When ideology, dishonesty and incompetence collide

Although commentators in the Fifth Estate warned over and again what to expect from an Abbott government long before the electorate decided to give it a go, how many expected it to be as awful as it has turned out to be?

What a bitter disappointment it has been after Tony Abbott’s unrelenting talk about how, in contrast to the Labor government, he would lead a ‘grown-up, adult government’ that knew what it was doing, that understood the economy, that was accomplished at managing money, that would soon bring our national debt down and the budget into surplus, and thereby restore confidence in the business community.

He insisted, and was echoed by Joe Hockey, that investment would surge, jobs would be created, millions of them, and Australia’s economy would be restored to the splendor it exhibited during the halcyon days of the Howard government when rivers of gold flowed into its coffers from the mining boom.

Now halfway through its first term, with a whole eighteen months to parade its consummate skills, we see the hollowness of that boast. The Abbott government has done almost the opposite of what it claimed it would. It has been an abject failure, a bitter disappointment to its supporters in the electorate, the media, and increasingly to businessmen, who had hoped for so much more.

Labor supporters are as horrified as are Coalition voters at the incompetence and dishonesty it has displayed, day after day. While not wanting an Abbott government at all, even Labor voters are astonished at its behaviour and deeply dissatisfied with it, disillusioned with many of its ministers, and most of all, dismayed by its laughable leader.

What has driven this descent into ineffectiveness, what has paralysed this government, what has neutered its leader?

While acknowledging that diagnosis of this complex mess is problematical because it has many causes, this piece postulates that a combination of ideological stricture, unashamed dishonesty, and sheer incompetence is the triad that has produced the chaos and paralysis we see day after day.


The ideological imperative
Has anyone ever heard this government, its leader, or its financial ‘gurus’: Joe Hockey, Mathias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg, say what their preferred model of economics really is? I haven’t. Do they know? Have they thought about it? What understanding do they have of the array of economic theories there are?

We can’t discern their ideology from what they say; we can only assume it from what they do. The impression they give is that while they seem to have no carefully considered economic position, the ‘trickle-down model’ is their preference, one that we have written about here many times. They certainly act as if that is so. We see no signs of interest in Neo-Keynesian economics; they could scarcely bring themselves to support even the first tranche of stimulus measures introduced by the Rudd government in response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

We do know that Abbott has a sycophantic adoration of the Institute of Public Affairs and has assured it that many of the items on the IPA wish list are congruent with his. The neo-conservative IPA is enamoured of the self-regulating power of free markets; insists on light government regulation; cherishes individual freedom and choice, private enterprise, initiative, entrepreneurship and competition; endorses ‘user-pays’; abhors government-funded entities; eschews science; denies the reality of global warming while promoting the interests of those causing it; approves only limited government support for the needy; embraces law and order and punishment; and takes an insular approach to international affairs. We see these IPA attitudes reflected in the language of government and its actions. Not all are undesirable, but the appropriateness of many is questionable.

In my view, many of the actions of this government are driven by its adoption of trickle down economics as a working model, which it has done despite studies repeatedly showing that it exacerbates inequality and widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Witness the 2014 budget, still wallowing in the Senate, one that penalised the poorest and the most disadvantaged in our community, while giving those at the top a ‘slap on the wrist with a limp lettuce’ through a small and temporary income tax rise. They were unwilling to inflict more than a token penalty on the top end of town from which they believe benefits trickle down to those at the bottom of the heap, while leaving in place the many tax perks they enjoy.

Couple that attitude with the vengeance that Abbott enjoys wreaking on his opponents and on those who don’t support him, and you see another reason for Hockey’s punitive and unfair budget: “Punish those who don’t vote for us and go gently on those who do”!

Ideology is a powerful motivator. It seems patently clear that ideology has had a dominant influence on this government, albeit without it having been stated overtly in words that all could understand. We don’t know where the government’s coming from; we can only suspect.

The panoply of dishonesty
It would take the whole piece to catalogue the extensive collection of the lies that have come from our PM and his government, and the broken promises that emerge almost by the day. If you need any documentation, Sally McManus has a long list for you, now totaling 428 lies in Tracking Abbott’s Wreckage.

