The meltdown continues

While we wait for the new government take shape, we should be thinking about the first steps in policy (updated a little bit). But it’s impossible to avert our eyes from the trainwreck on the other side of politics.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed a bit by being in Queensland, where a Courier-Mail net poll has overwhelmingly nominated Mickey Mouse as the best choice to lead the State Libs (and indeed, his would be a more accurate name for the party). Not only are the eight members of the Parliamentary Party split down the middle, but they only want the job for the sake of the ex officio position on the State Executive which controls the spoils of defeat over which they are struggling (breaking news on this is that hopeless incumbent Bruce Flegg is about to stand down).

It’s easy to write this lot off as a provincial joke. But it doesn’t seem as if things are much different elsewhere

At this point, Turnbull seems like the only hope the Liberals have for change from within. If he succeeds, the party will be changed beyond recognition from that of Howard and Costello. If he fails, it’s hard to see the Liberal party surviving in its current form.

The turn of the cycle

Reader Stephen Ziguras has sent me this interesting graph on public preferences regarding the choice between lower taxes and more services.

It illustrates what Andrew Norton has called the issue cycle. Although our preferences differ quite a bit on this, I think Andrew and i share much the same political analysis. Voters are broadly satisfied with the moderate social democratic settlement that’s been in place for the last twenty-five years or so. When taxes go up a lot, as they did, thanks to bracket creep in the 1970s, they want tax cuts. When the quality of services like health and education gets squeezed, they want more public money spent on those things.

Those who want to argue for either a substantial enhancement or a substantial cutback in the role of the state have their work cut out for them. In this context, much of the me-tooism we saw in the recent election campaign is not that surprising, and nor is the defeat of the Liberals. There’s not much risk that the state will expand far beyond its current role, and a pretty strong feeling that lots of public services are in need of expensive repairs.

GM Canola

The recent announcement that the production of genetically modifed canola will be permitted suggests that the long controversy over the GM issue is drawing to a close, with a reasonable chance of an outcome that should be satisfactory to most.

GM foods can be produced and sold in Australia, but, in general, must be labelled as such. Producers and consumers can decide to avoid GM if they want to, but those who are willing to embrace GM will not be prevented from doing so. There’s a problem here in relation to canola, since it’s mostly processed into oil for use in margarine and other products and this isn’t covered by the current labelling requirements – this should be fixed.

The policy decision reflects a pretty clear scientific consensus that the products in question are safe to consume, and also a long period of experimental work with genetic modification. With a few exceptions (notably those driven by Monsanto in the US), this work has been carried out with admirable caution, beginning with the Asilomar conference in 1975, which may be seen as the first application of the precautionary principle. Given the experience of the past thirty years, and the scientific understanding that has developed over that time, it seems pretty clear that any risks associated with GM are modest and manageable, not the potential catastrophes that worried the participants at Asilomar.

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Polls, pundits and punters

A really convincing case study often has more power than a mound of statistical analysis and, for me at least, observation of the just-completed election campaign has convinced me of the correct analysis of the predictive power of betting markets, relative to polls and pundits.

To recap, the polls (which had previously put Labor just in front) showed a big shift to Labor as soon as Kevin Rudd became Labor and stayed virtually unchanged for the subsequent year, narrowing by a percentage point or two after the campaign was called. This graph from Possum’s Pollytics tells the story.

At first no-one (neither punters in betting markets, nor political pundits, nor the public in their predictions) believed the polls. But over time, they all came around, until by election day, it didn’t matter whose predictions you used, you would have been pretty much right.

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What should Rudd do first

Ratify Kyoto – it’s a stroke of a pen, needs no legislation, is a simple Yes-No decision and will have a big impact.[1]

Straight after that, though, something much harder. Rudd needs to reverse the decline in ethical standards that we’ve seen under Howard, and which began much earlier, going back at least to the 1970s. Arguably, Howard’s ultimate fate was sealed within a few days of taking office with the abandonment of what he later called ‘non-core promises’. That set the pattern for the many lies and improprieties that followed.

