20/11/2007 - 22:00

A tight battle for the middle ground

20/11/2007 - 22:00


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Last week I outlined where I thought John Howard went wrong 18 months ago, and why I think it has put him in a losing position now.

It was all about the industrial relations laws, which were badly introduced and allowed Labor to spruik its credentials as the friend of working people, the ‘Howard’s battlers’ of elections past.

With the election due in a couple of days, I thought it was worth thinking about what the two main parties have promised us on some of the key issues for business.

In many areas, as we all know, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Housing affordability and the environment have both been big issues. On both counts, Labor and Liberal seem very similar.

In aiming for the hearts and minds of the battler electorate, both parties have had a reasonable crack at dealing with the first of those issues.

They are both offering incentives for future homebuyers to save money, they are both examining the use of Commonwealth for housing, and they are both looking into dealing with the mechanisms that are slowing the rate of available land and forcing up the price.

Much blame can be levelled at state and local governments on this issue, it’s just disappointing that it has taken an election to get some of this onto the table.

Housing affordability is a killer for business, because it means employees need higher wages to meet this rising and substantial cost.

It’s disappointing, though, that the policies both aim at creating inefficient solutions, such as special accounts and grants that require additional administration. Instead, removing some of the hurdles to land development, such as bureaucracy and the case-by-case handling of each approval, would make land cheaper for everyone and, as a bonus, reduce the cost of government.

On the environment, it could be argued that both sides have sought the middle ground and collided.

The Liberals have decided the environment is important, Labor seem to have realised that being in government would require them to take a more realistic approach to dealing with this matter.

On the key issues for business – carbon trading – both parties have promised a scheme in the near future. Many in business want this system established so they can get some certainty in their own strategy, especially exporters who have to deal with other nations that have pushed harder in this area.

One key area where both parties appear not to want to really deliver is on the skills shortage.

Both have targeted training and education as a solution.

There would not be too many on either side of politics who believe this is a solution to the immediate problem we face, especially here in Western Australia.

Right now, we have a shortage of people and pretending that we can train-up an instant workforce is a joke. Yes, we might be able to take a few lower-paid workers and upskill them quickly in some areas but it’s a patchwork approach. It’s also robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Migration is an answer to this issue.

It doesn’t even need to be long-term or permanent, but we need to turn the tap on quickly and get the right people we need in the country now.

I see nothing of any substance in the two major parties’ policies on this. But of course, both sides realise there’s nothing to be gained by debating this issue.

There’s been lots of talk about vision in the past few weeks, with very little to show for it.

So that leaves us with IR, an area where both parties do differ markedly.

The Liberal Party has an image problem created by its failure to put in place a system that would stand the test of the electorate.

The Labor Party has an image problem too because many fear that, in reversing the changes made by Mr Howard, it will re-establish union rule in a variety of workplaces.

While there has been some convergence on this issue, neither side has really improved it position by doing so.

The Liberals watered down the IR legislation, re-introducing many things that it might have been wiser to keep in the first instance. Like many things that suffer from sanitisation, the view is that the current legislation doesn’t work very well for anyone.

On the other side of the fence, parliamentary Labor has been keen to distance itself from the corruption and thuggery that give unions a bad name.

Excited by the prospect of being close to the power base again, some unionists have been unable to control themselves. They misunderstand that just because people are suspicious of the government’s IR laws does not mean they want a union official telling their boss how they’ll work or what they’ll get paid.

People want the rules clear and know there is a good strong safety net. Regrettably neither side has spelled out exactly how they’ll do that.

In WA the choice is particularly hard for the average person.

They may not like the IR laws, but for those associated with the sector, the resources boom is delivering the opportunity to take home a greater share of profits than ever before.

People may like the notion of change but they also know that there’s the potential for any rocking of the boat to upset the status quo.

We’d like our boom to continue for as long as naturally possible, so I wonder how much that good fortune will harden resolve against change, rather than making it an easy decision?


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