Summing up the campaign

I’m quite puzzled by the negative, disillusioned tone of much of the blogosphere and MSM commentariat coverage of the federal election campaign.  I’ve actually been quite heartened, almost inspired, by it.

The advent of 21st century versions of old-fashioned “town hall” participatory democracy with the ABC Q and A public grillings of both leaders and the Rooty Hill and Brisbane Broncos public fora have delivered unprecedented real public scrutiny of both leaders’ policies and personal qualities.  To my way of thinking these fora are much more useful and real than the previous tradition of staged TV debates and Press Club performance in the last week.

Moreover, both leaders emerged from the process with their reputations justifiably enhanced.  Australia is fortunate to have two personable, capable, highly intelligent and experienced leaders in Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.  My own reaction to last night’s Broncos marathon was that I’m pretty relaxed and comfortable about Saturday’s election.  Whichever party wins we will have a competent, moderate democratic government with solid, prudent economic policies.  In fact there’s little to distinguish the Labor and Coalition macro-economic positions.  Barring a double dip world recession,  Australia’s short-medium term future is very positive and both parties can be trusted not to imperil it (despite the inevitable hyperbole of both sides’ negative advertising).

On balance I prefer Labor and that’s the way I’ll be voting on Saturday.  I’m a genuine swinging voter having voted Coalition twice in the last last 15 years.   I think Julia Gillard is the better leader of the two contenders, and I prefer Labor policies overall.  The National Broadband Network policy is a standout for me and an absolutely vital piece of national infrastructure.  Most aspects of Gillard’s Building the Education Revolution policies, Rudd’s painfully negotiated health and hospitals deal with the States, and even the hastily cobbled together Resource Rental Tax deal, are all solid, forward-looking policies.  A modest reduction in company tax, enhanced national infrastructure building, and funding the public sector component of the long overdue 12% occupational superannuation policy are each sensible uses for the RRT revenue stream.

Maybe the totality is not quite as visionary as some might have hoped, and the glaring omission from Labor’s policy suite is any convincing, coherent policy to deal with climate change, but overall it’s a solid second term reform agenda.  It’s a trite but true cliche that politics is the art of the possible and Gillard Labor has fashioned a set of policies which should satisfy any reasonable, politically astute observer.

By contrast, when you drill down to the level of specific policies, there is little to see on the Coalition side.  Their more generous parental leave scheme is a plus, though the slug on company tax for big business isn’t.  And Abbott’s mental health policy is markedly superior to Labor (another glaring omission from Gillard’s policy package).  However, with those notable exceptions the Coalition’s policies seem little more than a reactive, ad hoc series of unrelated initiatives designed to pork barrel particular areas and interest groups, and funded by slashing and burning other areas of government expenditure, some of them announced and some not.

The Coalition’s policies  are neither coherent nor well considered, and don’t add value to Australia’s economy.  Essentially Abbott’s election strategy has consisted of smoke and mirrors pork barreling while trying to convince Australians of the patently false proposition that Labor has been guilty of gross waste and extravagance and has run up huge and unsustainable public debt, when the reality is that our public debt levels are tiny and Gillard/Rudd’s economic stewardship through the GFC is the envy of the western world and praised by most economists not to mention the Reserve Bank, IMF and Treasury.

Labor’s problems have been caused by Kevin Rudd’s badly misjudged handling of the climate change issue, the resources “super tax” and his egregiously gratuitous advocacy of a “big Australia” when the marginal seats in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane are experiencing major adjustment stresses flowing from a near-record migration program and population growth levels from an enhanced birth rate.  It was just plain stupid politics from a former leader who by all accounts sees himself as the smartest bloke in any room.

With any sort of luck Julia Gillard has done enough to allow Labor to limp across the line to a second term in government despite Rudd’s blunders.  If not, an Abbott Coalition won’t be a disaster, although it will certainly delay the necessity of providing vitally important fast broadband infrastructure and is less likely than Labor to begin taking any effective action on climate change.  At least Gillard believes it’s real and understands the need for a carbon price … just not quite yet.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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11 years ago

I’m honestly not convinced of the need for fibre-to-the-home as compared to fibre-to-the-node.

