The announcement this week by Kevin Rudd that Labor would use part of the Future Fund to pay for a nationwide broadband network has provoked shock and outrage from the Howard government. What did the Liberals think would happen?
Hoping that a future Labor government wouldn't raid the Future Fund's $50 billion is like hoping that a five-year-old won't reach for the jar with the chocolate biscuits as soon as no one's looking. The way to stop five-year-olds demanding chocolate biscuits is not by preaching abstinence. It's a fact of life that children want chocolate biscuits, just as it's a fact of life that governments like spending other people's money.
It is completely unrealistic to expect that any government, Liberal or Labor, would behave itself and not dip into the Future Fund until 2020. There's only one solution to the problem. Remove the biscuit jar. Unfortunately, the Future Fund already exists. The biscuits should never have been put in harm's way in the first place.
There's something else about children and chocolate biscuits. One chocolate biscuit is never enough. This year it's a plan to spend a few billon dollars for internet broadband. Next year it will be a plan for a high-speed rail link between Canberra and Sydney. The following year it will be a plan for a highway from Perth to Brisbane. In the reputed words of American politician Everett Dirksen, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money".
Leaving a five-year-old alone with the chocolate biscuits is bad enough. But allowing a five-year-old to run around the house with the scissors is much worse. However, that's exactly what the coalition has done. The commonwealth's new power over industrial relations that's been sanctioned by the High Court will allow the ALP to do more than just cut up Work Choices. Australia would be landed back in a pre-1983 industrial relations regime.
The coalition won't save its electoral fortunes by complaining about the ALP's broadband policy. Most of the electorate will probably think it's a good idea. And if the polls are to be believed, dissecting Rudd's dinner guest lists won't work for the coalition either. The only outcome of that tactic has been the loss of two government ministers.
In February, the Prime Minister told government MPs there were four things that gave the coalition a head start over Labor. In order of importance they were that the economy was strong, the government was competent, ministers were well regarded and the coalition was united. In the space of a few weeks the government has succeeded in shredding two of those four advantages. At least the economy is still strong, and because cabinet is displaying no interest in abolishing the monopoly privileges of AWB, for the moment the coalition is holding together.
The government's obsession with the Labor leader's character has meant that the Liberals have spent the past month only talking about what an ALP government might do, instead of talking about what the coalition has already done. Any political party is going to present its opponent in as bad a light as possible, but highlighting the negatives of the other side shouldn't be at the expense of presenting the positives of your own side.
The danger for Howard is that the good times will be taken for granted. The more time he spends discussing Rudd the less time he has to take credit for what he's achieved.
For example, there's been almost no attention given to the fact that last year Australia experienced its lowest ever level of strikes. In the last quarter of 2006, 2.3 working days were lost to industrial action per 1000 working Australians. In the early 1990s, the comparable figure was more than 100 days lost per 1000 workers. This is a result for which the government should take the credit. Certainly low unemployment has helped to discourage industrial action, but Australia has previously experienced such economic conditions without a consequent fall in industrial disputes Work Choices has changed the mindset of employers and employees. The first response to an industrial problem by employers is no longer to contemplate a lock-out, and from employees it isn't to down tools and walk off the job.
If the worst flights of Labor's policy fancy eventuate, what's been achieved by decades of economic reform will be lost. When the stakes are as high as this, who Rudd had dinner with fades into irrelevancy.
John Roskam is the Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs. This article originally appeared in the AFR, reprinted with generous permission.