Tastings from the 2010 political buffet

At the end of this week, just before the official start of summer, the Australian Parliament will rise, politicians will head home to their electorates and voters will focus on how many meats to serve on Christmas Day or the quickest route to the beach. For many, the summer break is for relaxation; yet for others it evokes reflection about the year just passed. Given the political year we’ve just had, the reflective folk will have much food for thought.

From my perspective, the two leadership challenges, two state elections and the federal poll have challenged conventional wisdom and rewritten election playbooks, but also confirmed some political trusims. I don’t pretend to be a psephologist or political pundit, but I’m hopelessly attracted to the world of politics. I can’t help but look for patterns and cause-effect relationships and wonder how these might alter the path of political endeavour in the future.

With that caveat, I offer up for your degustation these observations from the political buffet of 2010.

Appetiser: Australian voters want their politicians to be genuine

At times during the federal election, it was hard to distinguish a 7.30 Report interview from the latest instalment of Kath and Kim, such was the broadness of Aussie accent on display. Both Gillard and Abbott went to great lengths to prove they were genuine and in touch with real Australians – particularly compared to their predecessors, the densely verbose Rudd and the tree-hugging patrician Turnbull.

However, Gillard’s authenticity was somewhat inconsistent during the early days of the campaign. At one point she morphed into a Stepford Prime Minister, nodding sagely to the cameras while using the calming tones of a pre-school teacher. This persona grated on voters’ sensibilities and she was quickly cast off in favour of the New! Real! Authentic! Julia. While undoubtedly relieved, voters were nevertheless left to wonder about the previous incarnations of Ms Gillard and their authenticity.

Tony Abbott’s misstep was equally unsettling, telling Kerry O’Brien that he couldn’t necessarily be held to account for words spoken in the heat of the moment, but that his written word was trustworthy. While operatives tried to spin this blunder as candour, it undoubtedly left a crack in Abbott’s everyman persona.

While there were many factors that contributed to the federal election outcome, I believe the genuineness of the party leaders was one of them. Faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity was in question, many voters chose neither. The perception that neither Gillard nor Abbott was genuine contributed to the shift of votes to the Greens.

Gillard and Abbott are now on probation – the media and voters are alert for any more cracks in their authenticity. So too will the country independents be scrutinised to see if they are as genuine as they currently seem.

Entrée: Unfulfilled expectations will come back to bite you

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. As I wrote back in June, Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

PM Gillard almost paid the ultimate price by making the same mistake soon after she replaced Rudd. Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme. Voters would have been forgiven for wondering why the PM who couldn’t fulfil commitments was brutally torn down for another with the same failings.

Gillard was damaged by that early mismanagement of expectations. It will be interesting to see whether the Labor Government, the Greens and the independents are wary of creating (or maintaining) expectations in 2011 that cannot be met.

Main: Re-enfranchised rural Australians are watching carefully

Rural Australians are a canny bunch: they may have grown up in the arms of the Country or National parties, but they are open to any other party or individual who can protect their chosen way of life. This is clear from the diminishing number of National Party members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the ALP and Liberals have developed “country” arms of their parties to capitalise on this opportunity.

Country independents are not new to our parliament. Up until now, most have languished on the cross-benches because their votes were not important. Now with deciding votes in the lower House, the current country independents are being watched very carefully by rural Australia. No doubt, National MPs are closely watching them too. Rogue WA National, Tony Crook, managed to do what the rest of his fraternity could only dream of by swiftly dissociating from the Nationals soon after the election and putting his vote up for auction.

If the independents and Crook can materially improve the lot of rural Australians with their pivotal votes, then National MPs could be faced with the unenviable choice at the next federal election of either becoming an independent themselves or being beaten by one.

Dessert: The Greens run the risk of dis-enfranchising their constituency

More than a decade ago the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate, just as the Greens will do on 1 July next year as a result of this year’s election. In order to extract certain concessions from the Howard Government, the Democrats agreed in 1999 to support the GST legislation in Senate. This decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles. It undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time on, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 federal election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July next year, they will discover as did the Democrats that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Cheese: The current model for election reporting is broken

Much has already been said and written about this final point. Political parties have so tightly orchestrated the involvement of mainstream media in election campaigns that the resulting coverage is so contrived that it’s meaningless. Senior journalists rarely travel with the Leaders’ teams any more, preferring to observe and opine from the comfort of their office. Journalists who do travel with the Leaders are told little, shepherded from venue to venue, and given little time to absorb policy announcements before being given access to the Leader who merely parrots the line of the day.