Sure, let’s run fibre into every town of, say, 1000 people or more in the country — but why then connect each house individually? When you consider that mobile devices are outselling PCs, doesn’t a mesh wireless network make more sense? And for businesses that really need the super-high speeds, then surely they can pay to be hooked up?

11 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful piece Ken. For me on the ALP side of things I think the mining tax is good but the NBN is a white elephant. With the Coalition I like the mental health policy but I think the maternity leave scheme is overkill. As for issues like climate change neither party has an effective policy.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago


Yes I tend to agree that fibre to the node as the default position is probably enough and would be significantly cheaper. However Abbott’s half-baked cheapjack solution just isn’t in the ballpark. Peak speeds of 12 MBps for the fixed wireless solution the Coalition relies on for outer suburban and regional areas (i.e. the bulk of Australia) is just not good enough.

I run CDU’s online Bachelor of Laws programs and we are pioneering online legal skills education (advocacy, client interviewing ADR skills etc) – the first anywhere in the world AFAIK. To function really adequately we need high definition multi-screen video at least half screen size, because more than half of human communication is non-verbal. I am advised that this requires consistent bandwidth around 20-30 MBps minimum. I get around 9MBps consistently with my current ADSL2+ connection, and it’s usable but not at the level of clarity and definition we really need, but students using wireless Internet are simply unable to participate in these subjects. Their bandwidth fluctuates wildly and unpredictably. I’m told that even with careful demand management that will remain the case and people with an Abbott wireless connection will typically experience average speeds around 2-3 MBps which isn’t within cooee of adequate. Moreover, fast growing outer suburban and regional areas are just about the worst areas to rely on fixed wireless because it’s essentially impossible for ISPs to practise effective demand management by installing enough mobile towers quickly as population grows.

OTOH my general understanding of fibre to the node is that it is possible relatively easily to upgrade the last 200 metres of copper so that just about everyone can achieve consistent speeds of at least 20-30 MBps. That should be enough for most high definition video conferencing needs including most e-education and e-health applications (e.g. ours). Thus it may well be that Labor’s plan is providing more than Australia really needs at least for the next couple of decades whereas the Coalition’s plan is grossly inadequate. Given that Labor seems to have costed its plans within the parameters of a reasonable overall fiscal policy, I think it’s preferable to over-engineer for the future than to under-engineer for a solution that will be seriously inadequate even for clearly visible current needs.

11 years ago

Hi Ken

Don’t you think you could apply the same argument about the fibre network to almost anything. Why not get Concorde-speed planes subsidized by the government. After all it would knock travel time to Europe and America down by 30% to 50%.

You live in remote area (don’t want to mention it over the web for privacy reasons). If you say lived in the larger cities the problem of a faster network isn’t as big an issue.

In any event you can buy dedicated telecoferencing at 250K a pop up until 4 years ago and it’s most likely much cheaper now.

Then there’s the issue of the likely direction of web based services. Are we heading towards the IPhone, Ipad or the notebook direction? My guess is that we’re heading Iphone Ipad type tech. Perhaps not us, but the rest of the world.

This guy thinks the traffic split in the future will favor wireless 10 times over fixed line.

Read his bio as he isn’t a slouch. He’s betting a good part of the firm on iphone/Ipad tech. I know him and that’s all he speaks about these days to the point of obsession but in a nice way.

listen to the vid.

You’ve mostly likely heard this before 1000 times. Where’s the cost benefit analysis for the NBN?

Abbott’s policy is essentially market based and would be responsive to developments as it wouldn’t pick a technology. The NBN is equal to the Maginot line.

In fact the best plan would be to not to have one at all.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

well said Ken.

James Farrell
11 years ago

With any sort of luck Julia Gillard has done enough to allow Labor to limp across the line…

Can I count that as a tip, Ken? Say, Labor by 2?

I like your summary of the issues, though it omits industrial relations legislations, where I think the difference in agendas might be biddgger than Abbott will admit.

