Saturday, July 17, 2010

Gillard's election gambit pure opportunism

She's not giving the voters a chance to see her form

Julia Gillard has called the election in the same way she took the prime ministership – opportunistically. She had to take the prime ministership, she told us, because Rudd Labor was “a good government that has lost its way.” Yet we now see that she has no confidence that she can help it find a better way.

By calling the election after only three weeks in the prime ministership, she is telling us that she expects the government’s political conditions to worsen.

The election date is three months before the expiry of the three years that makes a notional full term. And constitutionally, the prime minister would be perfectly entitled to call an election as late as April 16 next year, seven months away.

Asked what she’d say to voters who wanted to know how she could be trusted after her lightning strike against Rudd, Gillard told the Herald: “I do understand that they might be looking at me and wondering. The only thing I could say to Australians is to judge me on how I do the job.”

But how can we? After only three weeks as prime minister, how can we make any sort of assessment of her performance? Other than rhetoric, all she’s done on substantive issues in the last three weeks is to apply emergency fixes in political trouble spots:

First, a slapdash compromise with three companies on the mining tax, with most of the industry still in a limbo of uncertainty;

Second, a half-baked effort to find a way of diverting the flow of asylum seekers;

And third, an ad hoc, ad interim mishmash of measures to pretend to have a policy on climate change.

True, the opposition doesn’t have any better policy on asylum seekers or climate change, or if it does we haven’t heard about it yet. And true, the opposition solution to the mining tax is to abolish it.

This has the virtue of simplicity, but it also leaves a reform deficit – what about the future of superannuation? And what about cutting the corporate tax rate?

These are among the difficult questions for the opposition to answer. But Gillard is not the opposition, she does not represent some hypothetical government. She IS the government.

Yet, in three weeks she has not done much governing, and certainly not enough to allow us to judge her on “how I do the job.”

So why the rush? Self-evidently, Gillard has decided that if she does give us a chance to judge her on how she does the job, her electoral support will fall.

What does she think will happen? More boats? Higher interest rates? Scrutiny her government cannot withstand? We cannot know precisely, but we know from her behaviour that she doesn’t want to wait to find out.

The opinion polls have Labor in a winning position. And so she is rushing us to the polls to take advantage of her electoral honeymoon, that wonderful suspension of disbelief that electors, in their endlessly hopeful open-mindedness about new leaders, is extending to her.

It’s pure opportunism. And Gillard is counting on it.


Same old Labor under Gillard

THE Prime Minister's honeymoon with voters may not last until the election

IMAGINE the extent of the chaos that has engulfed Julia Gillard's office in the past week. The contentious deal on the mining tax, which was meant to have been settled, began to unravel. The East Timorese solution to the problem of people smuggling, announced in her Lowy Institute speech, came unstuck. The cabinet meeting on climate change, which was touted as a way to restore the faith of the true believers and clear the decks for an election, resolved nothing.

In a moment of unusual frankness, Chris Evans, Gillard's Immigration Minister, told an audience of academics in Canberra that the debate about people smuggling "is killing this government". On the same day her Treasurer, Wayne Swan, announced that the tax concessions to the mining industry had cost not the $1.5 billion he'd announced a little more than a fortnight ago but five times as much. Another set of rubbery figures he did his best to explain away was Treasury's revised estimate of the revenue from the tax; not $12bn but $24bn. In a trice the miners' campaign was vindicated.

A government that had intended to rush to the polls as soon as possible, hoping to take advantage of its new leader's honeymoon phase with the electorate, suddenly lost a lot of its gloss but began to look trapped by the momentum it had generated. Labor strategists could hardly forget Gordon Brown's slow implosion after the last-minute decision to defer an election he'd been on the verge of calling. Nor was there a face-saving way of explaining why last weekend's Nielsen poll had Labor's primary vote falling by eight points to 39 per cent, not enough to guarantee a second term. The calm ascendancy that Gillard seemed to promise failed to materialise.

Her speech at the National Press Club on Thursday bore the hallmarks of revision. Clearly, it had first been intended as the legitimising address to follow a hasty coronation, There were echoes of another Welsh redhead, Elizabeth I, at Tilbury proclaiming that "she had but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but she had the heart and stomach of a king and a king of England too". On Thursday, our own Gloriana's message was that, despite her youthful flirtation with the Left and any other evidence to the contrary in her ministerial career, she was really a fiscal conservative.

