Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Election 2015 - Policy Platforms

The other day I was listening to ABC Radio and a talk-back caller told us about his daughter.  She is, according to her biased Dad, an intelligent young woman and wanted to think seriously about who she was voting for.  Like any young digital native, she went online and looked at the policies of the major parties.  According to her Dad, what she found is that one party (the LNP) had a set of constructive policies which outlined what it would do in government while the other (the Labor Party) just seemed intent on criticising their opponents.

Now it's possible this man was an LNP plant (all the parties do this at elections) but it's also possible he was genuine.  If so, our young digital native has let herself down badly.  Perhaps the message is that what our young adults gain in comfort with the online world, they lose by having short attention spans.  Nothing to do with the rise of social media, and everything to do with being 18.  All that grey hair has got to be useful for something.

The fact is that both major parties fighting this election have published a lot of policies, of varying quality and specificity.  Even the minor parties have, to a greater or lesser extent.

The Palmer United Party is the lightest on policy, especially in a Queensland context.  Despite running a large team of candidates (there is one in most electorates) they have almost nothing in the way of specific Queensland policies.  Even their national policies, over a year into their surprise success in the last election, mostly consist of media releases.  Palmer, it appears, is able to fund large campaigns but is not very interested in explaining what his party actually stands for.

The Family First Party is only slightly better.  Its web page is branded "Family First Queensland" and it has a set of policies which purport to be Queensland policies, but they are very generic (generically neo-conservative, in the main) and if you dig a little deeper you find that identical policies are posted on websites branded with each State name.

Neither of these parties of the right are likely to have much success in the coming election, but despite having only 11 candidates it is quite likely Katter's Australian Party will at least win seats in the far north.  Like Family First, they only have one set of policies but at least they don't try to pretend otherwise.  Their policies are not super-detailed but given Bob Katter's tendency the contradict himself in public they are surprisingly coherent.  They reveal an awareness of the looming economic, energy and environmental problems Australia is facing, and advocate a thoroughly nationalist solution - reducing immigration and being tough on asylum seekers, protecting Australian industries, preserving fossil fuels for future domestic use instead of exporting them, and a surprisingly enlightened take on Australia's first people no doubt in response to the large and assertive Aboriginal communities in Katter country.

Of all the minor parties, the Greens are the ones who have taken policy issues most seriously.  The Greens grew out of the conservation movement and are still often perceived as an environmental party.  However, over the years they have evolved into a more rounded progressive party.  Despite never having had a member elected to the Queensland parliament - and this is not likely to change on Saturday - they have a specific Queensland policy platform that runs to over one hundred pages.  This is not developed specifically with this election in mind, but has been put together over a number of years to clarify what the Greens stand for.

It covers a wide range of issues under five headings - Natural Environment, covering biodiversity, water quality, food and agriculture, animal welfare and fishing; Social and Democracy, which includes policies about political accountability, criminal justice, ageing and disability, gambling and gender identity; Economics and Energy, which includes climate change, policies about various industries and policies on government finance; Built Environment with policies about transport and planning; and Human Services which includes education, health, social housing and reproductive rights.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that their policies are fairly consistently progressive or "left" - on environmental issues in favour of conservation, on economic issues in favour of better regulation and more equity and sustainability, on social issues in favour of better services and more public provision, and on "moral" issues in favour of gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

And so to the big 2, one of whom will be forming a government in early February.  The Labor Party actually has two types of policies.  The first is a set of policies released in the context of this election campaign on Annastacia Palaszczuk's Opposition Leader website.  These cover a range of issues under the headings of Jobs and Economy (the largest group), Health, Education, Law and Order, Community, Industrial Relations, Environment, Integrity and Accountability and Animal Welfare.  The policies are a mixed bag - some are reasonably comprehensive strategies like their "jobs plan" but most, even some that sound like they should be more comprehensive, are about quite specific issues.  For instance, their "sustainable resource communities" strategy is mostly about reducing the number of "fly-in/fly-out" workers.  Many are promises to reverse unpopular LNP decisions.  This is, in a way, a more sophisticated version of Clive Palmer's policy by press release - it is a number of specific promises which, if you string them together, don't really add up to a comprehensive program.