Where I disagree is on what the outcome implies for greenhouse gas abatement. Neither side is offereing serious action now; but I think most Labor frontbenchers want to get back on track as soon as possible after the last two years’ debacle, whereas Abbott — and the hardcore deniers who scuttled Turbull’s compromise — will take victory as a vindication, and we won’t see any more progess for years.

Nicholas Gruen
11 years ago

A good summary. My own despair has not been that Tony Abbott is an ogre, but that the media have made it almost impossible for people who don’t study these things to get a balanced picture of the situation. As you say, this government has done quite well, though not brilliantly.

I like Abbott, and like his Burkean conservative shtick. He’s really the only senior politician who doesn’t talk in gobbledigook – call everything ‘appropriate’ and so on. So I find it very appealing. But, though he’s both personable and intelligent, I’ve not seen much evidence of seriousness in his political conduct to this point. He offers ‘cast iron guarantees’ as a minister which, when broken turn out to have no serious implications for his career. Tells fibs quite frivolously – (“did you see Cardinal Pell this afternoon”, “No”, “but you did didn’t you?” “Well misleading the ABC isn’t the same thing as misleading Parliament.” Not a very serious scene you’ll agree.

Also Abbott’s policies as you say are bereft of any real direction or coherence. Oddly enough I wasn’t a traditional Howard hater, but by the end of his reign I was really really sick of his fecklessness on policy. Yes he didn’t throw a surplus away as the US Republicans would have. Yes, he wasn’t crazy or wildly irresponsible or cruel (except to boat people), but he was basically directionless, watching the money roll in and improvising one give-away after another.

If you look at how the ALP spent financial windfalls, they spent one windfall on the best designed and calibrated fiscal stimulus in the western world and the other (the mining tax) on lower company tax, higher super, a massive reduction in the paperwork burden for tax returns. Nothing terribly visionary, but more useful than a plethora of pre-election handouts like the (was it 2004) $800 to apprentices for their ‘toolkit’.

All that having been said, one is almost always surprised by PMs. So if he wins, I hope I’m pleasantly surprised.

11 years ago

I hope ‘she’ wins Nic, because I can’t help loving the very idea,the impossible idea, of a female P.M.
… an elected female PM, rather than an opportunistic, red, flash in the pan.

She’s magnificent on her hind legs (as the venerable Rumpole would say). I can’t help but admire her ability to think hard and logically, be gracious and ingratiating and convinxing (I’ll leave the typo there – she is a minxing – )and all out, aloud, and without notice in any public forum.

Admittedly I’d rather go to a concert – right now Alfy Brendel and the Weiner Philharmonic – the Emperor Concerto – but he’s not playing for the public anymore, and I’m in Darwin on the edge of western culture and in the middle of the Darwin Festival (The John Butler Trio and a terrifying version of La Boheme are about what the festival can muster).

In the absence of a great, or even an ordinary concert hall performance, the election of an intelligent, articulate female P.M. on Saturday is something I will wholeheartedly celebrate as a fabulous first for Australia.

James Farrell
11 years ago

Nicholas, I’ll grant that Abbott speaks more plainly than most of them, but that’s about it. And it’s made easier for him by his instinct for occupying the ‘common-sense’, aka populist, ground on just about any issue. I see him as the student politician who never quite grew up, relishing the game of politics rather than wanting to fix things (in contrast to Turnbull, say).

But I mainly wanted to make some comments on the ‘Burkean conservative’ thing.

First, I don’t understand why it resonates with you to such an extent. Where are today’s Jacobins, who aim to implement radical changes, impose utopian bluprints, divide and disconcert us? Whom or what are Abbott and Howard (whom I think you’ve also called a Burkean) protecting us from? I don’t think they are more Burkean than anyone else in the major parties. Aren’t we all Burkeans now, in the same way that, loosley speaking, we’re all utilitarians, free-traders, Keynesians and so on? The nuggets of truth in all of these doctrine are firmly embedded in the mainstream consensus.

Second, as far as Abbott specifically is concerned, I can’t see the Burkean that you see. I agree that our Tories are better at the Burkean rhetoric — they know just when to cry out that some proposed reform is divisive, ideological, an exercise in class warfare, and so on. Abetted by the media, this approach was successful in diluting the mining tax, and in defending subsidies to private schools and private health funds. But these campaigns were more about protecting vested interests than preserving social cohesion.

