What ails good governance in Australia?

Posted on December 10, 2010


By Mehroz Siraj Sadruddin
Originally published at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au, on Posted Friday, 10 December 2010

In the last 18 months, the Labour party’s honeymoon with the voters has come to a grinding halt, as the Coalition strongly seeks to regain ground that it lost in previous state elections and the 2007 federal elections where it suffered a huge election defeat at the hands of the ALP.

Consider this, in 2009 the ALP held sweeping control over Australia’s political landscape. Not only did it hold a 17-seat majority in the federal parliament, it had also twice forced a change of leadership within the opposition, which had yet not been able to come out of the shadows of John Howard’s WorkChoices and had clearly failed to come up with its own policies.

At that time, the ALP also held the governments in all states across the Australian Commonwealth.

This article, however is not about charting the downfall of the ALP and resurgence of the Coalition, this article intends to look at governance, which has ultimately led to the downfall of the ALP across the nation. Throughout the country, the serious economic and social mismanagement that this government has demonstrated needs to be studied in depth.

Despite initially doing the right things, the ALP’s decision to scrap the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) after a lengthy public debate not only cost Malcolm Turnbull his position as opposition leader, it also chartered the new course of the ALP’s political demise.

The ALP has clearly failed to learn its lessons from that episode: confusing statements being made by ALP officials; leakage of internal documents; poor governance and economic mismanagement; and the well funded public relations campaigns have already done much harm to the ALP federally and in the states alike.

Since Steve Bracks assumed the premiership of Victoria in 1999, Labour’s lasting legacy has only been that of making big promises and then not delivering on them.

Victoria’s transport problems and Melbourne’s growing population and economy are two good examples that illustrate this point well.

Under the watch of the Bracks and Brumby governments in Victoria, Melbourne’s transport problems have multiplied. Based on existing infrastructure, Melbourne’s trains are becoming increasingly incapable of handling peak hour patronage and train punctuality has recently fallen to below 90 per cent.

When the Brumby government awarded the contract for operating Melbourne’s train networks to a Hong Kong based company, MTR (rejecting the bid made by the then existing operator, the French company Veolia Connex) it said in its public messages that it believed the new operators would bring a change in the way trains were operated across the metropolis. MTR’s excellent record in managing public transport in other cities was often cited as evidence to back the government’s spin on this issue.

But nearly 12 months into the contract, the train network consistently failed to meet its punctuality targets.

The new train timetables have actually created more hurdles for commuters because the problem of better utilising the available infrastructure remains. The original problems of train delays caused by bottle-necks in the City loop and the reduction in express services along many train lines have created more troubles for the city’s commuters who travel during peak hour.

Commuters in many of Melbourne’s outer eastern and south eastern suburbs have suffered a lot because of the erratic public transport in their areas.

Melburnians don’t have an appetite for the administration’s spin. They can easily see that despite the claims made by the government, work on the ground is seriously lacking.

Crimes and violence being committed on the trains is yet another issue that the Brumby government has failed to address. The severity of the problem can be demonstrated by the attacks on Indian students and the way crime stories have been reported by Melbourne’s The Age and The Herald Sun.

Another critical area that the government has ignored at its peril is the construction of new road infrastructure. The Brumby government’s failure to fulfil its promises to ease the traffic along the Melbourne’s main freeways and its denial in acknowledging the problems plaguing public transport have cost the ALP a major defeat in the Victorian elections, where the Liberal Party and its leader, Ted Baillieu, saw a 6.5 per cent shift in votes in its favour.

Just like the outgoing Brumby government, the administration of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, too, has made big promises and, so far, there is no reason to believe they will be fulfilled.

Across Australia, the administration of good governance and reform have been stalled mainly because the federal and state governments are now increasingly relying more and more on putting a professional spin on their failures, rather improving on governance.

Post 2007 federal politics and policy making, have well and truly been a clear reflection of what has been happening across Victoria and the New South Wales. Paul Keating once remarked that the federal ALP always follows the footsteps of the NSW ALP. He was right.

Since 2007, the NSW has seen much political instability; it has had three premiers and many more cabinet re-shuffles, all happening in the shadow of constant reporting of the increase in corruption in NSW state institutions.

In fact, a cursory look at the premierships of Nathan Rees and Christina Keneally gives more telling accounts of how similarly have the senior officials of the federal Labour and the NSW Labour managed different crises in their respective political jurisdictions.

Political instability, the ALP’s strong reliance on spin, its lack of clear vision about Australia’s future and its genuine inability and unwillingness to work dedicatedly towards harnessing this nation’s immense talent, potential and resources are the main factors that have hindered the administration’s ability to undertake long-standing reforms – the kind of which we had seen during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years.

The general failure of the ALP governments to invest in higher education, the economy, public infrastructure (the NBN being an exception), health care and long term policy making, clearly suggests that the current generation of government officials have failed to heed the important lessons from the Hawke-Keating era, especially the latter’s recession “that we had to have”.

According to Paul Keating, very high wages and interest rates, along with the lowest unemployment rates in 18 years does not bode well for the economy: it is pushing inflation up and is having an adverse impact on the already strong Australian dollar which could hit some of Australia’s export industries very hard in the future.

Recently, it has been observed that the statements made by government officials and ministers have been completely in contradiction with the realities. This is mainly because of the government’s short-sightedness and the fact that it has only a limited idea about what really are the needs of the Australian people.

The governments’ policies on population growth, immigration and the NBN, as announced by Ms Gillard during the election campaign provide a good example to illustrate this point.

The basic business plans and proposals of the NBN, along with the future investments being made by telecom giants like Telstra and Optus are being made with the prediction that Australia will be 35 million-strong by 2050.

However, Ms Gillard’s arguments about building a “sustainable Australia” would mean that if this country does not have that many people by the time the NBN project and the other investments of the telecom giants are realised, existing tax payers would have to bear the brunt of the costs being incurred by the investing public institutions.

These costs would be incurred in the face of significantly higher internet and phone bills that could further push up the already rising costs of living.

The government’s immigration policies clearly demonstrate the limits of their political short-sightedness. Recent research has shown that any reduction in the intake of immigrant labour would not only aggravate our skills shortage problems, but could also increase inflation, reduce Australia’s economic competitiveness internationally and ensure high bank interest rates for the foreseeable future.

The federal government has failed to understand these implications of its new, flawed immigration policy.

The unwillingness of the country’s ALP governments to acknowledge the real issues and crises that ordinary Australians have to face every day, has already resulted in a decisive swing against the Labour, federally, and in Western Australia and Victoria.

If the ALP wants to arrest this free fall and turn the tables back on the opposition, it needs to deliver on governance issues. It must work concertedly at a national level to ensure that the key sectors of the Australian economy and society do not face more years of mismanagement and neglect.

The author is an International Studies student at RMIT University, Melbourne