Monday 10 October 2011

Craig Emerson's spin on Julia and the Greens

Prime Minister is not being dictated to by the Greens
Critics of the Gillard government are depicting the Labor-Greens alliance as a threat to Australian business and mainstream values. The government, so the doctrine goes, is being dictated to by the Greens in an unstable minority government whose radical economic policies are scaring away investors and destroying business confidence.

Under scrutiny, the evidence actually points to Gillard Labor governing in the Hawke-Keating tradition. An investment boom valued at more than $400 billion is under way. And while parts of the economy are struggling under the weight of a high currency, the dollar's strength is a vote of confidence in the Australian economy.
Proponents of the Green Monster view of the Gillard government have adopted the script from the closing scenes of popular Australian movie The Castle. Pressed to identify which section of the Constitution was being violated in the case before the court, Darryl Kerrigan's struggling suburban solicitor could only point to "the vibe of the thing". But, as Darryl found, a successful argument needs not just the vibe, but a few facts as well.

The policy before parliament is a fixed price on carbon for the first three years, followed by a market-determined floating price. Labor's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, twice rejected by the Senate last parliamentary term, proposed a fixed price for one year, followed by a floating price. The difference is two years of a fixed price.

Yet the three-year fixed price scheme is described as a radical carbon tax, while it was universally agreed that the one-year fixed price scheme was a market-based ETS. The Prime Minister has conceded she changed her position, opting for the three-year variant in light of the post-election composition of the parliament. But fixing a carbon price for three years instead of one is hardly the hallmark of a radical green-left policy, especially when the Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition supported Labor's ETS with a one-year fixed price. John Howard took a similar scheme to the 2007 election.

Gillard Labor's support for an ETS doesn't make the government a bunch of screaming radicals, any more than does the support of the conservative prime ministers of Britain and New Zealand for similar carbon pricing schemes. Exhibit No 2 in the case against the Gillard government as a radical anti-business outfit is the mineral resource rent tax.

This contention is so absurd it needs little refuting. The Hawke government introduced a petroleum resource rent tax a quarter-century ago. Applying a profits-based tax on mining to fund tax relief for other businesses is orthodox economic policy. Gay marriage is also held up as evidence of Labor's supposed subjugation to the Greens. But Gillard has repeatedly stated her position that marriage is a union between a woman and a man. Others in the Labor Party have a different view, as they do in the Liberal Party and the broader community.

After these first three flimsy exhibits, the prosecution's case has run out of puff. Gillard's economic policies are orthodox, market-based policies. Take, for example, a return to budget surplus ahead of all the large advanced countries. And take the government's open trade policy, which mirrors the Hawke policy that has served Australia so well. The Gillard government has embarked on a productivity raising business deregulation program and is reforming and investing in education and training, just as Bob Hawke did. And it is lifting Paul Keating's superannuation guarantee from 9 per cent to 12 per cent.

Embracing the Hawke-Keating philosophy of mutual obligation, the government is placing additional requirements to seek work on those capable of doing so. It has announced tax reforms that improve work incentives, while taking one million Australians out of the personal income tax system through a trebling of the tax-free threshold. And like the Keating government, the Gillard government has implemented an industrial relations system with enterprise bargaining as its central organising principle.

Business can argue that this government should take on more reforms. That wouldn't be without precedent. It was the incessant calls by business groups for ever more reforms that caused an exasperated Keating to assert that every galah in the pet shop was parroting microeconomic reform. But a reformist's work is never done and the Gillard government is willing to discuss an ongoing reform program with the business community, free of dogma and of a return to Work Choices.

Craig Emerson is Minister for Trade and was economic adviser to former prime minister Bob Hawke.

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