Can politicians develop policy before engaging their mouths?

THE lead up to this election campaign did not follow the usual script. Sure, everything that came out of Julia Gillard’s and Tony Abbott’s mouths was scripted and, most likely, focus group-tested as well. But when it comes to the content of the campaign – the policy, the things they promise to do – there seems to have been almost no script. It seemed as though our leaders were ad libbing, or at least making stuff up in a hurry.Gillard and Abbott may have been forced into an extraordinary level of political improvisation because of the unusual tumult of this political term.Labor knifed one leader and the Coalition two in the space of one parliament, during which the policy agenda was consumed with the tumult of the economic crisis. Both leaders came to their jobs late in the term.Because of what Labor did to manage that crisis, Labor and Liberal entered an election campaign with restrictions on how much money they can spend. Everything they spend has to be cut from somewhere else, which may come as a shock after the past few elections.The aftermath of the economic crisis casts uncertainty over the economic outlook.In normal political cycles, the weeks before an election are full of demands that the alternative government reveal its policies. These are rebuffed on the grounds that the alternative government has not yet seen the final budget figures and will release its policies when it is good and ready and when it is sure the voters are listening.But this year, the final weeks before the campaign were consumed by the Labor leadership change and demands that the government explain its policies, devised on the hop by the new Prime Minister to try to neutralise political problems inherited from her predecessor.First, Gillard pulled off a ”deal” to end the war with the mining companies over the resource super profits tax. It emerged with a new name, slightly smaller revenue projections and three big mining companies mysteriously happy. We now know forecasts of higher commodity prices have driven this outcome. The government is delighted Abbott is locked into opposition to a tax supported by the companies set to pay more than 80 per cent of it.Second, she unveiled a new asylum policy – a regional processing centre in East Timor – which unravelled almost as soon as she announced it because of East Timor’s grave reservations. The East Timor solution was preferable to John Howard’s Pacific Solution, she said, because unlike Nauru, Timor was a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees. When Nauru said it was not only keen to reopen its processing centre, but would also consider signing the convention, the policy reasons for shunning it became less clear.And third, Gillard worked up policies on climate change to make up for the fact she was sticking with Kevin Rudd’s decision to delay Labor’s central climate change policy – the emissions trading scheme – even though Labor still believes a carbon market is the cheapest way to bring emissions down.Abbott got to the election starting line having released very few policies at all. And most of those also had a seat-of-the-pants quality to them.He announced a generous paid parental leave policy, which he didn’t take to the shadow cabinet or the opposition party room despite his promises to his colleagues and in contradiction to his attacks on the former prime minister Kevin Rudd for disregarding normal decision-making processes.He once said such a scheme would be implemented ”over my dead body”, but by May he was so convinced it was necessary he was prepared to introduce a ”temporary” levy on big business of 1.7 per cent to pay for it. Then he said the levy would be permanent, but might one day be offset by a cut in company tax which would leave small business even further ahead.He said the paid parental leave would be followed by a generous policy for stay-at-home mothers – like the policy he laid out in Battlelines, and the one he unsuccessfully proposed for inclusion in his budget-in-reply speech, before he was rolled by his shadow cabinet. The Coalition said such a scheme could not yet be afforded.He also released a ”direct action” climate change plan, proposing to reduce greenhouse emissions through government grants and regulation.Most of the emission reductions are supposed to come from storing carbon in the soil. The only major planned industrial emission reductions come from paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the dirtiest brown-coal-fired power stations, to subsidise their owners to replace the stations with gas-fired ones and to subsidise the power produced so the prices don’t rise.Another promise is for a 15,000-strong ”green army” to tackle feral animals and weeds. Initially it was estimated to cost $750 million a year. Now it is costed at $400 million over four years, with the ”army” more likely to total about 3000 workers.Both parties had policy processes under way – the Liberals’ chaired by Andrew Robb and Labor’s – until her ascent to the leadership – by the then deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard. So possibly, the policies we will get in rest of the campaign will be a little less rough and ready.As fascinating as the presidential-style personality race between Gillard and Abbott will be, as fulsomely as it will fill media sound grabs, both sides owe the voters some ideas that are fully costed, and fully thought through.Lenore Taylor is the Herald’s national affairs correspondent.
Nanjing Night Net