Let’s not dwell on the well-publicized lie: “No cuts to health or education, or to the ABC and SBS and no new taxes”, and instead focus on the sheer mendaciousness of the economic management of the Abbott government, and the panoply of lies and broken promises that accompanied the first Abbott/Hockey Budget.

There’s scarcely any need to repeat the ceaseless reminders given by Abbott, Hockey and Cormann, along with any other minister given the chance, that the Coalition was battling the ‘debt and deficit disaster’ left by Labor, that it was faced by a monumental ‘debt crisis’ and a ‘budget emergency’, which only the toughest of budgetary measures could reverse. Yet even before the 2014 Budget, economists were sceptical about these claims, and a crescendo of doubts has continued ever since. The bellicose Abbott/Hockey/Cormann rhetoric was wrong and brazenly dishonest. It was designed with two purposes in mind: to damage Labor as much as possible, and to set the scene for a punitive budget.

Julie Bishop, who wisely stays away from economics these days, strayed into it when she said: “We inherited the largest deficit in Australia's history from Labor" This too was wrong, as an ABC Fact Check demonstrated.

After all the Coalition hype about the debt and deficit disaster that Labor left, it must have startled economists and academics, as well as his supporters in business, to hear Abbott say that his government had already halved Labor’s debt, and that a 50 to 60% debt-to-GDP ratio would be “a pretty good result”.

This is what Richard Holden, Professor of Economics at UNSW Australia Business School, writing in The Conversation, had to say about that extraordinary claim: “A week may be a long time in politics, but it’s not in economics. The economic outlooks of nations almost never change radically in a short space of time. So it was interesting this week to see Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott do a u-turn on debt. Last week all debt was evil. This week a 60% debt-to-GDP ratio is “a pretty good result”.

“At the time of last year’s budget we were told Australia had a debt crisis. So bad indeed that we needed a very un-Liberal 2% tax hike dubbed the “debt levy”. I was one of a number of economists who pointed out that Commonwealth net debt was around 11% of GDP: the third lowest in the OECD, low by historical standards, and way below Greece (155%), Italy (103%), the USA (87%) and the OECD average (50%).

“Like me, Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson and the Business Council of Australia have consistently said that although we don’t have a debt crisis, we do have a serious structural budget deficit problem. Spending is larger than receipts, and spending is growing at a much faster rate. Presumably this view is now deemed irresponsibly alarmist by our PM and Treasurer Joe Hockey. After all, we’re on a glide path to the sweet equanimity of 60% debt to GDP. What are these uppity economic types doing complaining about the gap between taxes and spending?”

“I like it when politicians change their minds — it shows a willingness to update based on new information. But I don’t like it when politicians change the facts. And the recent revisionism looks very much like the latter…After complaining that the Senate would not pass their last budget, they now tell us that it has put us on a stable path for decades to come. Seriously? So let me get this straight. Legislation that largely didn’t get enacted has solved the problem? Is this the economic equivalent of the quantum-physics phenomenon “spooky action at a distance”?"


There’s more: read it here.

In short, ‘debt and deficit’ was not just political hyperbole, it was mendacity; it portrayed dishonesty that only the most barefaced of liars could perpetuate. Do I need to recall for you any other examples of deceit to convince you of this government’s habitual dishonesty?

Dangerous incompetence
Abbott’s insistence that the experience of his front bench would ensure that his government would be highly competent, in contrast to Labor’s ‘incompetence’, turns out to be the most overblown rhetoric of all. Even the most skeptical would have anticipated that some semblance of competence would be apparent in an Abbott government by halfway through its first term. Instead, we see only massive incompetence. It would take another piece to catalogue all the examples, but here are a few:

