Friday, July 23, 2010

Gillard's a blowin in the wind

Where the wind blows

I haven't commented to this point on Australia's election campaign.

When the election was first announced, my reaction was that Ms Gillard had gone too soon, reinforcing the belief that both her election as PM and the poll decision fell in the grab it while you can class.

I am not sure that this matters in any practical way. I am not close enough to the great variety in attitudes across Australia to be able to make independent judgements as to seat outcomes, even though I do read quite widely. I can only go by the polls and, with one exception, these suggest a Labor win.

What passes for a policy debate in the election leaves me feeling quite cold. It is very much the current approach of simple slogans tailored through polling and focus groups to try to measure and match the shifting currents of public opinion. At a personal level, I really don't want to vote for either side.

I have been meaning for a while to write a column on spin and will do so at some point because I think it important. As part of this, I have been trying to think how to best demonstrate that the effects are quite pernicious. Perhaps one way of doing this would be to take two or three practical examples at different points in time.

As I write, what passes for policy debate is shifting from sustainable population to climate change.

The sustainable population debate was simplistic beyond belief. I have written a fair bit in this area over time. In one of my recent Armidale Express columns, Belshaw's World - comings, goings and the end of big Australia, I looked at some basic numbers.

In simple terms, slowing Australia's population growth does not mean stopping immigration. In 2009, over 203,000 Australians left the country. Had we had a zero growth target, we would still have needed 75,000 migrants to keep the population stable. So when we talk about migration, we need to focus on net migration.

This is actually the number people use in discussion, but they don't realise this, nor do they necessarily realise that changes in the number of Australians emigrating has such a major impact. A little simple maths would better inform the debate.

The debate about a bigger Australia has bought back into focus questions about the distribution of people across the continent. Again, I get very tired here of arguing against simple and mechanistic responses.

The flag ship Gillard policy is called Building Better Regional Cities. Who could argue with this? The introduction states: 

The Gillard Labor Government will invest $200 million to help build up to 15,000 more affordable homes in regional cities over three years and relieve pressure on our major capital cities, so that Australia can grow sustainably.

This is classic spin, attaching a nice title to a minor measure. What the Government has done is to slow down spending on national affordable housing to allow the allocation of $200 million (not a large sum) to building housing in regional cities.

But what cities? Well, to set an initial target list, all they did was to set an arbitrary cut off point of 30,000 for all non-capital city LGAs and then put all those over 30,000 on a list from which a final group is to be chosen. That group will get up to $15 million to spend on housing and associated infrastructure.

This may make a useful contribution in specific areas, but does nothing to address core problems. In fact, it will simply reinforce past trends.

Turning to climate change, it appears that the core element in Ms Gillard's proposals is some form of citizen's assembly to build community consensus on the topic. It also appears that her climate plan will have three components: building consensus, boosting clean energy and the development of community-based solutions.

On the surface, this is classic current policy. Of course we need to build a common community view on climate change. Of course, clean energy is (subject to the detail) probably a good thing, as are community solutions. However, this is not a government leading, but instead reacting.

Still, you can be sure that there will be a few key slogans and some nice if conventional visual packaging.

I called Mr Rudd the head because of the way we were all his recalcitrant students. Following Moir's cartoon, does this make Ms Gillard the weather-cock?  


Rummuser said...

Mike, Why is it that the West Minister system that you and we follow, increasingly appears to be similar to the Presidential form of the USA? Is the Labour party going to the electorate or the incumbent Prime Minister? The same thing happened last election in Britain too. Spin?

Jim Belshaw said...

Not so much spin, in this case I think, but simply shifts in percpetions. It has always been the case in Australia that Governments have been called by the leader or leaders, so the Bruce-Page Government, the Menzies Government etc. What is new is the focus on the leader not as the first among equals but as the absolute dominant figure.