This is probably what the ABC caller's daughter found, and it does provide some justification for her comments.  They are not that detailed, and a good many of them are about undoing things done by the LNP.  Although they do mention puppies.  However, the Labor Party also has a more comprehensive Policy Platform, similar to that of the Greens.  This platform was signed off at the party conference in August 2014.  Over almost 90 pages of small type it outlines a fairly comprehensive set of policies on the range of State responsibilities - the economy, health, education and training, human services, industrial relations, the environment, These are based in a set of clearly articulated but slightly motherhood-ish values.  There's not much whacking of the LNP in this document and plenty of good policy.

The problem with this dual set of policies is it's not clear which set we should believe.  The policy platform is more carefully put together and more comprehensive, but it also contains many things which the Labor Party is unlikely to be able to implement if it gets elected.  For instance, they propose to have public housing account for 10% of all Queensland's housing by 2020.  This would require the construction of over a hundred thousand dwellings in the next five years.  Even the most ambitious public housing advocates are not game to ask for that much.  The election promises, on the other hand, are all modest and achievable.

Finally, the Liberal National Party.  Unlike the Greens and the Labor Party they don't have any kind of comprehensive policy platform, but like the Labor Party they have released a series of policies during this campaign.  They are presented under a set of headings - Creating Jobs and Infrastructure (the largest heading), Growing a Four Pillar Economy, Tackling the Cost of Living, Building Australia's Best Education System, Revitalising Frontline Health Services and Protecting Our Community.  Despite what our young digital native says, these are not very detailed - often less so that the Labor Party's - and there is a good deal of whacking of the previous Labor government.  They are presented in a uniform format, each one a two-page flyer with lots of pictures and a few words in bold type.  There are also some notable omissions - no environmental policies, for instance, nothing on human services or housing, and nothing on industrial relations.

If you were to compare the two major parties solely on the basis of their election promises, you would probably end up feeling depressed at the quality of the alternatives.  Most of the policies on both sides are very specific, playing to a particular region or interest group.  There is a lot of "rollback" in the Labor policies, a lot of items funded by assets sales (sorry, "leases") in the LNP's.

Beyond the question of quality and vision, you have a choice between a moderate, centrist party interested in a notion of balance between economy, equity and environment, and a party that sees government as about economic development, delivering specific items of infrastructure and a narrow range of mainstream services.  Neither really has any kind of focus beyond the next three-year electoral cycle.

Finally, there is the question of costings.  Political leaders often claim to be able to release a fully costed set of policies, including details of how these costs will be paid for in the budget.  They rarely achieve this, and neither of our parties has.  So far the Labor Party has not attempted it, although they may release more financial details in the next couple of days.

The LNP appears to be a little ahead on this.  I can find a press release which tells us that on January 27 they released "the detailed budget finances behind its strong plan to fund Queensland’s future and deliver the services and infrastructure our growing state needs".  I can find media stories about the launch of this document, including pictures of Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls holding it, and these stories tell me it is 22 pages long and give me a few numbers.  However, I can't find the document itself which suggest it only exists in hard copy.

As far as I can tell from the reports it is pretty much a rehash of the Strong Choices document released back in October - the sale of assets will fund a mix of debt reduction and infrastructure projects.  This means that while the costings look precise and add up, they are pretty much meaningless because we won't know what the assets will fetch until the tender process is complete.  Nor should the spending figures be taken as gospel since they depend on detailed feasibility studies which have not yet been done in most cases, and once again will be subject to tender processes.

So this is it.  If you want to know more, follow the links.  Read what they say, note what they don't say.  Make your choice.  The hour is drawing near.

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