29/07/2010 - 00:00

Time to pick up the baton and lead

29/07/2010 - 00:00


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Through the campaign so far and during the debate, neither Tony Abbott nor Julia Gillard is showing the type of leadership required to inspire voters at the upcoming poll.

WHEN Julia Gillard became prime minister, her salary jumped to $340,704, which includes a leadership allowance of $210,000.

Similarly, when Tony Abbott took over the opposition’s top job, his salary rose to $242,424, which includes an allowance of $111,000 as party leader.

But so far in this federal election campaign it would appear they are taking their allowances under false pretences, as neither has provided much real leadership.

Let’s look at the prime minister’s recent effort on the vexed issue of climate change – described by her predecessor as the greatest moral challenge of our time.

The government had been hammered – and deservedly so – ever since Kevin Rudd announced that his push for an emissions trading scheme was going onto the backburner. It would be an issue for the next term of government.

So Ms Gillard attempted to neutralise the criticism. Her solution? If re-elected, Labor will convene a community forum of 150 people across the country to give advice on what is an acceptable course of action to combat climate change.

Obviously her advisers believed this would be a coup and provide clear air on the issue for the rest of the campaign. Remember Bob Hawke’s economic summit in 1983 when leaders from across the country gathered in the Old Parliament House, and ‘consensus’ was the flavour of the month?

This was followed by the tax summit, which explored various reforms to the tax system. But the tax cart only got across the line after the consumption tax option was dumped. That was left for John Howard to implement.

The last big community gabfest in Canberra was Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit soon after he was elected. It has been largely dismissed as a massive waste of time and effort.

Why the Labor campaign team thought a citizens’ assembly would gain wide acceptance as a great idea is baffling. But there’s more.

The retreat on population growth is a first in Australia’s post-World War II politics. Kevin Rudd extolled the virtues of a ‘big Australia’ last year, but that must have aroused some anxieties in the focus groups, which both sides of politics seem to consult before they make decisions.

Hence Julia Gillard says it’s time for Australia to take a pause in the population stakes. Apparently there are problems with congestion in parts of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Rather than attend to improved infrastructure and the development of bigger regional cities, for example, Labor suggests a slower rate of growth is the best option.

Never mind that immigration in the past has depended on the country’s absorptive capacity, which has essentially relied on the state of the economy at the time.

But there’s more, with Tony Abbott now jumping on the slower-growth bandwagon. No doubt it’s the focus groups again.

Mr Abbott is nothing if not consistent. Only a few days earlier he announced that WorkChoices, which had helped the Liberals lose in 2007, was “dead, buried and cremated”. It sounded good, but there were two things that were radically wrong – for the Liberal side at least.

Small business, which is generally Liberal heartland, has been most unhappy with the industrial relations changes introduced by federal Labor. The business sector believes the balance has been tilted too much towards workers and the unions, and obviously would expect a newly elected Liberal government to act.

In essence it’s a bread and butter issue for the Liberals. But not this time. They are obviously scared it will antagonise the so-called union ‘monster’, and that’s the last thing they want to do during an election campaign. So which way does small business turn?

There is one area of change, however. Unions, which have relied on the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct their elections (at taxpayers’ expense), would have to reimburse the AEC under the Liberals’ user-pays policy. That seems to ignore the fact that the AEC only became involved in the 1970s, thanks to the Fraser government.

Unions had conducted their own elections up till then, but some were considered to be highly suspect. Too many militant officials, including communists, were getting elected. AEC postal ballots would ensure the elections were above board.

Many left-wing unions resented the move as interference with their autonomy. Others were quite happy with the AEC involvement. Annual postal ballots were a big expense. Better if the costs were borne by taxpayers, rather than the members.

Presumably Mr Abbott is confident that unions once again can be trusted to conduct, and pay for, their own elections, without any subsequent spike in union militancy.

But this begs the question: why aren’t the Liberals prepared to offer even mild reforms in the industrial relations area when the union movement is nowhere near as strong as 20 years ago? Then, pre-election IR stoushes were considered an act of faith.

Essentially, with just three weeks to polling day on August 21, both sides appear to be playing safe. Neither side has given people much reason to vote for it.

Surely it’s time for Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott to get out the leadership baton. It could make the difference between winning and losing. If they don’t act, they should hand back their leadership allowance.

But I wouldn’t put any money on that.

Business backs off

THE national president of the Liberal Party, Alan Stockdale, didn’t pull his punches when he spoke at the party’s recent WA conference.

“Business is simply not supporting the Liberal Party,” was his blunt message.

Admittedly there was one exception. He said business in WA gave more generously than its counterparts in other states. Witness the $1 million that the WA division has just kicked in to the party’s federal election campaign.

“Our biggest fundraiser is the WA division,” Mr Stockdale told delegates.

While some local party officials were keen to play down the WA contribution, others described it as “unprecedented”, saying the local fund-raising effort, and the support from business, put the party on a sound financial footing.

Not so in other states, according to the national president, who was Victorian treasurer during the Kennett years, and would know the value of a dollar. Referring to the other states, Mr Stockdale said, “In the main, business does not want to get involved ... that is plain wrong.

“If companies abdicate the field ... we will see Labor governments purchasing office through the financial resources of the party and the union movement.”

Mr Stockdale was plainly annoyed that some big business leaders had been critical of Liberal policy, without first offering any support.

Perhaps the local experience is a reflection of the fact that WA is the only state in which the Liberals are in power. Certainly the experience in the east is not a good omen for the Liberals in the federal election, let alone the Victorian election to follow in November.




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