Let's heed Australia's Rudd awakening
Voters in Australia have soundly rejected its Labor Party government after six tumultuous years of left-of-centre administration. In its place, they’ve handed the reins of government to Tony Abbott and his conservative-oriented Liberal-National Coalition. Their reasons for doing so are instructive to electors in Canada, especially Ontario.
From 1996 to 2007, Australia was governed by the Coalition under the able leadership of prime minister John Howard. Despite the fact that the economy was booming, voters were persuaded that it was “time for a change” and a Labor majority government was elected in 2007 under the leadership of Kevin Rudd.
In opposition, Mr. Rudd declared himself a moderate, even an “economic conservative,” to avoid alarming investors. In office, he proved to be something else.
Like Canada, Australia got through the financial meltdown of 2008 relatively unscathed, primarily due to its sound banking system and the fact that Mr. Howard had put Australia’s fiscal house in order. But, as in Canada, Mr. Rudd’s government was persuaded to engage in a binge of stimulus spending that produced substantial deficits and added to the national debt.
And unfortunately for Australia, its new Labor government soon ran into trouble on three major fronts.
On the economic front, out-of-control spending, proposals for a carbon tax and mining tax, increased regulation of business (including small business) and initiatives to strengthen the bargaining power of unions all combined to erode investor confidence, particularly in the resource sector.
The conclusion eventually reached by Australian electors was similar to that reached earlier this year by B.C. electors: If your economy is booming, electing a left-of-centre government will slow it down; if your economy is in trouble, electing a left-of-centre government will make things worse. Ontario voters, take note.
On the environmental front, attempts to respond to climate-change concerns have proven a policy and political minefield for both Australia’s major federal parties. Under Mr. Rudd, Labor promised an emissions trading scheme and then shelved it after the 2007 election, infuriating the environmental lobby. After the 2010 federal election, in which Labor promised no new taxes, it attempted to introduce a pollution levy, which led again to widespread public protests and a further decline in Labor’s popularity. Support of an emissions trading scheme also cost Liberal Malcolm Turnbull his leadership; he was eventually replaced by Mr. Abbott.
The lesson for Canadians is to recognize that, just as in Australia, no major political party as yet occupies the commanding heights on the environmental front. Certainly in Ontario, the provincial government’s approach to environmental protection through the promotion of high-cost green energy has been a disaster. And New Democratic positions that vaguely resemble those offered by Australia’s left are obviously not the answer, either. For Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, the challenge is to offer modest but superior alternatives – not an easy task.
Finally, it was mismanagement of internal governance that undermined Australians’ confidence in Labor perhaps more than any other single factor.
Although Mr. Rudd won the 2007 election, his popularity soon plummeted after bungling on the environmental and resource industry fronts. The backroom union bosses who control the party then panicked, and without any consultation of the public, engineered his replacement by deputy leader Julia Gillard.
This manoeuvre was intended to restore Labor’s fortunes for the 2010 general election. But under Ms. Gillard, Labor slipped into minority government status. When her own popularity declined, Ms. Gillard herself was replaced, again in an internal coup, by none other than Mr. Rudd.
This sorry tale of internal mismanagement provides a graphic illustration of the dangers of changing leaders in a knee-jerk response to short-term or localized fluctuations in public support.
Take note, Ontario Progressive Conservatives, because it sends a cautionary message to political parties of all stripes: “If we can’t properly govern ourselves, why should the public trust us to govern them?”
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on September 16, 2013