The Politics    Wednesday, August 26, 2015

One swallow does not a summer make

By Sean Kelly

The test of today’s reform summit will be in the months and years ahead

In 1914, World War I came to a halt. The break was brief, and did not occur in every theatre. It was remarkable nonetheless. It was Christmas time, and in certain pockets of the Western Front troops laid down their arms and walked across no-man’s-land to greet one another. They swapped food and gifts; some played football.

Fighting resumed a few days later. It would take an awful cynic to suggest therefore that the respite meant nothing. Adversaries had decided, however temporarily, to see each other again as fellows, with human faces and human sentiment.  Nevertheless, in the context of a war which would claim many millions of casualties and drag on for several more years, the pause in hostilities had no lasting impact, other than to remind us of the futility of the fight by which it was surrounded.

Which is essentially how I feel about the National Reform Summit, which today brought together, in the words of one of its sponsors, “the nation’s pre-eminent business, industry, welfare and seniors groups and the ACTU”.

The meeting was called, supposedly, because of frustration with the failure of politicians to more fervently pursue reform.

The meeting was set to agree that “reform is now urgent”, that governments must be open to “considering all options” for tax reform, and that there “needs to be a clear, long-term plan, implemented with purpose over the next decade”.

Well, sure. I agree with all of those things. I think you’ll find it difficult to pinpoint somebody who doesn’t. Most of us would agree, too, with the summit’s call for “rising productivity” and “access to world-standard healthcare and education” and maintenance “of an effective social safety net”.

How about a “continuing appreciation of the convenience of electricity”, a “belief that trees are important” and an “ongoing recognition that children bring joy”? These weren’t there, but they might as well have been.

Grand statements with which everybody can agree do a good job of making it look like usually bitterly divided groups are coming together in the national interest. In practical terms they’re useless.  

In fact, they’re worse than useless, because they give an appearance of action that serves to paper over inaction.

Joe Hockey tried a similar trick earlier this week, when he said he wanted lower income tax. He was promptly rounded on for making a broad statement of intent for the umpteenth time without telling anyone how he planned on achieving his utopian goal. His critics included members of some of the same groups that today are taking pride in their ability to come together to make statements of equal vagueness.

The problem with noble statements is that governing is inevitably a dirty business. It always, always, involves trading off one thing against another. So, yes, perhaps the groups can agree we want lower company tax to improve Australia’s competitiveness in the global marketplace – but then somebody is going to have to find the funds from somewhere to ensure we have the “world-standard healthcare and education” that the same groups also want.

The problem, known well to any parent of more than one child, is that not everyone can get everything they want, firstly because of limited resources and secondly because what some people want often turns out to be directly opposed to the thing other people want. 

It is a government’s job to prioritise those problems.

And when a government (of either stripe) starts to do just that, they usually get attacked by one or several of the groups who are telling us today they’re all for reform. This, of course, is the major sleight-of-hand being performed at today’s summit: by coming together for a brief moment, businesses, lobby groups and unions want the community to forget the role they have played in preventing change, either by fighting tooth and nail for the status quo or by failing to make the case they should have. Remember the vitriolic campaign against the mining tax? Or business’s quiet support for the certainty of carbon pricing (so quiet you couldn’t hear it until after the carbon tax was gone)? How about the union movement’s refusal to shift an inch on industrial relations? You don’t have to agree with any of these changes to see that the groups today complaining about policy paralysis have done much to induce that paralysis themselves.

It’s mid-afternoon as I write this. I hope that I’m wrong, and that the groups gathered today manage to put their own desires aside and work together to deliver changes this country sorely needs.

But even if they do, a one-day cessation of hostilities is not going to get us very far. A seriousness of purpose will not be demonstrated over the course of 24 hours; it will be proved only in the months and probably years that follow. It will involve all of the groups involved putting aside the habits they have developed over the past few years (and which have served them, if not the country, very well).

If that happens, I will very gladly eat my words. If it does not, then today will end up just like that football match in no-man’s-land: a forlorn symbol of what might have been.


Today’s links

  • Debate today over whether the PM or the US president first raised the issue of Australia joining air strikes against ISIS in Syria.
  • A couple of articles here and here suggesting the PM may keep a low profile in Canning.
  • Lenore Taylor reports: “At least four crossbench senators opposed to the Abbott government’s stalled higher education package have refused, or been unable to attend, meetings with the consultant who is being paid $150,000 to talk to them and to universities on behalf of the higher education minister, Christopher Pyne.”
  • Jason Wilson questions Shorten’s credentials for leadership.
  • Excellent column on Q&A, internecine media wars and the “long 1990s”.
  • Janet Albrechtsen on the NSW Bar Association and Dyson Heydon. Heydon will announce his decision about his future on the Trade Union Royal Commission on Friday morning.
  • James Surowiecki on the market’s madness.
  • The destruction of Palmyra

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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