Labor honeymoon could last

Kevin Rudd AcceptanceThe election of a new government is a cause for hope. A party in power for an extended period inevitably loses touch with people and their concerns. A new government enjoys public goodwill as it tackles a residue of issues, resentments and injustices. Whether this honeymoon period lasts months or dissipates quickly is a measure of the sincerity with which the new government operates. Hopes are high for Prime Minister Rudd and Labor.

In 1996, most Australians hoped the Howard Government would establish its credibility. Many were soon disillusioned. Governments breed cynicism when they denigrate the opposition in parliament. When instead of answering questions they attack the motivations of the questioner, they show disdain not just for their parliamentary opponents but for all Australians interested in the issue raised.

Oppositions attack governments, as they should, but their criticisms must be based on sincere concerns about government behaviour. When a party makes the transition to government, they must stand by their former statements. If they expect the opposition to honour the electoral mandate, they must keep their campaign promises and not rationalise their mendacity with talk of 'core' and 'non-core' commitments.

New governments must adopt higher standards than those they criticised in their predecessors. So, when attacked for silencing dissent, the new government cannot respond that this was exactly what their opponents did. No opposition promises to behave exactly like the government of the day, and it is hypocritical to justify poor behaviour by citing such precedents.

There is cause for optimism in Labor's determination to refresh the machinery of government. The Howard Government promised to lift ministerial standards, but quickly lost half-a-dozen through abuses of allowances. Labor has promised to reduce MPs' allowances, permissible levels of undeclared donations to parties and government advertising expenditure, and to improve access to government information. These measures should halt the slide in the respect in which voters hold the political class.

Labor backbenchers are, commendably, avoiding the temptation to gloat. They should heed the comments of Coalition MPs following the election defeat of 24 November. Some Liberals have revealed they wanted Prime Minister Howard to stand aside. Some have admitted Coalition leadership was out of touch on many issues, including industrial relations, climate change, and the hugely important ethical matter of reconciliation.

If these MPs voiced their concerns in closed sessions of the government parties, they did not make their positions public. Some dissenters, including Liberal Petrou Georgiou and Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce did so, and their consciences should be clear. It is doubtful the same can be said for others. For example, those who supported the invasion of Iraq and are no longer in parliament will have time to reflect on their motivations.

Labor MPs will best serve the people by speaking clearly and strongly and not allowing considerations of partisan advantage to dull their consciences. Indeed, in the long run, governments benefit from internal dissent. The Howard Government's industrial relations legislation became unpopular because it was extreme and ideologically driven. Because the Government had majorities in both the House and the Senate, bills were passed. Genuine disagreement from government backbenchers could have moderated the bills and made them more acceptable.

Commentators also face new challenges. They must show that their criticisms have been fair and unbiased. They must give credit where it seems due but also indicate where the new government repeats the errors of the old.

Just prior to the election, for example, Julia Gillard, now Deputy Prime Minister, was asked about asylum seekers. She stated that Labor would continue the policy of turning away seaworthy ships. The unfortunate aspect of this policy is that it could have disastrous results.

When the SIEV-X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) sank with the loss of hundreds of lives, the Coalition refused to accept responsibility. Yet it always maintained that its policies were designed to send strong messages to 'people smugglers'. If that is so, then said 'smugglers' must have known Australia would be less likely to turn away unseaworthy vessels. The policy must result in a temptation to load people onto unseaworthy boats.

Thus some repsonsibility for the loss of SIEV-X can be placed squarley upon the Coalition policy. The policy must have the same potentially disastrous faults under Labor.

Over the past decade, the political lexicon has been dominated by negative terms. It is to be hoped the election has put an end to tactics such as the wedge, dog whistle politics, weasel talk, the leaking of confidential personal information about government critics, application of the gag to end parliamentary debate, disproportionate allocation of grants to government marginal seats, attacks on the justice system and unprincipled populism.

Every government must make difficult decisions, but so long as it behaves with integrity, its honeymoon should last many months.

Most Australians recognise that a society can be judged by the way it treats its weakest members. Over the past decade, the government's priorities ensured the strongest were able to enjoy the fruits of their superiority. As long as the Rudd Government works ethically to change that agenda, it will attract widespread support.

Tony Smith Tony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.



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