So, the first parliamentary week of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s year of positivity has ended in deficit. Deep deficit.
Not only was he resolutely negative about the government; more surprisingly he was negative about his side’s alternative vision for the future.
We refer, of course, to the document called Developing Northern Australia – a 2030 Vision, which is the closest thing we’ve seen to a policy from Mr Positive.
Whether you’d call it a policy or not is debatable. We do know it is the result of two years’ labour by the Coalition policy formulation team, and when it was leaked it was portrayed as a draft policy. But when the immediate response was less than positive, Abbott was at pains to stress it was nothing more than a draft discussion paper.
The idea was to use various financial and other incentives to lure Australians and immigrants to Australia, who would otherwise not want to go there, to the more remote northern parts of the country. The document also recommended moving substantial numbers of public servants to these northern areas.
Thus the north would be developed as a “food bowl”. Further, a slab of the aid budget would be diverted to create things like centres of medical excellence in tropical medicine, in the hope of catalysing further development.The idea of differential tax zones is much beloved by the likes of mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, the rural politicians Bob Katter and Barnaby Joyce, and the Institute of Public Affairs, which gives you some indication of how good it is.
But Mr Positive was quick to go negative on it. It was “certainly not” policy, and there was “absolutely no way” people in different parts of the country would pay different tax rates.
That is not to say Abbott killed the whole thing off, though. It’s still being worked on, and while special tax zones are out, our understanding is that the idea of “special economic zones” is still live.
We will see a final version in due course, but whatever its ultimate shape, it will involve major social engineering from the party that always claims to deplore social engineering. And we can be pretty sure it will involve extra cost for those Australians who do not live north of the Tropic of Capricorn, to incentivate those who do.
Anyway, the government jumped on it in Question Time, with Trade Minister Craig Emerson describing the policy development process thus: “Take one part Gina Rinehart, one part Joh Bjelke-Petersen, one part Abbott, and what have you got? Troppo Tony.”
And various Government members invoked images of public servants and others being dragooned into service in the deep north.
Meanwhile, the Opposition continued to be tediously negative in the Parliament. Question after question related to the fact that the Government, having promised a surplus budget, will not now deliver one.
Now, as we have noted before, they were very foolish to stick so dogmatically to this promise for so long. As we’ve also noted before, delivering a surplus is not a big deal economically for a country which is otherwise in rude good economic health.
The ridiculous limit came on Wednesday, with a question noting five other developed countries – Germany, Switzerland, Norway, South Korea and Chile – had managed to get their budgets into surplus following the global financial crisis. Five!
Well, big deal. It happens that Australia’s economic growth is faster than all but Chile, and more than three times that of Germany and Switzerland. It happens also that Australia has much lower public debt than the three Euro nations, and about the same as Korea.
It happens, in fact, that by most other economic measures you can think of, we do comparably well if not way better than all but Chile. I don’t know about you, but I’d still rather live here.
The point here is that the Opposition used every means, and every statistic it could, to bag the Government’s economic management. And the Government responded in kind. The whole week was, like, dodgy statistics at five paces.
Question Time was more fun last year, when the Opposition was being negative on a human level, re slush funds, boat people, and so on. Now, its negativity is just eye-glazing.
Sadly, we’re probably in for months more of this. The words “positive Abbott” amount to an oxymoron. The last and only time he tried to sell a positive message was when, as John Hewson’s press secretary 20 years ago, he tried to sell the Fightback! policy package.
And we all know how successful that was.
Then again, maybe they’re deliberately running dead. I mean, the real damage to the Government is being done 300 km from Parliament House, at the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings in Sydney.