Monday, August 23, 2010

Northern Daily Leader: Second-term support a must

This morning, the Tamworth based Northern Daily Leader (the largest newspaper in Tony Windsor's New England electorate) editorialised:

WITH only the faintest hope Labor might fall across the line with the support of one Greens MP, a “Greens independent” and a win in the West Australian seat of Hasluk, Tony Windsor and his fellow conservative independents will likely need to decide to fish or cut bait in the very near future.

Even if Labor, by an extremely fortuitous chain of events, secures the 76 seats it needs to govern, such a government would be intrinsically unstable.

Unless it could rely on the support of the three bush independents, it is hard to see how it could form an effective government with a working majority of one in the lower house.

This is especially so given the Labor-leaning Greens don’t own the Senate for another six months.

It is this paper’s belief – and one we have stated many times – that the conservative independents have an obligation to give the Rudd-Gillard government a second term.

A failure to do so would make this the first one-term federal government since before WWII.

To force a change of government when the opposition has not won a clear majority of seats would represent a serious short-circuiting of the democratic process.

This is particularly the case given an independent-backed ALP minority government would be inherently more stable than its Coalition equivalent.

With the independents citing broadband and stable government as major issues, they seem to have no option but to back Labor.

To do otherwise would be to appear as if they were self-indulgently pandering to their own electorates at the expense of the national interest.

It is becoming more and more apparent a marriage of convenience between the conservative independent faction and the Coalition is extremely unlikely.

On a special edition of the 7.30 Report last night, Tony Windsor reportedly referred to The Nationals as a “dying party” and called Senator Barnaby Joyce – once mooted as a challenger for the seat of New England in this election – as “a fool and an embarrassment”.

Bob Katter gave Warren Truss a serve before saying he had worked with people he loathed and detested in the past.

As an aside, it appears from the NDL that Andrew Wilkie, the possible new Tasmanian independent grew up in Tamworth and went to Tamworth High. To complete the trifecta, National's Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce was also born in Tamworth and considered running in New England against Tony Windsor. Both Tony Windsor and Barnaby Joyce went to the University of New England.

As I write, National's leader Warren Truss is being interviewed on radio tip-toeing around the question of relationships between Nationals and independents. I discussed this in my last post,Three Amigos and the future Australian Government.

This was a good election for the Nationals. Including the Queensland members of the Liberal National Party who will sit in the National Party party room, the Party has seen an increase in its lower house numbers. It has its first member from Western Australia for many years. To now be dependent on ex-National independents must be galling!

During the campaign I was critical of the failure of the main parties to properly address country issues with a special focus on the broader New England. I accept that I can be classified as parochial, but it was an election where both Liberal and Labor combined nation "uniformities" on one side with quite blatant marginal seat strategies on the other. The Nationals disappeared in this mix; it was unclear to me whether this was just a reporting blonde spot, or was a policy failure.   

The first problem for the Nationals during such a presidential style campaign lay in the difficulty to properly differentiate themselves within the tight disciplines of a Coalition campaign effectively controlled by the Liberal machine. The second problem was the bitsy nature of National specific policies. The two were connected. Really, the Nationals could only tinker at the margin.

Warren Truss made the telling comment that in WA, it was royalties for the regions that made the difference. There the Nationals were not bound by coalition. 

From my perspective, as I said I am being parochial, I think that both the Nationals and independents need to focus properly on regional development. A pottage approach will nor work.

The problems faced by Australia outside the metro areas did not emerge overnight. Both the Howard and Rudd Governments responded with band-aids. Very few of the "policies" actually addressed core problems, although some things such as expansion of medical training did offer longer term benefits.

One of the problems faced by the small number of analysts such as myself who did try to address key issues at a broader regional level is that our analysis was seen as unimportant, parochial, not main-stream. This held even where blind-freddy could see that "national" policies based on statistical uniformities were not going to work.

Australia is not a single uniform country, but a mosaic of regions with different issues and needs. All decisions and policies have differential impacts across the country. Of course there are areas where uniformity is required, but policies placed upon blind application of uniform approaches at state or federal level using simple statistical standardised needs or performance measures  are going to have totally differential on-ground impacts.

I suppose, and I am speaking personally, that one of my greatest frustrations has been my almost total inability to get across what I see as wrong in the current system.

Part of my problem here is simply that things are not black and white. I support national approaches, I recognise that trade-offs are involved, I know that effective policy development is a complex process. This makes it hard for me to put forward simple nostrums.

Part of my problem also lies in the way that my concerns are seen as narrow, as lying outside current ways of thinking. It is more important to play the current game, to work within the system, to accept the constraints of what is rather than to look to what might be.

I have classified my own political beliefs as New England populist, a label I coined and which I carry with pride. one central tenet of those beliefs is what was called by David Drummond the tyranny of the majority. In simple terms, this means the tendency by the majority to impose their views regardless.

In an earlier discussion on this blog, one of my old work colleagues (Bob Quiggin) who was involved in our attempts to re-shape industry policy, challenged me. Surely, he said, it is the role of the minority to argue their case? To Bob's mind, and this is my interpretation of his ideas, failure of politics and policies to represent particular minority positions is simply a failure of argument, a failure to get a majority to agree.

Bur what do you do when systems and structures actually prevent or limit argument? This is my charge when it comes to decentralisation and regional development.

The process is a complex one: it affects the issues selected for debate; it goes to the way data is collected; it affects the way things are presented in the media; it affects the topics selected for research that later feed into journals and books; it appears in the structure of policies and programs.

The process compounds: less research and reporting reduces the visibility of issues; reduced research means that alternative data is less available; those who want to argue alternative lines are increasingly marginalised; less funding is attracted; and so it goes on.           

In part, this is simply the normal process of change. But when a gap starts to open up between the majoritian position and the views and concerns of significant minorities, the system becomes unstable.

My historical research is focused on the broader new state New England. Here the combination of Country Party and New State Movement drove the core regional policy debate, with the New England University College/University of New England increasingly providing the intellectual fire-power.

Debate about decentralisation appeared in the mainstream media, in the journals, in the small intellectual magazines, in theses. New bodeis emerged such as the Hunter Valley Research Foundation. There was a surge in regional studies: from the Riverina ,to New England to the Darling Downs, to North Queensland. Then it all stopped, as the drive coming out of New England stopped.

Yes, there were some on-going developments such as the work done by the University of Newcastle on regional historical resources, but the total volume of work done at all went into sharp decline. As a a simple example, there has been no new prehistory of New England published since 1974.

This might not matter if the same topic had been picked up as part of broader work. It has not. There was more research work done, I think, between 1960 and 1974 than in the 36 years since.

This may sound trivial. It is not, for this was one of the biggest Aboriginal population areas in Australia. The same pattern is replicated elsewhere. Take away the drive and interest, and the work stops.

This had begun to change over the last few years. Maybe, just maybe, the current political position provides an opportunity to change things, to force a renewed focus on things country and regional. I would like to think so.     


Geoff Robinson said...

if Labor does form a govt their caucus will have a historically high portion of non capital city members.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting, Geoff, but also a little surprising. Looking at the background of early Labor members, there seem to be a hell of a lot with country connections.