Tuesday, August 20, 2013
If I were Kevin Rudd right now
I am here today to define the course of this election campaign. I said at the outset of the campaign that the Labor Party was going to bring a New Way of politics, which has been interpreted in various quarters as being in opposition to negativity or realpolitik. The New Way is not about these things. I will now define what it is, starting with a bit of history.
The Labor Party has always been a broad church, with many points of view represented within it. In the last twenty or thirty years, you can see the various leaders we have had have been different characters with different views of what government should do. My predecessor, Julia Gillard, led a government that was seated firmly in the union tradition of the party, focused on building the future of this country through education and the social safety net. Paul Keating led a government that was focused on economic results, and how we produced those results was a secondary concern, which did not always benefit our union friends. Bob Hawke started as a union man, but the influence of Mr Keating as Treasurer and the development of the Accord cast him in a transitional role. Economic transition, caused by the opening up of Australia to the world by the lowering of tariffs and liberation of markets, was all started by Gough Whitlam. Transition is what the Labor Party is in right now.
I am here to honour, not repudiate, the legacy of all of these Labor Prime Ministers. The story running through the Prime Ministerships of all of these fine leaders is preparing and educating Australia to compete on the world stage, free of Menzies era protectionism and strong with the knowledge and skill that good education provides. Four decades after Gough set the country on a new course, our economy is the envy of the world. If you are 21 years of age or younger, you have never known this country to be in recession. We are in the late stages of the transformation of Australia into the most robust economy in the world.
The work of strengthening Australia to punch above its economic weight is not done, though. There is still much to dislike about the Australian economy, and what signals government sends out through its policies. There are big changes that can still be made to improve our lot as a nation.
The New Way is this: finish the job that Labor started four decades ago by doing the hard things, the things we have been putting off as in the too hard basket. Take that too hard basket, empty it and see what needs to be done to finish the job.
The Australian people understand how important this is, because they see all around them the benefits of economic transformation to date. We are all in this together. We all benefit from the improvements to the competitiveness of the economy. We all benefit from the removal of protections, including protections of some within the tax system. Traditionally, leaders have been reluctant to talk about removing undeserved tax loopholes for fear of getting people who exploit those loopholes offside. The New Way is about rising above that weakness, and trusting in the Australian people to understand why we are acting on behalf of all of them, not just a privileged few.
The New Way is about rising above special interests. To be a special interest is to seek to undermine the free market by securing special privileges for you and yours. Unions are a special interest, as are businesses, as are retirees, as are students, as are environmentalists, as are the unemployed. The way politics has been run is to give everyone special privileges, so that the economy ends up being blanketed in a patchwork quilt of protectionism. The New Way is to abandon this irrational practice and instead strengthen the economy by removing burdens from its back.
There are smart people around the place who have already thought long and hard about the details of things in the too hard basket, of course. Saul Eslake is one of a host of commentators who have figured most of it out already. The Henry Tax review contains many excellent ideas, some of which we have already implemented. More needs to be done.
Specifically - and I know you all want to hear more about programmatic specificity! - more needs to be done about housing affordability. Sometimes governments get things wrong, and negative gearing has ended up having the reverse effect than what was intended. Instead of making housing investment more affordable, it has led to speculation that has driven up the price of houses to an extent where an entire younger generation is largely excluded from the dream of home ownership. This must end. However, I do not wish to upset the long-term retirement plans of those with existing loans reliant on negative gearing, so any changes we make to negative gearing would only be to new loans made from today onwards. This is a prudent way to end what has been a drag on the Australian economy.
Also, while much has been said about the GST in this campaign already, the New Way allows for some rational discussion of raising taxes to fund the things that taxpayers expect to pay for, like education and the social safety net. The GST is currently exempt on food, and the explanation has usually been to protect lower paid workers and the unemployed, but when you look at the way this actually works in the real world, it works out as being regressive and in favour of upper income earners, since they more for food. Extending the GST to food is a sensible response to balancing the budget.
Finally, the Howard government made many mistakes in managing the economy while it was in office, and perhaps the greatest one was creating a loophole for retirees by completely lifting income tax on superannuation withdrawals for those over 60 years of age. This is not rational. No other country does this. Restoring what was a perfectly reasonable measure is a normal response to what was an unsupportable change by the Liberals.
You might be asking already, but what about Labor's support for the car industry that I announced only days ago? It is true that the car industry is a special interest, and our assistance package is a form of protectionism. However, the automotive industry is vital to Australia's interests in the region, as we need a healthy base of skilled workers to support our armed forces in the maintenance of existing equipment and the development of new technology. We would not want our troops to lack for support in logistics in a time of war due to the tens of thousands of workers in the car industry having lost their skills. Additionally, it is wise to invest in manufacturing R&D to build the exports of the future. If we are to look beyond the mining sector for growth in the coming years, manufacturing is one area we can not afford to ignore.
The New Way will come under criticism from special interests, each of whom have their own ways of communicating to the public, some even through their own media outlets. It will come under criticism from the Liberal Party, who are still stuck in the old way of representing some special interests and knocking others. I say to the Australian people directly: we may be a country full of special interests, but we are all in this together. We are not a nation of seagulls fighting over a chip. We are all part of the best country in the world. We have solved many problems and avoided many pitfalls that have befallen others, but there is still much to be done. We are all in this together. Thank you.
Note: this post is a fixup from my response to this Larvatus Prodeo piece. And yes, this is the second in a series of "If I" pieces, for which I have created a label.