Rating the Gunner government

An article in today’s Northern Territory News (online version marked “premium” – I read the paper version while sipping coffee at the Roma Bar) gives what the newspaper describes as a six month report card on the Gunner Labor government.

It’s a peculiar article. Its principal hypothesis appears to be that the Gunner government hasn’t done anything very much that is wrong (in contrast to the previous Giles CLP government) but is nevertheless very boring and hasn’t provided any exciting news stories. The main substantive criticism is that they reckon the Gunner government should have delivered a “mini-budget” shortly after its election and unwisely failed to do so despite difficult economic circumstances, which they presumably argue necessitated a very urgent stimulatory fiscal response. The problem with that proposition is that urgent and ill-considered fiscal stimulus measures tend to result in wasting of large amounts of public money on things like Kevin Rudd’s pink batts scheme or the building of school halls and gymnasiums whether schools actually need them or not.

The other problem with the News’s argument, at least for those of us who actually pay close attention to public political discourse, is that delivering a mini-budget is exactly what the Mills CLP government did when it achieved office in 2012. Despite being an excellent example of prudent fiscal policy, with well-judged and fairly modest spending cuts and tax increases designed to bring the budget deficit under control over time, the Northern Territory News took the opportunity of running a completely unfair and spurious tabloid media campaign against the mini-budget, especially the increases in power and water rates. They were moderate, responsible and even necessary, and no greater than increases in other states. Moreover, they had been necessitated by the previous Henderson ALP government’s irresponsible failure to increase rates in the lead-up to the 2012 election.

No doubt the NT News’ campaign succeeded in boosting its circulation, but its only substantive effect for the rest of us was to get rid of a competent Chief Minister in Terry Mills and land us instead with Adam Giles and Dave Tollner. The rest is history. In those circumstances the NT News is displaying extraordinary audacity in demanding that Michael Gunner should have put his head on the tabloid chopping block as well and handed down a mini-budget, despite the almost certain consequence that any necessary tough decisions would have been instantly condemned by the News to the general applause of the public peanut gallery. Then the media could have had a lovely time fuelling/creating rumours of leadership plotting against Mr Gunner by Nicole Manison or Natasha Fyles.

The News’s report card gave Attorney-General Natasha Fyles an A grade for not rocking the boat or creating news stories while Acting Chief Minister during the absence on holidays of Michael Gunner and Deputy Leader Nicole Manison through January and the first part of February. Strangely, it gave other Ministers B and C grades for doing pretty much the same thing. I guess they figure (probably correctly) that there is a higher degree of difficulty involved in keeping a low profile while being Acting Chief Minister.

My own evaluation of the Gunner government’s first six months in office is that it hasn’t done a bad job at all. The recently announced public and housing infrastructure program appears to be well thought out and targeted, especially the spending of $1.1 billion over several years on remote Aboriginal housing. The emphasis on refurbishing existing housing stock and on jobs and skills acquisition for local Aboriginal people is especially welcome, particularly in contrast to the federal government’s botched SIHIP program.

Mr Gunner’s pragmatic embrace of the previous CLP government’s successful tradies’ voucher scheme, after first saying he would scrap it, is a praiseworthy and rare example in Australian politics of a leader willing to admit when he’s wrong and accepting that his opponents might at least occasionally be right. We can only hope that this is the beginning of a long overdue outbreak of maturity on the part of Australian political leaders.

The government’s implementation of real-time online disclosure of MLAs’ financial and property interests is a welcome example of overdue attention to appropriate accountability and transparency measures. Similarly, the Independent Commission Against Corruption model announced by Mr Gunner in the wake of the Martin Report is a very good one, although his claim that its actual introduction will take 18 months or so rather takes the gloss off a good decision.

The various committees and inquiries convened by the government are also mostly well targeted and well thought out, as long as they lead to real decisions and actions and aren’t just cynical pretexts for delaying doing anything at all. Inquiries into political donations, opening up Parliament to the people, and a range of constitutional development options including the possibility of a treaty with Aboriginal Territorians are all good ideas.

Moreover all are areas that require careful consideration and public consultation, not just “shoot from the hip” action. The same is true of the government’s recent Economic Summit involving a wide range of business interests.

Inevitably there are a couple of negatives, most notably the government’s apparent deal with the Australian Hotels Association to lock out competition from the Dan Murphy’s liquor store chain, and its deal with the unions so that hospitality workers get two additional half-day public holidays over the Christmas-New Year period. But those are fairly small blots on a generally positive record. On balance I think I would give the Gunner government a B+ grade. Still, in a strange sort of way I miss the entertaining silliness of the Giles/Tollner/Elferink three ring circus.

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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7 years ago

Your remark ” the building of school halls and gymnasiums whether schools actually need them or not.” is a little unfair. It was a fiscal stimulus to get the economy moving after the GFC, whether it resulted in beneficial outputs was somewhat beside the point. It was the building that mattered, not the buildings. Focussing on something, school halls, that could potentially be useful was an attempt, and nothing more, to get the spending at least in the ballpark of useful products. But the effect of getting people employed building things was the primary goal. In that it was not “wasting” public money.