I don't know how many people worked on the construction of the speech, but if I were in Gillard's office I'd be assigning them all to less demanding duties. Although "Moving Forward" may have worked well with focus groups and convinced the likes of her spin-doctor in chief, Bruce Hawker, its main effect was to reinforce a number of negative perceptions of her as a politician.

The notion of moving forward - or ( heavens forfend!) moving backward if the Coalition were somehow to wrest control - is demeaning. It pretends modern government is as one-dimensional an exercise as pushing a toy train along a track. It casts Gillard in the role of a strict- though kindly - primary school teacher who knows what's best for us but can't quite take us into her confidence because we are, after all, just kids.

While Gillard has the saving grace of a sense of humour, she can't help herself when it comes to the business of staying on message in a scripted speech. She always sounds wooden. What's more, the task of appealing to the electoral equivalent of the lowest common denominator brings out the most jarring, confected elements of her political persona.

I've written before about the deliberately grating vowels - somewhat softened of late along with her hairstyle in the pursuit of power - and an accent that bespeaks class antagonism. It's in marked contrast to her family's Welsh lilt or the speech of her classmates at Unley High School in Adelaide's leafy southern suburbs. It's an affectation assumed during her years in student politics but no doubt it helped her win preselection for a safe seat in Altona in outer-suburban Melbourne.

The revelation last week that she considers herself "a bit of a footy head" and likes to curl up to watch television in a pair of ugg boots is as bold an appeal for the bogan vote as anything we saw from Mark Latham. But does it tell us anything more about the real Gillard and what she stands for than the proforma pearl necklaces she's taken to wearing in the past few weeks?

What Thursday's speech should have done was to display her to best advantage and tell us what to expect if she's re-elected. Instead we were promised more of the same from a government that had learned from its mistakes. Last time I checked, the amount of money wasted by the Building the Education Revolution program was in excess of $2bn, which is scarcely encouraging.

Although Gillard often claims she's passionate about education and it was her most important portfolio, she seldom has anything to say on the subject that goes beyond "ladder of opportunity" platitudes. I've looked in vain for any hint that she sees schooling as offering young people much more than job-readiness. If she thinks public education should guarantee that they're exposed to "the best that's been thought and said" in Western civilisation or any other, she's been hiding her light under a proverbial bushel.

The Rudd-Gillard government's priorities in tertiary education suggest that there too the agenda is unapologetically philistine. Expansionist practicality would be a charitable description. Most educated people see it as the debauch of institutions that were once meritocratic and, for precisely that reason, intrinsically elite. The idea that 20 per cent or 30 per cent of young people should be able to get a bachelor's degree is increasingly taken for granted, as though it were a democratic right. However, as vice-chancellors have always known, it is a way of debasing the currency.

I suspect that if Gillard believes in anything apart from her own and her party's advancement, she believes in bigger government and more regulation.

On Thursday, for example, she spoke with pride about establishing a national curriculum for schools as though it were inherently a good thing. I grant uniformity has a certain appeal to the bureaucratic imagination. However, the real tests of a curriculum are whether it lifts overall standards and adequately prepares successful Year 12 students from anywhere in the country for the harder first year undergraduate courses in the better universities. Nothing in recent debate on educational standards encourages much optimism on either count.

Perhaps, the way Gillard sees things, government is not an exact science and, since there will be arguments about any set of outcomes, process is what counts.


School computer scheme probed

THE Auditor-General is probing the Gillard government's $2.4 billion school computers program. This comes on the heels of multiple inquiries into Building the Education Revolution bungling. The outcome - due to be reported to parliament in the spring session - has the potential to damage Julia Gillard in a knife-edge election campaign.

"The objective of this audit is to assess how effectively (the federal Education Department) implements and manages the Digital Education Revolution initiative, with particular focus on payment arrangements, monitoring and reporting on the fund, and on-costs," the Australian National Audit Office stated in its latest work program, published yesterday.

News of the audit came a day after the Prime Minister admitted in a nationally televised speech that the delivery of the BER program was flawed, because it was designed in haste amid the global financial crisis.