How competent is a government that:
- Believes that its wholly discredited rhetoric of debt and deficit would wash with the electorate?
- Misjudges public sentiment so badly that it brings down a budget that even the majority of its own supporters believe is punitive and unfair?
- Changes its mind in a flash from calling the budget a disaster to telling us that the disaster has been fixed by doing almost nothing, in some magic way?
- Struggles every day to get its legislation through the Senate, so poor is it; so lamentable are its persuasive powers?
- Labels as ‘feral’ the very people it is seeking to persuade?
- Engages in a call for a leadership spill early in its second year, so disillusioned is it with its leader?
- Believes it can regain its credibility simply by reversing or abandoning the stupid, unfair things it has done to date?
- Countenances the immature antics of one of its senior ministers (Mr Fixit) over university deregulation?
- Appoints to its finance team people who have almost no idea of economics or how to manage a 1.5 trillion dollar economy?
- Takes actions that exacerbate the deficit and then blames Labor?
- Promises budget surpluses in every year of its first term, only to have Treasury now project that on currently legislated measures there will be no surplus budget for 40 years?
- Lambasts Labor for its deficits of much less than 20% of GDP, only to declare that future deficits of 60% would be a good result?
- Presents its Intergenerational Report 2015, which is redolent with deception, manifestly riddled with distorted figures, inaccurate graphs, questionable assumptions and dubious projections?
- Vacillates about the letting of a tender for our next fleet of submarines, bypasses local industry, and has an indescribable plan for the tender process?
- Allows our manufacturing industry to languish, then reverses its support for it, then does a back flip, all in a day, and by different ministers?
- Introduces metadata legislation, deemed necessary to counter a pumped-up security threat, which lacked protection for journalists and has no costings?
- Ignores the scientific evidence of global warming, promotes the use of the fossil fuels that are causing it, and stalls the renewables industry that could reverse it?
- Promises domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty support, then cuts legal aid for such cases, then in panic reverses the cuts?
- Expects the public to support it in the absence of a vision, a coherent narrative, and well-articulated plan?
- Thinks it can work its way out of its poor polling position simply with fictitious claims of success?
- Really believes the electorate cannot see how incompetent it is?

Do you need me to go on?

My last piece was titled: Does this nation deserve to be led by a buffoon?. This one might have had a parallel title: Does this nation deserve a government that is ideologically driven, dishonest and incompetent?

What do you think?

Does this nation deserve to be led by a buffoon?

Search for the meaning of ‘buffoon’ and you will find a collection of unflattering terms: a clown, a fool, a jester, a ludicrous or bumbling person, a boor, a jackass, a world class fool, one who acts in a silly or ridiculous fashion, a person given to coarse or undignified joking. Synonyms include: idiot, moron, stupid, loser, dolt, and silly. Remind you of anyone?

Is ‘buffoon’ an unfair tag to attach to our prime minister? This piece argues that it is not; rather that it fits Tony Abbott like a glove.

It does not take much searching to find examples of buffoonery.

Last week, under parliamentary privilege, we heard Abbott calling Bill Shorten the “Dr Goebbels of economic policy”, leaving no doubt that he considered him to be as big a liar as the notorious Nazi propaganda minister. The week before he referred to a ‘holocaust of jobs’: “Under members opposite, defence jobs in this country declined by 10 per cent. There was a holocaust of jobs in defence industries.” Both references outraged his opponents, the Jewish members of parliament, and many beyond.

Only a fool would enrage an important section of the community with such undisciplined language, such undignified jocularity. If it was not a ‘slip of the tongue in the heat of the moment’, a defence Abbott likes to use, but instead a deliberate ploy, it makes his behaviour not just stupid, but reprehensible.

It was only last week that he classified indigenous people in remote communities as having made ‘a lifestyle choice’ to live in these far flung places and therefore not deserving to be supported with schooling and employment at taxpayers’ expense. With that comment he supported the WA State government’s decision to close up to 150 such communities.

This from the self-proclaimed ‘Prime Minister for indigenous people’ who professes to be their greatest supporter!

His comment brought forth condemnatory remarks from many Aboriginal leaders. Noel Pearson, one of Abbott’s senior advisers, said: "I think it's a very disappointing and hopeless statement by the Prime Minister, quite frankly. I just think it's very disrespectful to cast fear into these communities through a kind of policy thought bubble rather than a considered position. He has got no plan for the future of these communities in the event that they close down… And I'm just bitterly disappointed to hear this deranged debate go on in the substandard manner in which it's being conducted."

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said he was ‘baffled’ by the comments. "I think they're poorly thought out…I think they will cause offence in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community."

