Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Different drivers, same road

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

The 2013 election is pretty much about choosing the Australian bus driver.

Tony Abbott is promising that he will always keep his hands on the wheel, and drive in the steady, restrained but petrol-saving manner of his mentor. Scott Morrison will ride shotgun up front to repel hitchhikers.

Kevin Rudd promises a bit more excitement, driving without his spectacles or a rear window, and probably a fair bit faster. There will also be more rest stops, and on-board entertainment.

Neither has any idea of where they are going, or seems to think that the passengers are interested. The road will take us wherever it does, and it's really about whether one wants to travel frugally or not, or safely or not. We have little idea even of the quality of the road ahead: our vote is about which driver we trust - whether to get to a place we want to be, or to amuse us along the journey.

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Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that politicians and elected governments have less and less power to make a difference to people's lives - and that voters know and understand this. Careful stewardship of the economy is one thing, but will not save us if international circumstances change, commodity prices or demand shifts, or if we suffer catastrophe, as with fire, flood and storm in Queensland in recent times.

Nor can we be certain that the tiny differences of intended expenditure or policy between the parties on significant issues such as health, defence, education and social security entitlement, or even surpluses or deficits, will make the slightest difference to outcomes of the sort that actually matter. When public sector activity is in the hundreds of billions, a few billion either way does not do much to stimulate or contract the economy. Good management - and the judgment and capacity to pull levers at the right moment - may matter more than all of the slogans and mantras in the world, and much much more than the infinitesimal difference, in ideological terms, between the major parties on the role of the state, or size of the public sector.

Our political leaders thrive on magnifying difference, and in pretending that they are the consequence of profoundly different philosophies. But all of the rhetoric, or slogans, or achievements of leaders and frontbenchers, on either side could easily be placed in a narrative of that person's success on the other side. Abbott and Rudd are particularly interchangeable on general matters of approach.

The bland approach to the ''vision thing'' was particularly marked in Abbott's campaign opening on Sunday. He talked of ''change'', but it was clear that he meant no more than reversion to ''normality'' after the chaos and confusion, waste and mismanagement of the Rudd and Gillard days.

Change was better driving, not a different destination, or route. The ''trust'' he was asking for was belief in his commitment to sound processes in whatever situations came to confront the government. Gifts and baubles on offer were secondary to the certainty and security choosing him would bring.

''We will be a no-surprises, no-excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises and lame excuses from people that you have trusted with your future.

''It's performance, not promises, that will earn your respect; it's actions, not words, that you are looking for. You don't expect miracles; just a government that is competent and trustworthy and a prime minister who doesn't talk down to you.''

It was a far cry from the ''bit of excitement'' that Paul Keating was promising colleagues, journalists and the public when he was trying to replace Bob Hawke. Hawke, he implied, had gone bland, boring, and was simply presiding over events: Keating would ''bring a bit of enthusiasm back''.

''A bit of esprit. You'd feel you belong to something,'' he added. The leadership, he said, needed quality and weight.

''Politics,'' he also said, ''is all about change. The system runs itself''. By that standard, a politician was to be judged not by being there, but by how he made things different, or better.

Abbott was, of course, addressing doubters on his own side of politics as much as in the electorate at large. The opposition campaign is focused on pretending that Abbott is a far-right radical conservative bent on cutting government ''to the bone''; but many on the smaller-government side of politics fear that Abbott is instead secretly a centrist, a big spender and a believer in the idea that government action, or coercion, can solve social problems.

So there are words he knows off by heart about government not being in the face of voters. Alongside others about major infrastructure, and increased health, education, defence and community services spending.

The paradise of a smaller public sector to which he would return would in fact (if simply modelled on Howard's) be bigger than the one that he will be inheriting. And his light touch model of government will not only be in trouble from the level of unfunded promises - whether $70 billion as Labor pretends, or $30 billion that others say. It will be about finding an extra $60 billion a year on top to achieve, if he really means to, his 10-year ambitions: ''Within a decade, the budget surplus will be 1 per cent of GDP, defence spending will be 2 per cent of GDP, the private health insurance rebate will be fully restored, and each year, government will be a smaller percentage of our economy.''

Where the public administration is concerned, he's trying to indicate that it should not fear a 1996 ''black hole'' or recent Queensland-style slashing. It must simply revert to a role at the ministerial ear and elbow similar to that of the Howard years. [Which would not be much different from life under Rudd or Gillard, though Abbott would not know that.]

''Choose change, and the last six years will soon seem like an aberration, '' he said on Sunday - to the masses at large, but he may as well have been talking to public servants. ''Choose change, and we'll send a signal to people in authority that we can forgive honest mistakes but not persistent incompetence and deception. Choose change, and there are few problems that cannot be improved.''

To taxpayers, he added ''you expect us to be as frugal and prudent with your money, which we hold on trust from you, as you would be with your own hard-earned savings … you can't have a strong society and strong communities without strong economies to sustain them and you can't have a strong economy without profitable private businesses.''

''A stronger economy is not about picking winners but about helping everyone to get ahead.''

I'm waiting to see what all of this rhetoric means in terms of changed policies in relation to indigenous Australians - a field in which Abbott means well and has powerful intentions - if ones more full of hope and belief in gurus than of practical experience and real political hard work. Not much in the end, I expect, and certainly not less intrusive government. That's for the middle class.

Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large of The Canberra Times. jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia.com.au


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