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Smarter risk-taker will win the electoral prize

20 October 2012 518 views No Comment

FOR better or for worse, the Labor Party seems now locked in behind Julia Gillard to take it to the next election.

Kevin Rudd still harbours unfinished business and may yet challenge again, but his recent thrusts and parries to regain relevance on the political stage appear to have amounted to nothing. There are still too many enemies within.

Discounting some opportunistic race to the polls early next year, Australia must set a date for a federal election sometime in the second half of the year. The Prime Minister could go as late as December but every day after her three years are up in August will be an opportunity to be skewered by Tony Abbott and accused of merely hanging on to power.

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So we are in for a year of more of the same in a hung parliament. More nasty political inferences, more rancorous parliamentary exchanges, more hypocrisy and more guilt by association. Think of Gillard’s defence of the indefensible Peter Slipper, or her agonising support for the embattled Craig Thomson. And on the Coalition side, Abbott’s long friendship with Alan Jones seems to excite the angry Left. It is attack politics at every opportunity.

But it is clear that the Australian voting public wants the debate to move on. Perhaps the politically silent may have already made up their minds. Draw a line through all the opinion polls and the Abbott-led Coalition is persistently trending about 6 percentage points ahead on a two-party-preferred basis – more than enough for an overwhelming game changer. And Labor well knows that the Coalition needs to win just two seats (and lose none) to form the next government. Neither party is silly enough to call the result right now, though. Hubris is a dangerous force, especially in parliamentary politics.

Australians, though, are demanding more from their politicians. A recent Essential Media poll on attitudes found almost 50 per cent of people say they have a strong view about politics. Compulsory voting has at least made a number of our citizens think, even if some will cast an informal ballot on polling day.

Surprisingly, 74 per cent of Australians polled believe political action can change the world. Although only a small number have joined a political party, two-thirds of those surveyed are aware there is a perceptible difference in the values of the main parties.

The challenge for political operatives is to offer genuine, forward-thinking policy with real outcomes, yet still have the capacity to convince the population that promises can be delivered and paid for.

But when 53 per cent of respondents say all politicians are the same, the voter cynicism – especially in the wake of the Slipper and Thomson affairs – must surely force those in Canberra to restore dignity and gravitas to the profession of politics.

“We are face to face with our destiny and we must meet it with high and resolute courage,” US president Theodore Roosevelt said 114 years ago, and his words still resonate. – words still prescient today.

But courage is an attribute in short supply right now.

Soon after opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey said recently that governments and business must learn to take risks again, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde added to the emerging theme by warning that uncertainty was the biggest threat to the economy.

For individuals, corporations or governments, securing the future is actually about taking a risk. Growth is built on those who bet on the future, and the associated rewards lie at the heart of our modern society.

It also drives our modern global economy. Without the willingness to take risks, there would be no investment in business or infrastructure, no borrowing and lending, and no production.

And it should be noted, doing nothing is a risk in itself.

But hovering economic uncertainty has the IMF deeply concerned that just three years after pulling out of the global financial crisis, the world is headed back there. “Risks for a serious global slowdown are alarmingly high,” said the IMF’s World Economic Outlook report last week. What is not known is whether it is a bump in the economic road or whether there is a looming global recession. If the latter, it won’t be so easy countering it the next time.

Having survived at least in part thanks to the inherited Howard-Costello economic legacy, the risk for Australia comes from the falling terms of trade, lower commodity prices and a weak set of economic data.

Adding to this is the Gillard government’s tendency to look backwards and bask in the success of the past as it makes a vast range of promises for the future with no demonstrable financial backing. Who can deny Australia deserves a National Disability Insurance Scheme or the best possible education system, but with a reported cost of $120 billion for Labor’s new round of pledges, there is a serious disconnect between promise and reality.

Australians are looking to their political leadership for a restoration of confidence to bring some stability to a seemingly chaotic world and provide a more stable and predictable future.

While it is the Coalition’s election to lose, the outcome of the next federal election is still no certainty. Australians are unlikely to ever again want a hung parliament.

It seems clear that, next year, the rewards of high office will go to the party willing to take risks – politically and economically – and able to convince Australia’s voters that such risks are worth accepting.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise.’

The Weekend Australian, October 20 -21, 2012, INQUIRER p 18.

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