The federal election is looming closer yet voters still hanker for policy clarity from the major parties.
THANK goodness for the coalition’s policy announcement this week on the national broadband network. At last there is a major issue where Labor and the coalition have markedly different policies.
For the benefit of readers who missed the news, the coalition has proposed a $6.3 billion plan that would use a mix of fixed line, wireless and satellite services to deliver high-speed broadband to most Australians.
It falls a long way short of Labor’s $43 billion plan, and the coalition makes no bones about that.
“We make no apology for not spending $43 billion running fibre down every street,” opposition communications spokesman Tony Smith told reporters in Canberra.
For those of us who like to see a contest of ideas during an election campaign, broadband is a rare example where the major parties offer clear alternatives.
Compare that to the debate between treasury rivals Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey earlier this week. The main focus seemed to be the political games over when and how the competing policies will be delivered to Treasury for an official costing. Both sides were searching for a hole to open up in the other side’s costings – a tactic that has worked well in previous elections, but not this one.
The reality is that, on fiscal policy, there isn’t a lot of difference.
Both parties are committed to returning the federal budget to surplus and, with the exception of the minerals resource rent tax (which the coalition will not implement) there isn’t a lot of variety on the spending or tax fronts.
Even industrial relations, traditionally an area where the major parties diverge, is much the same.
This was highlighted by an assessment conducted by the Australian Mines and Metals Association, which opened by acknowledging that all political parties have tried to make their IR policies a small target.
The coalition received a score of 18 out of a possible 28, followed closely by Labor with 17. The Greens were a distant third with a score of eight.
AMMA chief executive Steve Knott spoke for many in the business community when he said it was disappointing neither Labor nor the coalition intended to make any changes to the Fair Work Act during the next three years.
Mr Knott said the coalition came out ahead of Labor due to its commitment to retain the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Labor’s policy is to abolish the ABCC though it has surprised many observers by keeping it for so long.
Liberal leader Tony Abbott’s campaign launch, which did not have any new policy announcements of any consequence, illustrated what a policy vacuum this campaign has been.
This may be smart politics but it can also be dangerous. Labor thought a ‘small target’ policy would work after Julia Gillard took over the leadership but her campaign has not proceeded to plan.
The small number of policy differences leaves many voters making a judgement on the character and personality of the party leaders, and on their track record to date.
In Julia Gillard’s case, how much confidence do we have in her leadership when she turns to her deposed predecessor, Kevin Rudd, to revive a flagging campaign?
Mr Rudd was ousted because he supposedly wasn’t up to the job, yet there he was alongside Ms Gillard at a media conference to bring him back into the Labor fold.
It didn’t convince many political observers, but to a large degree it was forced on Labor by the press gallery’s obsession with Mr Rudd. Even when he tried to quietly campaign in his Brisbane electorate, the press pack was still chasing him in search of a story.
Maybe the press gallery’s focus is not surprising when Ms Gillard is a victim of damaging leaks that have come from the inner sanctums of government, and when there is no policy analysis to keep journalists busy.