Keep ambitions modest

Bookmark and Share Governance & Service Provision | John Roskam
The Australian Financial Review 20th August, 2010

If Julia Gillard wins the election tomorrow you can only hope she'll lead a better administration than Kevin Rudd.

If Tony Abbott wins you can only hope he doesn't run his government the same way he's run his campaign. Being safe and conservative for the last month might end up making him prime minister, but it won't be enough to make him a good PM. He'll need to be a bit brave.

If somehow Abbott wins the election and then doesn't tackle tax reform and industrial relations, is
time in office runs the risk of being viewed in much the same way as some regard the last terms of Malcolm Fraser and John Howard - pointless.

There have been two overwhelming impressions from the campaign.. The first is that Labor and the Coalition are basically the same. Which isn't true. On fiscal policy, climate change, and education to name just a few issues there are significant differences between the parties. Supposedly the parties agree on industrial relations, but that's only because the Coalition has decided that for the moment at least it isn't worth the fight.

It's a mystery why so many people want to believe Labor and the Coalition are similar. Maybe it's
because in Australia these days it's trendy to be cynical about politics and politicians. The claim that it doesn't matter who you vote for because all politicians and their policies are identical is a manifestation of this cynicism. Sometimes the cynicism is understandable. Look at the way Labor governments in NSW have treated the state and its voters.

At this election Gillard promised to build a $2.6 billion rail link to overcome traffic congestion in western Sydney. This is the same link that as promised by the NSW government a decade ago. The Greens NSW Senate candidate Lee Rhiannon put it nicely: "Western Sydney has been promised the Epping to Parramatta Rail link for so long 'they're more likely to believe in the tooth fairy than the project being delivered."

Apathy that transforms into cynicism is the sort of attitude that's needed to tolerate a system of government that at least in NSW is impervious to change. And the more cynical people become the more they tolerate failure. If you expect bad government, you'll get bad government.

The second impression of the 2010 campaign is that it's been without any great ideas, grand plans or sweeping visions. That's true. However, people speak as if that's a bad thing. For a change, at this election we haven't had politicians telling us how they'll remake the nation and how they'll rearrange society. This is something we should celebrate, not complain about.

Admittedly this new-found restraint from Gillard and Abbott is more an accident than the product of a realisation that there's a limit to what government can and should do, but nonetheless, it's better than nothing. When Abbott was asked why people should vote for him, he replied he'd provide a "competent, steady government that respects the taxpayer's dollar and which treats the Australian public with consideration". If only all politicians were as modest.

It's a paradox of modern Australian politics that the more things politicians muck up, the more we want them to do. In Australia we've turned the biblical parable of the talents upside down. In the parable the two servants who invest their master's money at a profit are rewarded and given responsibility over larger amounts. The servant who lost the master's money is admonished and cast out of the household. But that's not what happens in this country. A government that has mismanaged a $2 billion scheme to install home insulation is then
entrusted to build a $43 billion broadband network.

Australians prefer to have their government do their thinking for them. It's easier. And if something goes wrong you just blame the government. Or ask the government for a handout.

Over the years we've got so used to Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, and Kevin Rudd lecturing us we've almost lost the capacity to think for ourselves. We've allowed the politicians to take it upon themselves to define the national character. When politicians aren't lecturing us we feel uncomfortable.

And so it is at this election. Somehow, we've come to think that because Gillard and Abbott haven't told us what their ambition for the nation is, that therefore the nation is without ambition. In fact a nation's ambition is the product of its citizens, not its politicians.