John Menadue. Is the public sick of reform?

Feb 4, 2015

The business sector and the media have each been asking this question. It is not surprising perhaps in view of Tony Abbott’s plummeting approval rating and the election results in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.

In the Australian Financial Review on 2 February 2015, Laura Tingle said ‘The biggest national question to flow from Queensland’s historic 2015 election result is not whether the Prime Minister will survive, but whether, after 30 years, voters have had enough of political rhetoric about reform and change and whether both sides of politics back away from ambitious reform as a result.’

Perhaps election day in Queensland was ‘a disappointing day’ for the Business Council of Australia and the ‘reforms’ its rent seeking constituency would like, more privatisation.

My contention is that the public will respond to well developed and explained policies for change. But that was not what we are being presented with. What we have been hearing about for many months is a burnt out ideological agenda from the Government and the BCA that markets are always right and that privatisation is the way of the future. Surely privatisation reached its high water mark years ago and it has been ebbing ever since.

Queenslanders have particularly shown that asset sales are now off the agenda. Even the Liberal National Party in Queensland has now disowned asset sales.  It should have learned a lesson from former Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, who decided that her Labor Government would sell Queensland Rail. She was defeated after a long period of Labor Governments, but the sale of Queensland Rail really soured the public attitude to her government.

In all these cases of privatisation, there is a strong public perception that wealthy financial advisers, underwriters and brokers have drained hundreds of millions of dollars in fees at the expense of the public.

It will be interesting to see what the NSW Premier, Mike Baird now does about his proposal to lease the state-owned transmission company Transgrid and over 50% of distribution businesses Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy for 99 years to the private sector. Recent polling by Reach Tel for Stop the Selloff Campaign reveals that 67% of people in Victoria and 74% of people in SA believe that they were worse off with privatised electricity networks.

The question will also be asked in the NSW election in eight weeks’ time that with the interest rate at record levels, the most prudent thing to do would be to borrow rather than sell valuable assets to build new infrastructure. The 10 year bond rate is the lowest in living memory at 2.25%. We could lock in a record low interest borrowing for 10 years. With our inflation rate at about the same as the bond rate the real interest rate would be close to zero.

At the national level Tony Abbott has not put forward well-developed and explained policies. At the last election, he had a lot of one-liners but very little developed thought on policy. Tony Abbott didn’t win the last election with his so-called ‘policies’ he won because of the shambles of the Rudd/Gillard era.

Tony Abbott’s wrecking ball approach which was so successful in opposition is not working in government. His policies have not been carefully developed and explained. In his National Press Club speech he spent a large amount of time trying to sheet home responsibility to the Rudd and Gillard governments rather than defend his own record and explaining his vision for the future.

The public is clearly not impressed with policies like asset sales and taxes that benefit big business and the wealthy, but leave the public the loser. That is why Joe Hockey’s budget is in ruins. It was regarded as unfair. No attempt was made to wind back the benefits of the generous superannuation concessions, concessions on the capital gains tax, negative gearing, salary packaging and the very widespread failure of wealthy companies, many of them international, to pay tax – Apple, Google, Glencorp, Westfield, News Corp and Ikea.

I am confident that the public will respond to well-developed policies that are efficient and fair.

Tony Abbott has never developed a credible narrative. He has not thought much beyond one-liners. He has done very little in credible reform and the bits and pieces he talks about don’t fit into a coherent story.

Bill Shorten speaks of 2015 as being the year of ideas.  There’s a lot of policy development to do, but will he go the same way as Tony Abbott and attempt to gain office by default.

The public is certainly sick of the type of ‘reform’ that we are being offered by the government and its friends in big business. But I am confident that the community, if treated respectfully, will respond to relevant policies that are well developed, tested, fair and properly explained. We have had very little of that in the last 18 months.


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