6 September 2013

Still undecided? What really matters this election

“The major parties are as bad as each other”
“The economy is a shambles. We need a change”
“Party X’s preferences are being given to Party Y”
These are some of the things being widely said in the lead up to this election, as they are in most Australian elections. But are they true, and what issues should we be focusing on in these last hours before the election? Here are my thoughts for the undecided and confused.

Why read what I have to say?

My reputation for being a champagne socialist is well-known, but I was once a young campus Liberal, who has drifted far left and then some way back again, so I have seen politics from every side. I have worked for government, but spent most of my life in the private sector including the best part of a decade as CEO of a consulting services firm with an international client base. So don’t worry that I’m about to give you a party line from anyone. Yes, I have an agenda, and it’s this:
I would like to see a compassionate, inclusive Australia that:
  1. respects and embraces the diversity of opinions, choices and backgrounds that make up contemporary Australia
  2. recognises that we are the lucky country and treats those less fortunate with compassion and a ‘fair go’
  3. takes a responsible attitude towards the environment, while also recognises that the choices we make as a society have an impact on individuals
  4.  makes decisions based on the best available information and science, and is big enough to change its mind if that information changes
I would like to think most people living in Australia would agree with these broad principles, but if you don’t, I respect and defend your right to disagree.

Don’t be distracted by…

The economy

Much of the political debate over this election has been concerned with the economy. Indeed, on the Vote Compass website, this is identified as the biggest concern Australian’s have. And yet, over two million people have already cast absentee and postal votes before the election before the Liberal/National Party coalition have revealed detailed costings for their election commitments.
This suggests that the LNP have been very effective in creating the idea that our economy is a mess, and that our deficit is a huge problem. They have been aided in this by the ALP itself, who have repeatedly proposed timelines for a return to surplus, and not managed to deliver.
The simple facts are that our economy is healthy and robust and the envy of most developed countries on the planet. We have AAA credit ratings from all the major agencies. And most economists with a global perspective would concur. And yes, we have a deficit, just like most families have mortgages and credit cards. This is not a problem or a bad thing—it’s a perfectly reasonable and normal way to manage an economy.
And it needs to be recognised that global economic circumstances have a great influence on national economies, and we are not exempt from that. The same issues would have affected an LNP government had they been in power at the time. The difference is that the LNP would probably not have put in place the stimulus packages that were implemented by the ALP. Depending which economists you believe these packages were either somewhat successful or very successful, take your pick. But the ALP made the right call.
Now if you read the ‘debate’ on facebook or twitter, you might be forgiven for thinking everything I just said was a very biased ‘left wing’ account. I’d prefer to listen to the experts—the ratings agencies and economists who bear out what I just said. Economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Professor of Economics at Columbia University and a Nobel Prize winner in economics, who says “Most countries would envy Australia's economy. During the global recession, Kevin Rudd's government implemented one of the strongest Keynesian stimulus packages in the world … In many other countries, stimulus was too small and arrived too late, after jobs and confidence were already lost. In Australia the stimulus helped avoid a recession and saved up to 200,000 jobs. And new research shows that stimulus may have also actually reduced government debt over time".
So a big slap on the wrist to the LNP for making something out of nothing here. And a slightly smaller slap to the ALP for doing the right thing but selling it badly, and promising things that were outside their control.
Bottom line, our economy is fine and has been well managed by the current government in difficult circumstances.

What really matters

In all the noise and rhetoric surrounding this election, there are a very few issues that are make or break for me.

Foreign Aid

On the eve of the election, the LNP announced that they were planning to cut $4.5 billion from the foreign aid budget over 4 years. This shocking plan will have life and death consequences for hundreds of thousands of people far less fortunate than us, and will likely impact many more than that.
Admirable though these things are, foreign aid is not just about charity and helping the needy. It also contributes to our international credibility and political influence, creates jobs for Australians and increases national security. It is a key aspect of international relations, along with defence strategy and diplomacy.
Cutting foreign aid, particularly in this time of major international trauma (Syria anyone?) and whilst we are in a position of leadership on the UN Security Council, is simply a bad plan. Justifying this plan on the basis of needing to strengthen our economy, when we have one of the strongest economies in the world, is ridiculous and will be perceived as such by the international community.
And do we expect that the LNP is seriously planning to reinstate this aid when they have ‘fixed the economy’ as suggested?
I would like to believe that this plan would disgust anyone who cares about the welfare of our world and the disadvantaged, and that this single issue alone would be enough to decide the fate of the election.Unfortunately, I suspect that not enough people care all that much, though I'd like to be proven wrong.

