Coalition Must Develop the Policies to Govern
Tomorrow marks 100 days since the Gillard government was returned to office after 17 days of post-election negotiation with cross-bench MPs.
Labor is in government but it's far from clear whether anyone is actually in power. There is little evidence a government that had notoriously "lost its way" has actually found it again. If anything, it seems to be going from bad to worse.
Pre-election, to justify the political assassination of the former prime minister, Julia Gillard promised to address climate change, the mining tax debacle and the influx of boatpeople. The climate change People's Assembly has already been dumped; the mining tax agreement is unravelling over the treatment of state royalties; and the boats keep coming: 57 since Gillard became Prime Minister and 43 since the election.
Since the election, the carbon tax that had been ruled out has now been ruled in. The East Timor detention centre that had been promised hasn't been progressed. The onshore detention centres that weren't going to be expanded have been. The Murray-Darling Basin plan that was going to be adopted sight unseen has been put on hold. The National Broadband Network that was going to be sold to the private sector is now going to remain indefinitely as a nationalised entity. And gay marriage, not on the agenda before the election, most definitely is now.
These changes have been driven by the Greens or by independents. The public did not need WikiLeaks to know that Labor doesn't stand for anything.
Ex-minister Senator John Faulkner has admitted that the parliamentary party is long on cunning but short on courage. Senator Doug Cameron has even suggested that to sit in the Labor caucus these days, it helps to be a "lobotomised zombie".
A government that couldn't decide on a policy to deal with the "greatest moral challenge of our time" in its first term is unlikely to be able to decide on a policy in 2011. A government that couldn't give away roof batts without putting lives at risk and which couldn't build school halls without repeated rip-offs is unlikely to be able to deliver hospital reform, water reform or cost-effective broadband in 2011.
The Prime Minister's declaration that 2011 would be the year of "decision and delivery" represents the triumph of hope over experience. The worse the government gets, the more important it is that the opposition be a credible alternative. When the government is the despair even of its supporters, the opposition carries the hopes of nearly everyone.
People who don't normally support the Coalition have to believe that a change of government would be good for the system. The opposition can't run the country from the wrong side of the parliament but it needs to show leadership for people at least to believe that change for the better is possible. During the election campaign, I said that voters who wanted to "end the waste, repay the debt, stop the big new taxes and stop the boats" had to change the government. The positive aspect of this refrain was a commitment to better services, lower taxes and stronger borders.
The Coalition had strong policies to inject more community control into the running of schools and hospitals, to move from a welfare state to a participation society and to take practical steps to improve the environment. These policies addressed systemic problems in ways that reflected liberal and conservative valuesand will be fundamental to our appeal at the next election.
Our task is to use the coming year to establish political ownership over moves towards lower taxes, fairer welfare, better services and stronger borders by showing that they are backed by well-developed policies that could be swiftly and competently implemented. A series of Menzies Research Centre policy round tables will deepen our engagement with academic and practical experts in these fields. This should develop clear pathways to achieving local hospital and school boards, better forms of welfare quarantine, and a less incentive-sapping tax transfer system.
I want to change the government as soon as possible. The Prime Minister is unlikely to call an election but the country independents could still change their minds and should be more likely to do so if there's evidence that the Coalition has continued to do the policy hard yards.