Unless the government acts now, before it has anything it wants to hide, the temptations of office will be too much. Some of the elements needed:

* An end to political advertising on the taxpayer’s dollar. After Howard’s disastrously counterproductive blitz on WorkChoices, this ought to be a forced move. But no doubt there are already plenty of self-rated smart operators in the backrooms thinking about how to use the resources of government in the interests of party

* A ministerial code of conduct. John Howard’s 1996 code would be a good starting point. His abandonment of this code to save Warwick Parer was a defining moment in his government’s decline and ultimate downfall. By contrast, Peter Beattie’s willingness to lose his own deputy premier and numerous other ministers has led to political success despite numerous scandals.

* A revival of the Westminster system. It’s too late to go back to the old idea of an apolitical public service, but a clear statement of the roles of ministers, departmental heads and public servants is needed. In my view, we should accept that the departmental head is the personal appointee of the minister, and they should share responsibility for the acts of the department. In particular, any information known to the department head should be presumed to be known to be minister. All public servants below that level should be permanent and apolitical

* Keeping promises. Rudd made some pretty bad promises to get in, such as matching tax cuts and keeping the private health insurance rebate. The standard approach of incoming governments in Australia has been to fabricate a crisis and dump the promises. While this has an obvious appeal, its long-run effect is corrosive, and is reflected in Howard’s downfall.

fn1. As pointed out in comments, it’s not as easy as that. But the fact that some exceptional measures need to be taken to get an immediate start on ratification will only increase the impact of the decision.

UpdateA more comprehensive guide from Miriam Lyons at the Centre for Policy Development

One for the true disbelievers

Pretty clearly, the big winners for Labor in this election, and the big losers for the government, were WorkChoices and climate change.

But WorkChoices or something like it was a forced move for the government once they got control of the Senate. Hatred of unions is (as the Libs pointed out in reverse about Labor) in the DNA of the Liberal party. A government which did nothing when it had the power would have suffered the same historical obloquy as Fraser’s.

By contrast, there was no need at all for the government to embrace climate change delusionism. The Liberal party was, arguably, ahead of Labor on this issue in the early 1990s. And while large parts of the business sector were inclined to delusionism, large sectors were not. A government that took the lead on this issue could have carried business with it. The push was driven by the conservative chatterati, most prominently on the opinion pages of the Australian, and reflected anti-environmentalist attitudes largely imported from the US Republican party.

While Workchoices made sure that the “Howard battlers” went back to Labor, climate change delusionism ensured that there was no offsetting gain within the core Liberal constituency.

Those who pushed delusionism in the opinion pages, the thinktanks, on the airwaves and in the blogosphere made a huge contribution to the downfall of the Howard government and, quite probably, the destruction of the Liberal Party. And Australia’s ratification of Kyoto may well have more impact now than if we’d signed up back in 2001.

The Last Liberal

For once, my electoral predictions haven’t turned out too badly, so I’ll offer one more before we get back to policy: The Liberal Party will never again win a federal election.

This isn’t a prediction of unending Labor rule, rather an observation that the Liberal and National parties are in such dire straits that they can’t continue as they are. They haven’t got enough support, parliamentary representation or ideas for one party, let alone two.

The obvious option is a merger, but there may be other, more radical realignments in the wings. With no incumbent governments, there’s no real obstacle to a merger, except for entrenched interests in the party machines. But, in many ways, it would be better for the conservatives to start a completely new party, leaving their toxic existing structures to collapse.

I’d welcome this. Governments need to be kept in check. That requires an effective opposition, and a serious prospect of losing office. We’re already feeling the lack of this at the state level.

Update Apparently, Peter Costello agrees.

Further update Some commenters have objected that this is too strong a call to make on the basis of one 53-47 election. But of course that’s only part of it. The picture at the State level is far worse. The conservatives haven’t won a state or territory election this century, and have suffered landslide defeats at the hands of Labor governments, some of which have been mediocre at best. Of course, things could go badly wrong for Rudd or for one of the state governments. But if they don’t, it’s hard to see the Libs getting back in anywhere before the next NSW election due in 2011, and that depends on the most dysfunctional party organisation in the country getting its act together.