Ben Wyatt, cousin of federal Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, and Aboriginal affairs spokesman for the West Australian opposition, said Abbott’s comments were juvenile and “displayed and extraordinary ill-informed view” and “devalue and demean the one asset that Aboriginal people still own on their own terms, their heritage and culture…Abbott has sought to portray the ancient cultural practices of Aboriginal Australians as nothing more than a ‘sea change’ move, the equivalent of painting landscapes on one’s veranda.”

Another key Abbott adviser, Warren Mundine, Chair of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council said it was not as ‘simple’ as the Prime Minister had described. "These people are actually living on their homelands and it affects a lot of things, it affects their cultural activities, it affects their native title, it affects a number of areas…It’s not as simple as if someone from Sydney decides to have a tree change and go and live in the bush. It's about their life, it's about their very essence, it's about their very culture."

One would expect that Abbott, who blatantly peddles his understanding of indigenous culture, would understand the connection to land of Aboriginal people, would understand why they wish to live close to their land no matter how remote. But no, he sees their decision as a ‘lifestyle choice’, a term we associate with retired people choosing a sea change or a tree-change to get away from it all!

Only a fool would chose his words so carelessly and thereby insult the very people he purports to support so strongly. Only a buffoon would venture into that area of discourse, and only an insensitive, bumbling politician would then refuse to retract his insult, to decline to offer even a semblance of an apology. But some cynics believe Abbott’s insult was a calculated attempt to shore up his support among the hard right of his party, who presumably are not lovers of Australia’s original inhabitants. If that were true, his behaviour is worse even than careless stupidity.

Has Abbott made a lifestyle choice to live at Kirribilli, arguably the most prestigious address in the Southern Hemisphere, fully serviced, at taxpayers’ expense? And what about white farmers on remote stations? Do they have access to education and health services? Yes they do, at taxpayers’ expense.

It wasn’t long ago that Abbott managed to insult the highly respected Gillian Triggs, Human Rights Commissioner, for daring to write a damning report about the state of children in detention centres, one he did not like. And hot on the heels of that boorish and wholly unfair behaviour, he extended his insults to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Juan Mendez, who has raised serious concerns about the living conditions for asylum seekers being held at the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. Abbott’s rebellious rejoinder was: “Australians are sick of being lectured by the United Nations”.

It was only last Friday that Abbott gave us another ‘stuff happens’ riposte when questioned about the government-commissioned review by the former integrity commissioner Philip Moss of specific allegations of rape of two women at the Nauru centre. “Occasionally, I daresay, things happen, because in any institution you get things that occasionally aren’t perfect…But, look, the most compassionate thing we can do is stop the boats. That’s what we’ve done and those centres on Nauru and Manus are an important part of that.”

Then there was no expression of outrage that such distressing events had happened in a Australian-managed detention centre, not even regret, or just human concern. Only ‘things happen’, so suck it up! Now, after stinging criticism of his indifference, he deems the 'things' to be 'disturbing'.

Reporting in The Guardian, Daniel Hurst reminds us that Abbott has form: “In 2013, during a visit to Sri Lanka he said that while the Australian government deplored any use of torture it accepted “that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen”. And who will forget his ‘shit happens’ retort to generals in Afghanistan referring to the death of Australian soldiers?

‘Things happen’ is yet another example of Abbott’s bumbling, insensitive language that is bound to enrage those concerned about what goes on in our detention centres.

In a couple of weeks he has managed to get offside the substantial number of Australians who are concerned about children in detention centres, and those incensed at the treatment of asylum seekers and sickened by the allegations of rape. He seems as if he just doesn’t care, a sign of such foolish behaviour as to warrant the tag: ‘jackass and world class fool’.

On the political front we hear this past week that Abbott has discussed with some of his ministers the possibility of a double dissolution election if the Senate does not pass his legislation. That he could consider this a serious option with the polls running so strongly against the Coalition and his unpopularity stuck in the mud, bespeaks a level of silly behaviour that leaves balanced observers open-mouthed at his foolishness. Nick Xenophon correctly called it “crazy, crazy” talk. Rumour is that Christopher Pyne too was keen on it; that tells us a lot.

