Monday, May 04, 2009

Language, delivery and the Rudd Government

In Counting the unemployed, Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) looked at the definition of employed used for statistical purposes. Neil is correct that we have adopted international definitions. He is also correct in inferring that the way employment is defined grossly understates the level of real unemployment.

The use of standard definitions of this type means that the statistics do reflect trends. However, it can also make it difficult to use the numbers for much more than this.

Very early on in the life of the new Australian Government, I expressed two cautions.

In Saturday Morning Musings - foreign policy, Mr Rudd and the dangers of Australia's middle power status I said in part:

Internationally, Mr Rudd has been emphasising Australia's role as a middle power and seems determined to assert this in whatever forum he can. To my mind, there is a real danger that he will get what he wishes, a greater international role for Australia....

With locked in media coverage, Mr Rudd's trip appears to have played well to a domestic audience, in part because it feeds to our sense of self-importance. I would feel far more comfortable if we were keeping our national head down, playing a quieter and more subtle game.

My other concern expressed in Slow down Mr Rudd, for all our sakes, slow down was that the Government's desire to do would outrun the Government's capacity to deliver. Both have been on display this week.

The Government's new Defence White Paper was always going to attract some attention because of the numbers involved, new equipment is expensive, as well as its analysis of the strategic environment. However, the advance leaks of the Paper and the language surrounding it created an unfortunate atmosphere when set against a background of previous Government remarks on Australia's middle power status. Talking tough may play well to an Australian domestic audience, but it is not a good international line.

The new program is to be funded in part through $20 billion internal Defence reform program. This may be possible, but I do have doubts.

I have lost count of the number of times in recent years that Australian Governments have announced that they are going to part fund Defence acquisitions through savings.

Of itself, this makes me cautious. However, the announcement also comes at a time of apparent tensions between the Defence Department, the Australian Defence Forces and the Minister. This has been playing out in different ways, but adds to my caution about the actual funding and delivery of the program.

Modern weapons systems are incredibly complex. Cost over-runs are common and difficult to control. We shall see.

I haven't commented on the Government's emissions trading scheme. While I have read the various discussions and commentary, I haven't done the personal analysis required to form a balanced view. That said, it has been clear for some time that the scheme has been facing difficulties.

I don't blame the Government for deferring the start date. I don't share the current obsession about the inviolability of election promises. Things change, and Governments must change with them.

Part of the Government's problems in this case lie, and this is the link with Defence case, in the language used previously. Instead of discussing issues, the Government locked itself in to a fixed position. The changes made to the scheme appear to have been carefully crafted in political terms to gather maximum support, but it remains the case that the Government has been forced to change position.

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