A flea imprisoned in a jar will soon learn to jump lower to avoid banging against the lid, and then keep jumping at that height even if the lid is removed. Once it has learned to limit itself, the flea can never escape the jar.
After eleven years of opposition, Labor is in danger of failing to recognise that the lid has been lifted on Australian politics. Fortunately, unlike the flea, the ALP is not doomed to be imprisoned by its past.
"We may be seeing a re-awakening of debate on ideas. If so, the 2007 election will be about something more substantial than the budgetary costing of election promises, the disjointed programs targeted at voters in marginal electorates or the misleading claims about competence in economic management. It will be an election about public ideas".
CPD fellow Ian McAuley wrote these hopeful words in December 2006, after absorbing Kevin Rudd’s 'Brutopia' article and his speech to the Centre for Independent Studies. Sadly, in a closely-fought election when it appears that neither party is willing to offend (or even fail to bribe) a single swinging voter in a single marginal seat, ideas have largely fallen by the wayside and been replaced by the usual uninspiring horse race.
Over the course of the campaign, this has inevitably led to some bad policy on both sides. For example:
Coalition: The ill-fated takeover of the Mersey hospital illustrates much of what’s wrong with our current approach to health reform: the selective cherry-picking of celebrity problems to cure with a quick cash injection from the policy paramedics in Canberra.
Labor: In a classic demonstration of the inconsistency and fragmentation of our climate policy, they have increased the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) to 20 per cent, but simultaneously supported the Tasmanian pulp mill, old-growth logging and a nation-wide rollout of desalination plants (Sydney's planned Kurnell plant alone is expected to generate 945,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year).
A certain amount of bad policy is to be expected during an election campaign, and to its credit Labor has tried to avoid making policy on the run. Despite the flack that he's copped for it, Rudd’s endless list of reports, reviews and inquiries is actually a recipe for good policy. It makes sense for parties – especially opposition parties who lack access to the resources for comprehensively modelling and costing policies – to announce broad goals and basic principles and leave the technical design until after the election.
Assuming the bookies are right and Labor wins by a nose (or a length, depending on what happens in the marginals), the party is going to face some serious challenges in government.
This article is published with permission from the Fabian Society newsletter (election edition, forthcoming).
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