This past week we have been treated to another bout of incredible behaviour. After well over a year of insisting that Australia faced a ‘financial crisis’ and a ‘budget emergency’, we are told that it’s now been fixed, despite 12 billion of dollars lost in revenue from the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes and the repeal of super tax concessions; an estimated 30 billion of savings up in the air in the Senate; steadily falling revenue from iron ore and coal sales; and declining consumer and business confidence, the result of the persistent talking down of the economy by Abbott and Hockey. Now, as Bernard Keane says so stylishly in Crikey, Abbott is saying: “Put the feet up, kick back and relax - the May budget will be a boring affair, the hard yakka has all been done already, debt at 50-60% of GDP isn't so bad”, after insisting for ages that debt of around 13% under Labor was a 'disaster'. Do Abbott and Hockey really believe the public will swallow that? Will they believe that Abbott and Co. are magicians? Like some crazy court jester, Abbott thinks he can still perform magic that will convince an unsuspecting audience, but who by now is buying it? Only case hardened Liberals with blinkers could.

The caption to this Courier Mail photo appropriately reads: Abracadabra: Tony the magician

Then there are Abbott’s multiple broken promises. We all know politicians break promises. That’s not the issue. It’s that Abbott breaks promise after promise, yet insists he hasn’t broken any at all. With his clown hat pulled over his ears, he dances from foot to foot and he tells us that we didn’t hear him properly; we didn’t understand what he was saying; we misheard!

Astonishingly, he expects the people to believe him! Only a clown, a fool, a jester, a ludicrous person, could hold such a misguided belief.

Of course Abbott has a pack of buffoons to keep him company. Christopher Pyne, who now says of himself 'I'm a Fixer', surpassed all previous levels of chutzpa this week with his own style of buffoonery. Despite optimistically re-submitting the university deregulation legislation to the Senate, in the process threatening cross-benchers that he would to sack 1700 scientists and researchers if he didn’t get his way, and then finding it twice rebuffed, Pyne declared that he’d ‘fixed it’. So ludicrous was this claim that David Spears, interviewing Pyne on Sky News, could hardly believe his ears.

Listen to Pyne’s incredible routine above where he emulated an episode of Clarke and Dawe. Pyne, who boasts: ‘you couldn’t kill me with an axe’, styles himself on the court jester; he certainly gets a laugh from his incredulous audience.

Writing in The Courier Mail, Dennis Atkins says: “While Pyne’s ability to declare black is white and any dissent from that view is not his problem, is without peer in national politics; his chutzpah this week is a perfect case study of the core problem in the way we run Australia.”

Describing Pyne’s latest antics on AIMN, John Kelly begins: “Really, there are times when I cannot believe what I am hearing from various members of our federal government. Never did I suspect that the present level of stupidity and incompetence could be so endemic within this extraordinary collection of misfits and idiots.”

Pyne has a running mate in buffoonery in Joe Hockey. He thinks he can persuade us via his highly politicized Intergenerational Report 2015 that, having falsified the figures, catastrophe lay ahead under Labor, that even with what he has accomplished in his 2014 budget, much of it still hanging around in the Senate, the situation has improved out of sight, and that if only the savings held up in the Senate were available, all would be well – we would be ‘well down the road to a sustainable surplus’. He says all this as the prospect of a surplus recedes before his very eyes, now estimated to be possibly as far away as 40 years! Try to find an economist, or any business leader who believes Hockey’s bumbling oratory and ludicrous predictions. Can you see him dancing before the electors in his clown’s gear, tousled hat waving in the breeze, hoping that like kids at a party they would applaud his antics?

Of course, hard on Hockey’s heels is the dalek Mathias Cormann, faithfully reciting his mindless mantras, as empty as they are word perfect, a twin clown who seems to believe his own rhetoric, all the time wearing the court jester's self-satisfied smile no matter how skeptical his interviewers obviously are.

It’s a great team of buffoons: Pyne, Hockey and Cormann, but no one can hold a candle to the master clown, our very own Prime Minister, who passes with flying colours every test there is for ridiculous, boorish, ludicrous behaviour, every test there is for a seasoned buffoon.

