A “gaffe” in Australian politics normally consists of speaking the truth when it is politically inconvenient. So, are Peter Garrett’s remarks that Labor would “change it all” after the election a “gaffe” in this sense, as suggested by the reporter in question, a joke, as Garrett said, or something in between.
My view is “something in between”. That is, there is no secret plan to junk Labor’s promises, but a lot of people wish there was.
In most elections, parties make promises, to secure electoral support, that they would rather not keep, either because they regard them as bad public policy or because they reward interest groups that are not seen as actually deserving such rewards. This election has seen plenty of that from both sides, with the biggest single example being Labor’s decision to match Howard’s tax cuts. Most Labor supporters would regard this as a bad promise in several ways. First, large advance commitments of this kind are bad macroeconomic policies. Second, it would be better to allocate more money to services like health and education. Finally, the tax cuts mostly reward the upper income groups that are the natural constituency of the Liberals.
Following the last two changes of Federal government, the incoming party fabricated a crisis and junked their inconvenient (“non-core”) promises. Much though I dislike a lot of the (com)promises Rudd has made, I hope Labor does not do the same. Democratic processes are more important then getting the best policy outcome in the short term.
Over the fold is an excerpt from a Fin article I wrote in September, suggesting that, despite the “me-too” nature of the campaign, the outcome will make a difference. I think the analysis is still right, except that the ferocity of the government’s anti-union campaign has shifted the ground a bit. If the government gets back in, even with a narrow majority, they will clearly feel justified in pushing through their maximal anti-union agenda. Conversely, the unions now know they have to stick with Rudd come what may, and he has an obvious interest in demonstrating his supremacy. So I suspect he’ll give them nothing more than the minimal changes that have been promised.
The similarities with the forthcoming contest between Howard and Rudd are obvious. Both leaders have made a rush for the centre, to the extent that, on many issues, they appear indistinguishable. And yet, on a whole range of issues, a Labor victory would make a huge difference.
Kyoto is one example. Iraq is another. Until now, Australian forces have been allocated mainly to relatively low-risk roles, with the remarkable result that we have suffered no combat fatalities. It is now clear that the war will outlast the Bush Administration, and that the scarcity of troops will become acute by mid-2008 as Britain and others pull out. If Australia stays, the pressure to take on a frontline role will become irresistible.
Even more significant will be the long-run effects on the labour market. While both sides have sought to soften the edges of their policies, the resulting compromises are unsustainable. Labor will surely come under pressure to remove more of the restrictions on unions embodied in the system.
On the other hand, the governmentâ€™s expanded fairness test has proved unworkable, as indicated by the decision of the retailer Spotlight to return to the award system. If re-elected the government will surely feel justified in simplifying the system and stripping away many of the additional protections. The end result, inevitably, will be the kind of labour market exemplified by the US under Bush. Great opportunities for skilled and educated workers coexist with a low-wage sector, encompassing around half the workforce, where, with the exception of a brief upturn under Clinton, real wages have been stagnant for decades.