Asylum seeker policy

This complex issue has been given short thrift by both major parties who have preferred to descend into soundbites and emotive rhetoric, much of it intellectually and factually bereft, rather than apply compassion, principles and a cooperative, global perspective.
And most of what has been said, especially by the LNP, has been, at best, misleading. The end result is that our nation is now fundamentally divided on an issue that simply should not have ever been allowed to escalate in this way.
I will spare you a detailed analysis of this debate. There have been too many of these already. Instead I will go back to the first two principles I espoused earlier in this conversation. Of course there are plenty of people in Australia who suffer for many reasons, but overall, we are immensely lucky as a country and a people. I use the word lucky quite deliberately—for many of us it is no more than an accident of birth that we were born in a safe, prosperous country, rather than Rwanda , Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan or one of the numerous other countries where people are in genuine and deep suffering through no fault of their own.
Our response to this should be compassionate and thoughtful, yet also urgent and committed to trying to find solution and outcomes for the less fortunate wherever they are. It has not been. The ALP have been bad, and the LNP worse.
What is the answer? I don’t know, but unless the right questions are asked, from a starting point of compassion, we won’t get any closer to an answer.

The National Broadband Network

It’s another confusing one at first glance, because both major parties have made a mess of the issue and left us with a choice between the LNP’s bad plan that costs far less but won’t provide the long term solutions, against the ALP’s good plan that has been poorly managed, and is being delivered much slower than predicted at far higher cost.
And one of the added difficulties is that the IT-focused can see both the immediate befits of the ALP’s NBN plan, but also the untold and unguessable future benefits. But the LNP’s plan, with its immediately slower speeds and hopeful but misplaced faith in the future, precludes much of the potential for the future. It will also probably require expensive reworking down the track and therefore negate any short term cost advantage. And then there’s NewsCorp’s massive opposition to the ALP’s NBN plan to take into account, driven by the fact that if Australian’s have inferior broadband, NewsCorp's Foxtel and print interests are likely to be more financially viable for longer.
As a technologist, I can see that most Australians will benefit massively from the full blown, fibre to the home NBN proposed by the ALP. The benefits will be manifest themselves increasingly with time in the emerging smart industries for which Australia is becoming famous and in healthcare and education. To cripple this progress now will be a massive blow to precisely the sort of industries on which our future will depend.
In addition, it has been established that the ALP’s NBN will result in massive savings in the health and power sectors that will effectively cover the cost of the entire project.

Marriage equity

Another topic in which there has been passionate and intense debate. But it really is very simple. If someone else’s behaviour and choices do not directly and negatively impact you, then it’s not really your business. That’s what democracy is all about.
So if, for example, you don’t believe it’s right to be homosexual for biblical reasons, then don’t be. That’s your choice. You’d be wrong, by the way—the most up to date biblical scholarship shows that there is no mention in the bible of, and therefore no prohibition about, loving, committed gay relationships. But in a democracy you are entitled to your beliefs on this or any other matters.
If you don’t believe in gay marriage, then don’t get married to a person of the same gender. But don’t try to stop other people doing so. That’s using your democratic privilege to stop other people exercising their own.
There are many gay people in this country who are being denied recognition of their loving relationships, and the legal framework that heterosexual relationships enjoy. In addition, the lack of equity also perpetuates ignorant, anti-gay attitudes. We in the straight community may not feel the pain of all of this, but our gay brothers and sisters do. In 20 year’s time, this will be history as it is an inevitable societal change. Why extend people’s pain now?
So a pat on the back to those politicians on both sides of the political divide who have ‘come out’ in support of marriage equity. Kevin Rudd, Malcom Turnbull, the Greens and many others, you are true upholders of democracy.

The Carbon tax

Oh no, the global warming debate! Actually, it’s not that complicated. There is widespread agreement amongst scientists that human activity impacts the planet and global climate. Very few credible people deny this, but of course there is much debate about to what extent this is true, particularly whether the effects are potentially catastrophic and close at hand. Is the fate of the planet directly threatened and if so, in what timeframe. Most of us are not scientists, and very few scientists have the combination of depth and breadth of knowledge across all areas of science to have absolute certainty, so how are we to respond?
For my part I think all nations need a systematic approach to minimising and reducing emissions, and that Australia should be part of that global solution and a leader in showing how it might be done.
This election presents us with a couple of different options. One is to put a price on emissions to try and encourage a reduction. It’s a complex idea in practice, but a widely popular one around the world, and both the ALP and sections of the LNP have been fans of it at some stage or the other (including the LNP’s most intelligent member, Malcolm Turnbull). Then we have the low budget, untested, not very specific current LNP plan for an Emissions Reduction Fund backed by the very clear evidence that Tony Abbott doesn’t actually believe that climate change is influenced by human activity. It looks like a ‘do almost nothing plan’ driven by a man who believes that actually doing nothing would be an even better strategy.

What about preferences?

Although there has been considerable anger over political candidates doing deals over preferences, this is also a fairly simple issue. If you vote below the line, no-one but you has any influence over where your preferences go. Numbering all the boxes just takes a few minutes three times a decade and can actually be quite fun.

In conclusion

Of course, there are plenty of other issues over which this election is being fought, but I have focused on those which I believe are most relevant to the principles I started with for the sort of Australia I would like to see. And on these issues, I think it’s clear that there are still major differences between the parties that help make my decision easy. Good luck with yours.
Go to eebahgum!