How embarrassing for us. How tragic for us all to have to endure such a 'leader' of our nation.

While it might be fun for politicians to play the fool, it’s very dangerous when they play voters for fools.

This piece is already long enough, yet the exemplars are dredged from just the last few weeks. We certainly didn't have to go back to the knighting of Prince Philip!

Is this assessment accurate? Is our PM a buffoon?

If I were Bill Shorten - on a vision for the nation

Last week Jon Faine interviewed Bill Shorten on Melbourne 774 radio. I wonder what Labor voters felt about that encounter. My guess is that they would have been disappointed; a feeling expressed by many talkback callers and text messengers.

Faine gave Shorten close to half an hour to state what Labor stood for, and what plans he had. He asked Shorten repeatedly how he would pay for them.

Bill hesitated, stumbled, repeated himself, and obfuscated over the revenue issues. It was not a confident or impressive performance.

Defeating an incompetent and untrustworthy government with a spent leader takes more than sitting back and waiting for the Abbott government to implode. Labor and its leader need to be out there offering a positive vision, plausible plans and cogent strategies to pay for those plans. Malcolm Turnbull is doing this piecemeal in his inimitable style; why can’t Bill Shorten?

While not being vain enough to pretend to have all the answers, this piece attempts to put together some ideas about how Labor and Shorten might proceed. “If I were Bill Shorten...’

It’s easy from the coziness of a comfortable chair, free from the pressure of a live interview, to be a smart aleck about what one would say, so I kept this front-of-mind while writing.

Shorten could learn something from Abbott, who seems to be able to learn his lines, albeit simple ones of just a few words, and repeat them endlessly. I’m not suggesting he become the mindless automaton Abbott has become. I’m simply saying to him: formulate your lines carefully and learn them so well that you can spontaneously give them out, with suitable variations, in response to the right stimulus.

If I were Bill Shorten, I’d structure responses in a commonsense sequence, beginning with a vision, then plans, and then how to fund them.

In this piece, I’ve interspersed (in bold) the sort of comments and interjections that radio interviewers seem unable to suppress. It's almost 2500 words, but at the usual rate of speaking, 100 words per minute, the words could be said comfortably in half an hour. In places I've extrapolated from existing Labor policy; you'll be able to detect where. I've used bolding liberally to denote oral emphasis.

So far, you’ve succeeded in being a small target Mr Shorten, but sooner or later you’ve got to tell us what you stand for, what you intend to offer, and how you’ll pay for it. So here’s your chance.

Thanks. I’m ready, but before getting down to the nitty-gritty, I’d like to talk about the sort of country I want to live in. Then I’ll talk about to how I intend to achieve my vision. Bear with me.

Frankly, I want to live in a country that’s fair, just, equitable and harmonious, one that gives everyone the opportunity to get a good education and to have a decent, rewarding job. Unemployment is far too high at 6.3%, and sadly youth unemployment is much higher. Jobs for all are central to my vision.

I want a country that values all its citizens and cares for the environment in which we live.

I want my country to have a productive, prosperous economy that seizes its opportunities and shoulders its responsibilities in the global economy.

I want fairness in the workplace, where workers and employers enjoy harmonious relationships, which we know results in higher productivity. The call for more ‘flexibility’ from business is simply code for poorer work conditions. Fairness to all must be at the centre of any change in industrial relations.

I want a society where all, the well off and the less well off, pull their weight, pay their taxes, and support those who need help.

I want to live in a country where good healthcare is accessible to all, and where the disabled, the aged and the infirm are properly cared for.

I want a tolerant, just, cohesive society where there’s religious and cultural freedom and where ethnic diversity is valued and preserved.

I want our unique indigenous and multinational culture to be preserved, and the arts treasured.

I want to live in a country where science is valued, where research and development is fostered, where innovation is encouraged.

That’s the sort of country I want to live in. That’s the country most Australians want to live in.

OK, so how are you going to make that sort of Australia?

Let me tell you my plans.

First, we must have a strong economy. So I’ll be talking it up, boosting confidence among businesspeople and consumers. There’s been too much talking the economy down, and that’s become a self-filling prophesy. We’ve got a great future; let’s tell everyone.

