In times of great financial crisis in the last century, Australia was a haven of calm, its people living a living a comfortable life built on the security of being the world’s greatest granary and quarry. It lived off the sheeps’ back, as the saying goes, and had some of the world’s largest deposits of coal, iron ore, uranium, natural gas, and much, much more. In a sense, Australia was “far from the madding crowd”.
It just so happens that this month the film of the same name, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy, is playing to delighted audiences. But outside in the community a ‘madding crowd’ is gathering, worked up into a frenzy by two opposing political camps that have no concept of the future of Australia in an increasingly uncertain world. Egged on by a media as inept as any I have witnessed in over 40 years in international journalism, the politicians hurl mindless insults at each other while bereft of any policies worthy of the name. The Canberra Parliament is a shambles, a wasteland for serious debate.
On the right is the governing Liberal-National party Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, often tagged the “mad monk” in a reference to his early years in a seminary. Abbott has been wrongly accused of many things, most notably a misogynist, by former prime minister Julia Gillard. Abbott is certainly not that, but he has other faults.
He is stubborn, single-minded, conservative, and appears more interested in confrontation than consensus. Nonetheless, he is sufficiently fearful of public opinion not to risk making the really tough economic calls that need to be made to get Australia back on track. Perhaps more importantly, he is a poor persuader, in marked contrast to John Key, the New Zealand leader, who has skilfully reshaped his country’s prospects by taking the people with him. Key is pushing for a new flag for New Zealand, dropping the Union Jack element, unthinkable in an Australia led by Abbott, who, in a moment of farce, reintroduced knighthoods and have the first one to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
While much of the media argues that same sex marriage is a top issue (Abbott has pushed this off to a plebiscite after the next election), and while a debate is running on the legality of extending Australian air force bombing into Syria as well as Iraq (Abbott is very much in favour), the uncompetitive economy and weak growth should be the sharpest focus. Lack of competitiveness, restrictive workplace laws, and poor productivity all need to be tackled urgently, as does taxation reform.
Led by treasurer Joe Hockey, there is a tax debate under way, but it is muzzled by Abbott’s ruling out of any meaningful change, such as in New Zealand where general sales tax (GST) was increased to 15% and accompanied by a big cut in income tax. This is despite the change being advocated by the most successful state premier, Mike Baird of NSW, and supported by Hockey. Instead, the best the government can do is to introduce GST on items bought on the internet from overseas, a measure that will cost far more to collect than the amount it raises.
So much for the government. The Opposition, led by former union boss Bill Shorten and his left-wing deputy Tanya Plebersek, is even worse. These two – and their front bench cohorts – display none of consensus-building, reforming zeal that was such a feature of the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 1990s.
They are stuck in the same vein of delusion and entitlement that is being frothed-up in the UK by aspirant Labour party leader Jeremy Corbin, with policies that are a mixture of tax-and-spend and outright protectionism, encouraged by their trades union supporters.
Shorten blocks what few sensible attempts at reform are put forward by Fair Work Australia, such as reducing penalty rates pay for Sunday working, from double time to time-and-a-half, as suggested by FWA. Even worse, the Opposition is supporting a union-led campaign to sabotage one of the government’s few achievements: the Free Trade Agreement with China.
The union campaign, using commercials blanketed across Australian televisions, claims (falsely as it happens) that the FTA allows China to bring in workers to Australia to work on major projects, thereby denying Australians jobs. The government has reacted with extreme anger, with Abbott accusing Shorten of “anti-Chinese racism”, and trying to engineer a “return to the white Australia policy”.
This is not a proud period of Australian history, and it is hard to see how things will improve, certainly not until there is a change of leadership on both sides.