QUARTERLY ESSAY 40 Trivial Pursuit



Peter Martin

Rudd may as well have had the attention span of a five-year-old.

George Megalogenis berates Rudd (and Howard) for spending far too much time feeding the media. And he is right. With Rudd in office, not a Sunday morning passed as I left church without an email alert outlining the pre-prepared “announcement” for later in the day. Those emails have now stopped.

Megalogenis says that because there was “no grand narrative” to connect the announcements, the bewildering changes of direction left voters confused. But the deeper problem is that they would have been confused in any event.

All Rudd’s flitting from subject to subject and his focus on the polls did was to draw attention away from the hollowness at the core of his program. Looking back, it is apparent that Rudd never had a coherent program going into the 2007 election. I found myself forgiving him case by case. 

The claimed benefits of the National Broadband Network were recycled selective quotations from a woefully dated document Labor hadn’t read. (I know this because Labor was unable to track down the source when I asked and seemed alarmed when I tried.)

The computers-for-schoolchildren push showed every sign of being thought up at the last moment (it was certainly announced at the last moment) and was presented without clear supporting evidence that it would help, perhaps because there is no such clear evidence.

The Education Tax Rebate further complicated a tax system Labor later said it wanted to simplify and provided an incentive to parents to do the kind of spending most were doing anyway. 

Affordable housing was more of a question than an answer, perhaps because presenting an answer would upset existing home-owners and mortgagees. Social inclusion was an idea in need of definition. The Emissions Trading Scheme was what Howard was having.

Wayne Swan’s policies were particularly poorly thought out. His First Home Saver Account was so badly designed that it would have delivered the highest benefits to the highest earners. After it was redesigned and introduced, Treasury reported, in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, that “no one uses it.” 

Swan’s tax policy, pinched from the Coalition and sold as creating an “incentive to people out there who will work additional hours,” had the perverse effect of pushing up the tax penalty for average earners considering extra work by four cents in the dollar.

It was tempting to cut Labor slack. The Howard government had been becoming increasingly erratic and Rudd and Gillard had been leading Labor for less than a year.

But Swan had held the Treasury portfolio for three years; Macklin had held portfolios including health, education and social security for a decade. Labor had had years to assemble policies which would make sense and work and it hadn’t done so.

In contrast, John Howard brought to the 1996 election policies he seemed to have thought about. Freedom to choose your super fund, government support if you took out private health insurance – these were ideas you mightn’t have liked, but you could tell where they were coming from.

I date the beginning of the end of serious Labor policy effort to 1998. Two years after its election an energetic Coalition was building the case for replacing the Wholesale Sales Tax with a Goods and Services Tax, working on the detail of who would be hit and how they would be compensated in order to put the idea to voters at a new election.

Labor’s leader, Kim Beazley, and his Treasury spokesman, Gareth Evans, unveiled their long-awaited response. They would leave the wholesale tax in place, making just three adjustments – fruit juice would become untaxed, and caviar and business jets would face a luxury tax. That was it. When you looked behind the symbolism, there was nothing, merely the merest pretence of being fit to govern.

Labor continued like that, Howard got worse, and Abbott appears to have applied it as a rulebook for opposition. Need to address climate change? Promise to put electric wires underground. Need to respond to a natural disaster? Talk about building dams.

I agree with Megalogenis about the violence done to the political process by the mining industry’s assault on an elected government in mid-2010, although I am less sure it would have had an effect if we had known what the government stood for in the first place and had had it patiently explained to us.

Within days of the ministerial reshuffle that followed the election I asked one of the winners who had received a portfolio they sought what they wanted to achieve in the job.

I didn’t get a direct answer, merely talk about handling the responsibility well. I was disappointed, but not surprised.


Peter Martin is economics correspondent for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has reported economics for twenty-five years, first for the ABC, and then for Fairfax.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 40, Trivial Pursuit. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 41, The Happy Life .


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