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Delusions of competence

No amount of spin will cover the government’s blunders

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

No amount of spin will cover the government’s blunders

The great American newspaperman H.L. Mencken defined puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’. I reckon that the defining aspect of this Gillard government can be summed up in somewhat similar terms, as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be competent.

It is now patently obvious, even to the government’s cheerleaders at the ABC, that this is an incompetent government. Even the two rural socialist independents, who must wake up every morning ruing their pompous, self-aggrandising moment in the sun when they opted for Julia, can surely see that this government is staggeringly incompetent.

First off, and no matter how easy a time its ministers are given about this on the ABC, it is plain-out dumb to make a central tenet of your term in government something that you explicitly promised not to do immediately before the election. When Julia promised just prior to polling day that her government would not bring in a carbon dioxide tax, and then soon after the election declared it would, that was incompetent in two senses.

Mainly it struck at the heart of the legitimacy of her and Labor’s government. If you lie to the voters, and no matter how you spin it that’s what she did, you lack legitimacy. The proper route, as everyone knows, is to say you changed your mind and call an election. That’s what Howard did with the GST. It’s what even the most tenuous concern for democratic accountability demands.

And no amount of suggestions that once this is in place the Opposition will have a hard time undoing it will alter that fact one iota. Doing something so obviously illegitimate is incompetent.

It’s also incompetent with regard to Labor’s short-term self-interest, because it is hard to see how the party will get credit for this with non-aligned voters. If the carbon tax proves to be tough, the enthusiastic environmentalists will credit the Greens. And everyone else who sees costs rising and jobs lost will blame Labor.

By contrast, if the carbon dioxide tax proves to be a fraud that imposes almost no costs on industry and merely churns money, Labor still won’t get any credit. People will wonder why it’s worth doing at all, with a few on the left of the spectrum shifting from Labor to the Greens.

Nor is any of the awful politics of this tax alleviated by the transparently fraudulent ‘multi-party talks’. This is spin, pure and simple. These are talks between Labor, the Greens and the two rural socialist independents, otherwise known as 76 out of 150 Members of Parliament — or on current polling, about 45 per cent of the electorate. The Orwellian terminology is fooling no one. Half the legislators are not involved because they reject the idea outright.

Of course, the incompetence does not end with the carbon dioxide tax. It’s impossible even to satirise this government’s policies on asylum-seekers. It just bounces around from one unworkable stopgap measure to the next, the sole unifying theme being that each has to be anything other than the Nauru option of Tony Abbott and the former Howard government.

Voters are asking themselves why the government dismantled that option without first being sure the proposed alternative would work. It couldn’t be because the government was in the back pocket of the refugee lobby, could it? Or that it acts without thinking first? Or that it lives in some bizarre world where people don’t respond to real-life incentives but rather wander around mouthing nice-sounding moral abstractions, and everyone acts only out of the most altruistic motives imaginable? No, believing that would make this government, well, incompetent.

Oh, and who can forget the NBN? Even if we all believed that governments are immensely more careful and efficient at spending money than individuals are about spending their own money — and no one believes that — it makes no sense. Technology is advancing so rapidly that it beggars belief to think this will be a cutting edge product once completed. Or that it will be completed for the advertised price. Or that enough people will want to buy it, at least in the absence of draconian government rules that in effect force competitors out of the game.

This seductive-sounding national broadband network may be the worst use of taxpayer money, or so one is inclined to think given that it was the key factor in attracting Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to Team Julia. We’ll see how grateful their constituents are for that choice at the next election.

Then there’s the Building the TV Top Revolution scheme, which seems like a Chasers joke someone in the government thought was a serious plan and adopted.

I would add to this initial and only tentative list the massive Keynesian spending over-reaction that the Rudd government indulged in, and which Gillard feels compelled to defend. If big-spending Keynesianism was the way to go, someone needs to explain to the US why it has been such a big failure. And why $43 billion dollars spent here has only delivered some 43,000 jobs. Even if it had delivered four times that many, that still works out at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars per saved job. Not how most people would spend their own money.

Incompetence is fatal for a government. Voters expect others to have different views on the big-ticket moral and political issues such as labour relations, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage or anthropogenic global warming. And most of us recognise that many of those with differing views are nice, smart, well-informed people, people we’d be happy to have a drink with after work.

But incompetence is not easily forgiven. And this government reeks of it.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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