Don’t believe some of the recent generalisations floating around about Australian politics. I refer to claims of Australia’s media dumbing down policy debate, supposedly dominated by right-wing Murdoch newspapers. I also refer to the assumption that the Coalition, as Australia’s major centre-right political party, is void of ideas and is just being obstructionist as illustrated by its opposition to the carbon tax.
First, the Australian media is much more diverse than assumed given that many online news and politics sites provide coverage of key issues from different perspectives. As noted in 2008, despite concern that 80 per cent of Australians got most of their news from television, there is an abundance of domestic and international Internet sites along with additional choice through pay television and digital radio.
Second, it is misleading to suggest that the Coalition is void of good ideas, or never leads debate. While the Coalition has opposed Labor over mining and carbon taxation, it is ridiculous to suggest that all arguments should not be given full representation. While the Gillard Government may not like the outcome of the carbon tax debate thus far, a Newspoll (4 May 2011) found that 60 per cent opposed the Gillard Government’s carbon tax despite 72 per cent believing that global warming was partly or mainly caused by human activity. Quite simply, there are reasons why the Australian people are siding with the Coalition, and any other explanation is an insult to their intelligence given that the Australia media is hardly right-wing with the ongoing importance of the ABC alone.
Further, it is a mistake to conclude that the Coalition does not express sentiment on behalf of the vulnerable. After all, it was the Coalition that advocated greater spending on mental health prior to the 2010 federal election before Labor upheld such sentiment through 2011 legislation.
At the same time, many voters accept that the Coalition is more willing to make tough policy decisions, especially after years of higher spending by Labor. Thus, the political cycle of Labor and Coalition governments goes round and round with both important to the political process and debate.
There are also many policy issues where divided opinion on key political issues helps promote public and media interest and leads to a more balanced policy approach on behalf of the nation. One can remember the influence of the Democrats over the final design of the GST. Further, while the Howard government initially addressed longstanding public concerns about high levels of immigration, levels again increased in better economic times as public opposition softened.
So what are the key challenges ahead? Yes, the carbon tax is important, although not because it will save the environment. After all, global emissions will continue to rise for some time yet as long as developing nations (especially China) continue to develop and purchase Australia’s raw materials. Rather, the carbon tax debate has to be settled because investors need certainty if they are to start addressing Australia’s critical energy infrastructure needs to deal with a rising population.
In terms of spending possibilities, Australian governments may have to make tough policy decisions if they are to meet a variety of old and new policy needs.
Already, NSW is experiencing tough decisions taken by the O’Farrell Government. While O’Farrell’s industrial relations reforms are indeed controversial if you are a public servant, there is no doubt that considerable public savings need to be made if other important policy needs are to be addressed, including infrastructure.
With Australians already having a high household debt to income ratio, consumers cannot be expected to carry the burden of debt forever. Hence, major spending and taxation reform may be needed to boost public housing and/or help first home buyers as resources to assist must come from somewhere.
Of course, the need to juggle the consumption capacity of workers to spend along with addressing budgetary constraints is an extremely difficult task for any Western government. But both Labor and the Coalition must argue the virtue of each case if we are to get a sensible balance. The people will decide the fate of the O’Farrell Government at the next state election.
As for social welfare, further cuts are likely if Australia is to live within its means, although the urgency of reform will depend on budgetary circumstances. Any cutbacks have to place an emphasis on those most in need, an approach that should advantage Labor. Although the Coalition argues that the private health insurance rebate reduces pressure on the public system.
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