Friday, August 9, 2013


One week into the election campaign and it still feels like a phoney war. 

Neither side has landed any punches, let alone a knock-out one. The focus has been on photo-opportunities and photo-bombing. 

But perhaps more importantly, no one's been outlining real plans for the future either, as this column in the Canberra Times points out . . . 


For two hours the luncheon had proceeded smoothly and without incident. After all, Japanese Ambassador Yoshitaka Akimoto (a distinguished graduate of Tokyo University, formerly posted to both Indonesia and Russia) didn't achieve his rank through an overly generous sharing of his innermost thoughts. He successfully smothered a number of questions about Australia's role in the world until finally, the election came up.

His response was careful, considered and apolitical. He simply suggested it was disappointing (possibly even somewhat surprising) that, despite years of talk and planning, Australia still hadn’t managed to build a high-speed rail network down the east coast. The audience at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute burst into enthusiastic, spontaneous applause.

Instead of plans for nation building, baubles and giveaways dominate the election campaign. Week one has been chock-a-block with idiocy. The main argument has been economic and stuffed with ridiculous assertions, harking back to 2007, that one side or another can “guarantee" lower interest rates. Instead of exposing the ridiculous nature of such claims the press merely amplifies the ersatz conflict, breathlessly reporting the latest outrage whatever it happens to be. The reality is simple.

Labor inherited a robust fiscal position – perhaps more money should have been saved. The government then spent money to insulate the economy from the economic crisis – perhaps it should have spent more wisely. ANU academic and former Reserve Bank board member Warwick McKibben added much-needed perspective to the week's economic debate, only to see it rapidly degenerate. The school-yard reasserted itself. Children were yelling. “He said! She said!"

Forget about very fast trains; building a model railway is too much for this crowd.

The economic argument theoretically runs that as long as any two of interest rates, inflation and unemployment are lower now than at the previous election, the government will be returned. Labor should romp home. But Kevin Rudd (with or without “world's greatest treasurer" Wayne Swan) seemingly can't convince the electorate he’s responsible for what’s gone right. Perhaps that's got something to do with, for example, the redefinition of unemployment. An hour’s work, at any time during the week, doing anything, removes someone from this particular statistical queue. It's become a meaningless figure. It’s as vacuous as the suggestion that either side could “manage the economy" better than the other.

The suggestion government can finesse the economic cycle is as ludicrous as the concept that the Reserve Bank understands what it's doing when it moves interest rates. These are blunt instruments wielded by uncertain ingénues operating in the dark. If the government (or Bank’s Governor) were surgeons, they’d be sued for medical malpractice. They don't have a clue yet desperately pretend they’re steering the economy one way and another. It’s actually careering down the road regardless. But hush! Everyone’s playing let's pretend.

So who's winning? The Liberals haven't landed any surprise punches and Rudd remains very much in the game, but a couple of worrying trends have emerged for Labor. Most dangerous are a couple of small telephone surveys, polling about 750 people each, in specific Brisbane electorates. Labor is supposed to be doing well in Queensland but instead of making advances these demonstrated the party is behind. A consecutive series of data points have failed to provide any comfort for the government.

The betting agencies have already decided who's won this election. If you're reckless enough to punt on a Labor victory, one dollar will get you four. And you can see why by examining the dynamic in individual seats. Not even Rudd’s former economic adviser could be persuaded to waste his time campaigning for Craig Thompson’s marginal seat in New South Wales. He’s one economist who can read a trend-line. The pressure’s on. It all grew too much for Labor MP David Bradbury who blew his stack when a FM radio interviewer actually tried to ask him questions, rather than simply running dribble. The world according to David Bradbury is a nasty, rapidly shrinking place.

Nevertheless, still in Western Sydney, Jaymes Diaz ruthlessly proved his unsuitability for any public office apart from stacking Liberal branches. My spell-checker doesn’t actually recognise the spelling, “Jaymes”, and I’m not about to suggest it should “add” this variant simply to accommodate him. It’s good to see that both parties not merely share incomprehension about the way the economy works but also an inability to preselect worthy candidates for parliament.

The system has degenerated. Bradbury’s interview revealed politicians are using the media as nothing more than a megaphone for their latest insincere, meaningless platitude. The leaders have been surrounded by cotton-wool to prevent the emergence of any sharp policy edges. Rudd offered most – yet it would be too generous to describe his contribution as “substance”.

Any voter eagerly searching for policies or programs for the future will meet with disappointment. Alas! It will be a long time before a very fast train pulls into a station anywhere near you. As the feelings of anger and disillusion take hold they’ll hurt the government much more than the opposition. Four more weeks.

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