The DER scheme, to cost taxpayers $2.4bn over seven years, aims to give high schools at least one computer for every student in Years 9 to 12 by the end of 2011.

The Auditor-General also revealed his office was investigating a $2.5bn scheme to set up trade training centres in schools, and flagged "potential audits" of the My School website, which compares school performances nationally.

The auditor also plans to probe the administration of $2bn a year in childcare subsidies to families, as well as the Council of Australian Governments agreement to provide a preschool place for every Australian child by 2013.

All the audits implicate the sweeping portfolio of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which Ms Gillard managed before she wrested the prime minister's job from Kevin Rudd last month.

Queensland's Audit Office yesterday revealed it was conducting an inquiry into how the state was spending its $2.1bn slice of the $16.2bn BER scheme.

The auditor refused to comment on his secret investigation, but The Australian understands it will include the first comparison of BER construction costs between public and Catholic schools.

Queensland opposition education spokesman Bruce Flegg yesterday lodged a complaint with the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, asking it to investigate possible collusion in the BER scheme.

The Australian revealed in April that Queensland's Master Builders Association had negotiated the fee with the government, on behalf of eight construction giants, to manage $840 million of BER work without going to tender.


Health staff unable to work as agency overloaded

Hundreds of desperately needed doctors and nurses have been told it could be months before they can work because of "incompetent bungling" by a new federal government agency which did not employ enough staff to answer phones.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency is now responsible for registering and accrediting more than 560,000 health workers nationally but has been in meltdown since opening two weeks ago.

Its office has been swamped with more than 3000 calls a day, forcing it to outsource inquiries to an external call centre and set up new state-based phone numbers to spread the load.

The agency, which takes over the work of 85 smaller state-run boards, was designed to reduce costs and multiple layers of red tape but health workers say the transition has been bungled and the service was launched without adequate resources.

They complain that phones are not attended, staff have not been adequately trained and registrations are not being processed.

The bungle affects a wide range of health workers, including overseas-trained doctors recruited to work in Australia, and nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, optometrists, psychologists and osteopaths wanting to renew their registrations or register for the first time.

It also affects all staff changing jobs because new employers are required to check a candidate's registration and accreditation details before employing them. Calls from the public complaining about the performance or behaviour of health professionals have also gone unanswered.

"It is another case of incompetent government bungling and the backlog is putting huge pressure on hospitals and patient care," said Chris Tsolakis, the director of the recruitment agency Medipeople.

More than 70 overseas-trained doctors recruited through his agency had been told they might not have their applications for registration approved for months, Mr Tsolakis said. "It is complete mismanagement. Most of these doctors want to work in country areas, where they are urgently needed."

A spokeswoman for the agency conceded there had been "teething problems" because the project, which required moving about 1.5 million records, some which were not computerised, to one IT system, had been "very ambitious".

About 65 new pieces of legislation relating to standards and responsibilities for health professionals had also been introduced on the same day, causing workers to flood the agency with inquiries.

Many staff could not be trained or programs be road-tested until the agency opened on July 1, because the 85 boards were still operating and could not move their records across.

Some staff, who were already working on the former boards, could not move to the agency until July 1.

"We recognise that this has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked and acknowledge the delay is not acceptable but there are some things you can't rehearse for," the spokeswoman said.

The chairwoman of the Medical Board of Australia, Joanna Flynn, said doctors had been asked not to contact the new agency for the first 10 days to avoid overloading it during the transition phase.

"But when we are talking about registration we are talking about people's access to income and that makes it a high stakes issue," Dr Flynn said. "When people get anxious they send five emails or make five calls, and that just swamps the system even more."

The vice-president of the Australian Doctors Trained Overseas Association, Sue Douglas, said it was unacceptable that doctors were being prevented from working because of problems with the introduction of the new agency.

"This has been three years in the making," Dr Douglas said. "You'd think it would have been ready, but it doesn't surprise me. "The old system was so incredibly cumbersome, such a bureaucratic bungle of inefficiencies, that how could the new one be any better?" "This just wreaks havoc on doctors' livelihoods and on patients."


1 comment:

Paul said...

The "Health Practitioner Regulation Agency" has doubled the cost of registering, added new compliance costs that didn't exist before and weren't needed, and added even more beaureucratic complexity to professions groaning under the weight of carrying a growing number of useless mouths.