Business needs encouragement to employ people and take on apprentices, so we’ll make it easier by providing subsidies that support business, industry and apprenticeships. We’ll boost TAFE and training courses, not take them away.

We know that industry and business needs infrastructure to function: roads, rail, and ports. We’ll make it easy for private and public sources to invest in them. We’ll have Infrastructure Australia guide us throughout.

We’ll encourage developing industries, such as the renewables industry, which has a very bright future as we reduce our use of fossil fuels. They must be given strong support and encouragement.

As our reliance on mining activity diminishes, we’ll put our weight behind the move to service industries, such as in finance, in communications, in health and in education, where there’s enormous potential. Small business employs 7 million workers. It’s the powerhouse that must drive this move to service provision.

In the Asian Century there are countless opportunities for Australian business and agriculture to supply the needs of the expanding middle class in countries in our region; needs that include food, consumer goods, communications, and services. We’ll help them to grasp those opportunities through trade delegations and by removing trade restrictions.

We’ll help the transition from car manufacturing to other forms, and assist those making the transition – workers and businesses alike. We won’t chop them off at the knees! South Australia must be involved in building our next submarine fleet.

But you haven’t told us how you’ll pay for all these grand intentions!

I’ll come to that. But let’s talk first about what we want, what our nation needs.

On the health front, we’ll throw our support behind primary care so that anyone can see a doctor when they need to. The AMA strongly supports the GP workforce because it’s the backbone of our health system. It does not want a GP tax that puts barriers in the way. Labor will never vote for a GP tax.

Labor wants quality education from pre-school right through to university. It will support schemes to make child care affordable; it will throw its weight behind the vast network of public schools; it will not support high university fees that put students into heavy debt.

You still haven’t told us how you’ll pay…

I’ll come to that…

What about our older folk? We want all our citizens to have a decent retirement. So we won’t be fiddling with the aged pension; we won’t be making people work longer when they’re not able. We’ll be shielding aged pensions from government interference; we’ll index pensions to wages annually so that pensioners get a fair go. We’ll steadily increase employer contributions to superannuation so that workers have enough to comfortably live on in retirement.

What about climate change? We’ll reintroduce penalties for those who pollute our atmosphere; we’ll reduce carbon dioxide emissions with ‘action plans’ that actually work, as we did in the past. We’ll scrap the useless Direct Action Plan that hasn’t even started yet, and won’t work if it ever does. We’ll stop erosion of the renewable energy target, the so-called RET, and encourage investment in renewables. The industry is being strangled by the current uncertainty about the RET. We’ll restore confidence.

So you’ll re-introduce a carbon tax?

We believe the climate scientists when they warn us that global warming is dangerous and threatening our way of life. We must protect our planet for the next generation. To not do so would be culpable ‘intergenerational theft’. We'll do everything we can to reduce pollution, even in the face of yet another scare campaign.

Research and development will attract our vigorous support, so that Australia can stay at the forefront in health, in education, and in business and industry. It’s vital; without R&D we’ll fall behind our neighbours and the rest of the world.

Above all, we want to give our young people hope for the future. Their aspiration is for a satisfying and rewarding job. We’ll back them all the way.

Will you now PLEASE tell us how you intend to pay for all of these high-sounding ambitions!

Let’s start at the beginning! Australia has a revenue problem, not just a spending problem, as our opponents insist.

The government has foolishly forfeited a lot of revenue when they abolished the carbon and the mining taxes, so we must look elsewhere.

To begin with, we won’t avoid talking about taxes and levies – governments shouldn’t be scared to give our unfair tax system a big shake.

First, all should pay their fair share of taxes. We propose to stop multinational corporations evading tax through shifting profits overseas. The G20 forum has the same aim. We’ll clamp down on them, but we can’t expect strong tax compliance if the staff who collect tax are reduced, which is what this government has done. We’ll strengthen, not weaken the tax office, and relentlessly pursue tax evaders.

There’ve been many calls for the removal of superannuation and capital gains tax concessions and negative gearing, all of which favour the wealthy. We know the revenue lost through these perks is massive; for example, if super concessions were able to be removed, that alone might pay for our aged pension. We’ll review all of these. But it’s not as simple as some make out.

