19/08/2010 - 00:00

Poor campaign lacking leadership

19/08/2010 - 00:00


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For WA businesses, the key issues heading into the election are mining taxes and broadband.

Poor campaign lacking leadership

One month ago, I wrote that the 2010 federal election was set to take poll-driven campaigning to a new level in Australia. So it has proved to be.

Focus groups and opinion polls have been the driving force behind campaigns that can be summed up as ‘small target’ strategies.

Party leaders Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have been very restrained in their campaign styles, doing their utmost to not upset any constituency.

The only real spark has come from unexpected quarters, particularly in the form of ousted Labor leaders Kevin Rudd, whose every move fascinated the Canberra press pack, and Mark Latham, who did a strange turn as a TV current affairs reporter.

Julia Gillard declaring mid campaign that voters would get to see the ‘real Julia’, and her awkward rapprochement with Mr Rudd, were two of the more memorable moments, but for all the wrong reasons.

They signaled very clearly that Labor’s campaign had not proceeded according to plan. Since then, Ms Gillard has gained momentum, helped in part by the policy vacuum that surrounded Mr Abbott for much of the campaign.

His zero-policy campaign launch was arguably the point where Mr Abbott started to slip in the opinion polls.

The pattern for both leaders seems clear: voters get turned off when they see an overly cautious and overly scripted performance.

They want to see something real, something genuine and something of substance.

Business groups have given the leaders plenty of clues as to what issues need to be tackled.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA mapped out the issue in a paper released earlier this month, and reported in last week’s edition of WA Business News.

Fixing the federation so that: Canberra and the states can work together constructively; there is improved funding for critical infrastructure projects; migration policies are tailored to tackle skilled labour shortages; there’s a more flexible workplace relations system in which employers and employees are not bound by regulation.

These were some of the issues highlighted by the CCI, yet we have seen very little from the major parties on any of these.

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy also highlighted the big issues, including labour supply, infrastructure, project approvals and climate change.

Both leaders are focused on portraying themselves as competent managers – cautious, prudent, fiscally responsible.

On that front, they have ground to make up.

Labor’s massive spending splurge during 2008 and 2009 helped Australia avoid an economic downturn after the onset of the global financial crisis, helped as well by the strength of the resources sector. But its spending has left a heavy debt burden and a trail of waste, exemplified by the failed housing insulation scheme and the overly ambitious Building the Education Revolution schools building program.

The Liberals appear to have racked up some $30 billion of spending promises during the election campaign, under the leadership of senior figures like Mr Abbott and Joe Hockey who show little grasp of the finer points of economic management.

Mr Abbott’s biggest plus is his opposition to the minerals resource rent tax. The mining sector has been a driver of prosperity and growth in Australia and the tax in its current form poses a threat to the continuation of the industry’s success.

This does not mean the industry cannot afford to pay higher taxes. Premier Colin Barnett’s recent royalties deal with iron ore miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto will provide a very tidy boost to state coffers.

It was acceptable to the miners because it was negotiated as part of a package. The next federal government should adopt a similar approach if it wants smarter, more efficient taxes for the industry.

Broadband policy is not so clear-cut. Investing in infrastructure is generally great for business, but Labor’s $43 billion broadband plan raises many questions: can the government properly manage such a big program; has it selected the right technology; and why invest so much in broadband to the detriment of other infrastructure like roads, railways and ports?

That takes a big leap of faith, a step that the Liberals are not prepared to take. Their prudence on this issue has great merit.



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