are deluded enough to think half our migration intake is boat people. Only 6 per cent of Greens voters think so.

They are accepting of the mainstream scientific position on climate change - that it is happening and caused by human activity; far more accepting than supporters of either Labor or the Coalition.

And they believe market mechanisms rather than regulations are the best way to get emissions down.

Their tax policies echo those of the Henry Tax Review. Tax breaks for high income earners would go, fringe benefits tax concessions that encourage the needless driving of cars would be scrapped and capital gains would no longer be tax-preferred over other returns from saving.

All income received in whatever form would be taxed at the standard rate and the scales would be rejigged to remove the high effective rates faced by Australians trying to get off welfare.

Henry would do this by flattening the scales and making the first $25,000 earned tax-free.

The Greens aren’t so sure about that, but neither are Labor of the Coalition. The point is that on nearly every area where the Greens diverge from Henry, the Coalition and Labor do too.

On most of the areas where then Coalition and Labor are reluctant to embrace Henry the Greens are keen to.

The big parties won’t touch the Private Health Insurance Rebate. The Greens would kill it, as would Henry.

The big parties aren’t attracted to a death duty. The Henry Review is, and the Greens would bring it in with a threshold of $5 million and an exemption for the family home, farm and small business.

The big parties are grudging about making the mammoth superannuation tax concessions more progressive. Henry isn’t, and the Greens would do it, after a “full review”.

This isn’t an argument in favour of the Greens policies, although as it happens I find them attractive. It is an argument that they fit within the economic mainstream. They are coherent, readily available on the web, and far more than a grab-bag from a “party of protest” that sits “under the tree and weave baskets with no jobs”.

If the Greens have got it wrong on economics, then so too have the economics text books they seem to have read and so too has Ken Henry.

Their real position is important because it is their real position that will determine what gets passed into law in the two to three years ahead, not the misleading dumbed-down characterisations of a prime minister and ministers who should know better.

Published in today's SMH and Age

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