There’s no doubt Abbott is conservative in various senses of the word. There’s a traditional conservative element. If it were up to him alone, I’m sure abortion and no-fault divorce would be up for debate again. He’s also quite comfortable playing to the xenophobes as Howard was. Then there’s the neoliberal element, which is conservative insofar as it’s essentially the latest incarnation of pro-business ideology, manifesting particularly in a visceral dislike for organised labour that Abbott shared with Howard, Reith and Costello.

I think Walid Aly is on to something when he characterises neo-conservatism as a kind of flailing, neurotic response to the unfolding the neo-liberal program. Unable to control the forces unleashed by their own dergulatory agenda, conservatives looks for stability and comfort in traditional institutions, myths and ‘values’. Aly even argues that AGM denialism is a symptom of the neurosis, holding up folk wisdom against the machinations of scientists and bureaucrats. This description fits Abbott pretty well, it seems to me, and Aly’s whole point is that it has almost nothing to do with Burke.

Mark Heydon
Mark Heydon
11 years ago

I agree with most of what Ken has said, however must take issue with his contention that the “town hall” meetings have delivered real public scrutiny.
In the town hall meetings I saw, both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott mostly answered a different question to the one asked, Abbott far more egregious in this regard.

On Q&A, I don’t recall Abbott giving a straight answer – mostly he used each question as an opportunity to say what Labor had not done.

In the most recent Broncos appearance, Tony Abbott was able to come very close to lying about things (I particulary have the broadband issue in my head here, so it could well be through genuine ignorance on his part) and the questioners are either too timid or too uninformed to ask the follow-up questions or make the follow-up statements that would show the lie for all to see.

I think the town hall meetings and Q&A appearances subjected both Gillard and Abbott to more scrutiny than the mainstream press, but this is more a comment on the abysmal performance of the mainstream press than a compliment to the town hall style meetings.

James Farrell
11 years ago

AGW, I mean. I don’t think Abbott denies that AGMs occurr.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago


I think your portrait of the Tories and Abbott is somewhat exaggerated. It would be hard to deny that Coalition politicians including Abbott seem more willing to resort to xenophobic dog-whistling when needed, but Julia has recently proved herself capable of a slightly more subtle version thereof. And the Coalition

It’s also no doubt true that the Coalition are more naturally inclined to defend privilege, but you can’t take that proposition too far. Labor has been pragmatically happy to continue subsidies to private schools and private health case. Moreover, the resources rent tax has much more to do with pragmatic management of the economic pressures generated by the minerals boom than with any egalitarian impulses.

Moreover, we did not witenss any marked disparity in generation of inequality during the Howard years. See this blog post:

The notion that the last decade saw an acceleration in inequality in Australia in terms of the personal income distribution cannot be really maintained. We are becoming more unequal but the changes are slow moving and modest compared to trends elsewhere in the world.

The literature points to the role of social expenditure and the middle-class welfare that the previous regime made an art-form of.

The real changes that have occurred in the last decade or more (starting back in the mid-1970s and accelerating more recently) have to do with the quality and security of work. That is, gaining access to income and retaining that access is now significantly more difficult than it was in the 1960s when we had true full employment.

With increasingly precarious employment on offer it is now more of a struggle for many workers, especially those in the bottom three quintiles, to stay in the race. As this downturn continues to impact on the labour market (remember the employment impacts are the ones that drag out long after output growth has resumed) I expect the inequality to worsen.

The jump in Australia from a Gini coefficient of around 0.25 to over 0.30 occurred in the aftermath to the 1991 recession as long-term unemployment became entrenched and underemployment rose sharply for the first time in our recorded history.

I don’t see any obvious signs of Labor taking any coherent action to reduce inequality, moreover our very slowly increasing inequality has been matched by greatly increased social and economic mobility. We are less unequal than the US and have far greater mobility, more unequal than UK and German but more mobility than both. I don’t see any sharp differentiation between Coalition and Labor policies on social equity, although it’s certainly true that Labor’s current education and health policies are stronger than those of the Coalition.