It continues to be an odd Australian election campaign. I am not sure that I believe the latest Herald/Nielsen poll; this shows the opposition with an apparently election winning lead, with Labor's primary vote down to 36 per cent. Regardless of the results of the election, you can expect it to be analysed to death afterwards!
While I don't want to comment on the detail of the campaign, I do want to make a few purely professional comments.
Regardless of which side wins the overall election, it seems likely that the Australian Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. For that reason, The Green's policy positions become more important than they have been in the past. I, for one, do not know enough of those positions. They need to be subjected to the same type of forensic analysis that should be applied to the main parties.
Cabinet Confidentiality and Leaks
The leaks about the workings of the Rudd cabinet make me me very uncomfortable at several levels.
Each minister wears several hats in cabinet. Each has to take into account his/her portfolio interests; this includes making judgments about the impact on the portfolio if other expenditure proposals are approved. Each has to make judgements about both the overall national interest as they see it. Each has to take party and electoral considerations into account.
Once cabinet has reached a decision, once it becomes Government policy, then ministers are bound to defend it.
Ministers change their minds all the time, at least at the margin. They do so for both policy and party political reasons. They have to be free to do so. If not, cabinet becomes unworkable.
Part of the reason for cabinet confidentiality is to provide ministers with the freedom required for sensible discussion. Take this away, and you cut at the very heart of effective government. To my mind, whoever has been responsible is not just striking at the ALP, but at the system itself.
There is a broader issue here, that of the role of confidentiality itself. However, the issues here are beyond the scope of this post.
Policy confusion and post election: trouble for both sides
To my mind, the level of effective policy analysis in this election has been quite low, couched in generalities on one side, responses to specific announced initiatives on the other. In saying this, I am talking as much about the analysts and commentators (I include myself here) as the party leaderships. Let me try to illustrate.
A very high proportion of Government policies and programs are already locked in. Further, the existing government has already announced major changes that are partially underway.
Taking this into account, consider the opposition first. It's announcements combine three things:
- Statements of general principles such as the Coalition Economic Principles. Now what do these actually mean in terms, for example, of regional development or the principles underlying the Australian Federation?
- A range of specific proposed expenditure cuts, totaling in all almost $A24 billion. Many of these are small, some bigger. Some such as the proposed abolition of the National Broadband Network have been picked up, others not. But what do they actually mean? For example, do we really want to discontinue our campaign for a seat on the UN security Council?
- A series of smaller new spending initiatives that have attracted some attention.
In all this, I actually have very little idea as to what an opposition win might mean for, as an example, the structure of health services.
None of this should be construed as an attack on the policies themselves, just a statement that I don't know.
Now look at the Government. Here we have a range of policies and programs already announced that will, presumably, continue. This includes major implementation challenges in areas such as the announced health reforms. Normally with a Government going to re-election, the past is taken for granted. However, in this case one could be forgiven for a degree of uncertainty. So how are present and past meant to fit together? Again, I'm not sure.
Between now an the election, I will try for my own sake (I do have to vote!) to work out some of the implications on both sides. For the present, I am left with the feeling that both sides are likely to experience some discomfort when it comes to comes to forming a new Government.
It was pointed out to me on the security council seat that the opposition had previously criticised this spend. Fair enough. But that was as opposition. I do remember it, now that I am reminded. I ask again, does the opposition as now the possible government, actually think that Australia should not seek that seat? If so, why not? More broadly, I don't think that either side has really spelt out any foreign policy vision.
On health, it was suggested that the Government already has a framework in place, that there is no need to spell things out. Sorry. As a mere mortal, I actually think I need to be told. After all, I am not absolutely sure which pieces of previous policy are still valid.
These comments may seem a bit sour. I am not at all sour about the suggestions. I am a little sour about the nature of the debate.