The current model is broken and probably cannot be repaired. I look forward instead to mainstream media outlets refusing to put anyone at all on campaign buses next election, the parties having to instead produce campaign footage for placement on YouTube, Leaders choosing to hold numerous town hall meetings around the country instead of pic-facs, and MP and candidates dealing directly with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Now that will be an election to reflect upon!

Who’s the demon?

At the risk of being called naïve or an apologist, I feel compelled to challenge the demonisation of big business.

While it is something that has been troubling me for a while, my concerns have become crystalised by the anti-mining mutterings of my esteemed colleagues on Twitter.

In recent days, the more we non-economists hear about the misnamed Resource Super Profit Tax, the more sensible it seems.  But it has taken serious journalists such as Peter Martin and George Megalogenis to take the time to translate this arcane but practical arrangement into plain English.

We should not have been subjected to the shrill objections and counter-claims of the mining industry and Government.  Any government worth its salt on the issues management front could have turned this resource and risk sharing arrangement into a good news story by bringing the mining industry into the tent and getting them on side before the RSPT announcement was made.

Is this me being naïve?  Or did the Government want the mining industry to be seen to be taking a hit swiftly after it dodged an earlier bullet with the abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme?

Did the Government consciously demonise the mining industry in an attempt to regain a few brownie points from the electorate?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the title for the new scheme.  The moniker given to the Resource Super Profit Tax smacks of the same hyperbole applied to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.   The RSPT is no more a real tax than CO2 is real pollution.  But these labels provide a mechanism for the government to simultaneously suggest there is a serious problem and that it is addressing this problem with a new acronym, I mean, program.

Aside from this, is the demonisation of the Australian mining industry justified?

Yes there have been sins in the past.  And there are still some out-riders who think they can still get away with it dodgy practices.  But it is no more logical to burden all miners with the sins of the few, than it is to do the same with teachers, car drivers, or internet users.

Mining companies work on 20 and 30 year timeframes.  They understand better than most of us the bounty and the limitations of the earth.  Even so, it took them a while to realise that the natural environment is not limitless in its capacity to rebound from the stresses of mineral extraction.  It took them even longer to understand how their operations impact on people and societies.  But they did come to understand these factors and they took action to change.

Around 10 years ago, led by Australian mining company CEOs, the global industry took the unprecedented step of commissioning an international NGO called the International Institute for Environment and Development (www.iied.org) to run the world’s biggest community attitudes survey.  The survey was to find out what communities, governments, environmentalists and other activists in both the developing and developed worlds thought about the mining industry and what they wanted to change about how the industry went about its business.

Some mining companies walked away from this process because they found it too confronting.  To my knowledge, none of those companies operate or have a presence in Australia.  Some NGOs walked away too because they thought it was a greenwashing exercise.  But after two years of the community talking and the mining industry listening, some real outcomes emerged.  Perhaps these were less ambitious than some would have liked.  But they were a start.  A new mining entity was established at the global level to continue the discussion with NGOs and to deliver the undertakings.

My point is that mining companies know better than most that they have to be “good corporate citizens” in order to keep their social license to operate.

It is these companies who have built roads and communities alongside their operations in rural and remote Australia.  They have built infrastructure for water and electricity generation.  They have education and employment programs for their local people.  They have invested in these communities with their shareholders’ funds because governments would not.  And as a result they have a relationship with their communities that politicians and other companies could only ever dream of.

While some critics of mining are prepared to acknowledge this investment, they call it the resource curse – communities and economies made dependent on mining revenue that are left stranded when the operation ceases.  This may well occur if a mine is closed before its time due to emergency or insolvency.  But most major operations include the cost of withdrawal from the community in their initial project costings.  This withdrawal includes building capacity within the community to ensure that it can continue to thrive once the mining project has concluded.  If you want a real example of that strategy, then look no further than the thriving ex-mining town of Newcastle.

I’ll have other things to say about the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist bandwagon.  But for today, I’ll finish by saying this: when a politician points at someone and says they are bad and need to be dealt with, first ask yourself why the politician wants you to believe him …….