Superannuation rules have been in place for years and many have planned their retirement under these rules. We can’t rip them up overnight. So we’ll change them gradually, and give plenty of time for those depending on super in retirement to adjust.

Take negative gearing. There’s a connection between it and the housing industry. Because many have based their investments in housing on the current rules, we can’t make sudden changes. That wouldn’t be fair. But we’re determined to gradually reduce the generous concessions that now operate. We’ll move slowly and give time to adapt, so as to not damage investment and the housing industry.

The same applies to capital gains concessions. We’ll phase out these concessions slowly and give plenty of time for adjustment.

The key to all these changes, which must be made on the grounds of equity, is to make them slowly with adequate notice so that all can adjust gradually.

The eventual savings to the budget could be almost $80 billion, which is enough to fund pensions and much of the cost of healthcare and education.

Will you include the family home in any asset test for the pension?

We have no plan to do that. The family home is sacrosanct. But it does seem unfair that some people have a two million dollar home and as much in super, and can still get a part pension. We need to work out how to avoid that situation and bring some reasonableness back into the aged pension system.

Can we talk about GST? Everyone seems scared to talk about it. If one side dares to mention it, the other side pounces and starts a massive scare campaign. That’s immature and it’s detrimental to our economy! We must face up to what we should expect of the GST!

Some say the amount of the GST should be increased, perhaps up to 15%. Some say the scope of the GST should be extended to include food, healthcare and school costs.

The problem is that if the GST is increased on an article we all use, it costs the poorest and wealthiest exactly the same. For example, if the GST on fuel rises, the poor and wealthy pay just the same for every litre of fuel. We all need fuel. We all drive cars! So when the GST is reviewed to see how it might generate more revenue, we must make sure that we don’t make life harder for the less well off. It’s not beyond the wit of man to work out how to avoid this. We must ensure that the cost of the essentials for living don’t soar beyond the reach of the poorest among us.

Labor won’t back away from tackling these hard issues. A complete review of the tax system is needed. It won’t be easy, but we’ll do it, and we’ll make sure we end up with a fairer and more equitable system.

When it comes to funding health, which will cost more as our population ages, we’ll gradually increase the Medicare levy until it covers the costs of health and disability care. We'll raise it slowly, year by year, so that everyone has time to get used to it.

We’re not keen on increasing income and company taxes; no one is! We wouldn’t want to increase the burden on families or inhibit investment and innovation. But we need to acknowledge that it’s been the tax cuts handed out when the nation had rivers of revenue flowing in that have got us into the situation we now face, a problem we must now fix. We ought not to put tax increases into the ‘too hard basket’. If we want the services we enjoy to continue, there may be no better alternative.

You haven’t once mentioned cutting expenditure! So will Labor go on another spending spree?

We realize that on the other side of the ledger is spending. Of course we won’t be going on a spending spree; we’ll be cutting expenditure wherever we can without reducing services. We did that in government, and made billions of dollars of savings. We’ll do it again.

Everyone knows that in the long term the budget must be brought back to surplus, but rushing at it is bound to result in unintended consequences, as we have seen so starkly with last year’s budget, where the least well off were unfairly targeted. We’ll move carefully to iron out the budget issues, and we certainly won’t ask the lowest income earners to do the heavy lifting.

You’ll have your work cut out selling that package!

Well, we’re up to it. We believe strongly that if the people want the government to provide them with infrastructure such as roads and public transport; if the people expect services such as quality healthcare and education, if they want to have a decent retirement, they’ll be willing to pay for these benefits one way or another. But governments must explain carefully what they’re offering, what it will cost, and how we can all fairly share the burden of paying for it. Governments must ensure the people really do understand. Vague, confused, weasel words are useless.

All we’re asking is for the people to give us the prospect of giving them what they want and what they need. We know what to do, and how to do it. All we want is the opportunity to get on with it.

Readers, what do you think? What would you say if you were Bill Shorten?


Ad astra is a retired medical academic, concerned that the alternative PM makes such a poor fist of outlining what Labor is offering. More about Ad astra here.