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Labor's poor political antennae


Set-top boxOne distraction following the Gillard Government's Budget has been the dispute over the free set-top box scheme. For $308 million it aims to provide set-top boxes for aged pensioners, people on disabilities and war veterans at a cost of $350 per person/unit. The context is the coming national switch to digital television. There has been a trial over the past 18 months.

The Opposition says it is wasteful, more expensive than similar provision by the private sector, and likely to be subject to mistakes in installation.

Retailer Gerry Harvey was quoted as saying that he could provide set-top boxes for half the price. Various small-businessmen raised issues similar to the failed home insulation scheme in terms of capacity, training and rorting. The Master Electricians Association complained about the possibility that the scheme will attract fly-by-night operators, which in turn offended some tradespeople.

Some disgruntled clients of the trial want a new digital television instead of a set-top box.

It has become a cavalcade of the disgruntled, the sort that a government doesn't want following a budget, particularly with a program that should be a feel-good scheme.

Julia Gillard and Steven Conroy, the Minister for Communications, have responded furiously. They point to the laudable general goals of increasing access to the latest developments in communication, to the many poor and vulnerable beneficiaries, and to the simplistic view of the program that has been put about by its critics.

The program is not apparently just about set-top boxes, but includes aerials, cabling and after-installation service. The set-top boxes themselves are often not off-the-shelf models, but are specialised units for use by people with disabilities.

This tale tells us a lot about politics and policy-making.

It has been another win for the Opposition, which has employed two successful strategies.

The first has been to link this program to the home insulation saga and the school buildings economic stimulus controversy, both of which contributed to the downfall of Kevin Rudd and the poor Labor performance at the last federal election. The second has been to link the program to the Opposition's tried and true themes of waste, inefficiency and poor implementation.

Failed implementation has been one of the major weaknesses of the Rudd and Gillard governments. It has fuelled public perception that it cannot deliver. This is an unfair judgment in some cases; the final word on the school buildings program will probably be much more favourable to the Government.

What this set-top box issue tells us, though, is that this Government has very poor political antennae. If it had been aware of the implementation dangers it would have steered away from a program like this which contains many of the same dangers that led to its earlier problems.

Implementation studies are a sub-set of public administration. A basic teaching of Implementation 101 is that the more points of decision and the more participants the greater the possibility that something will go wrong. The more that can go wrong the greater the danger that the program will not achieve its aims and rebound on the governments that introduced it.

A program that just gives away money can still have hiccups, as Kevin Rudd's economic stimulus experience showed. But at least the cheque in the hand is a relatively simple program.

The set-top box program, like the home insulation and school buildings programs, has so many more participants. They include departmental managers, contractors and sub-contractors; within each firm there are individual installers; then there is the after-sales service staff.

Quality varies. So many things can go wrong. Many individuals can become disgruntled. Consumers are not always grateful; sometimes with good reason but often not.

Before long, given the political process, the media pounce on hard luck stories and rorts. The pickings are easy.

Governments should learn from their past political difficulties, even when they may not be willing to admit to a policy mistake. There were always danger signs surrounding this program regardless of its merits; at the very least the Government should have been much better prepared to sell the benefits of the program to a skeptical public.

Ultimately the political benefit-cost of a $350 cheque in the hand may have been greater than a well-meaning program containing so many potential pitfalls.

John WarhustJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: set-top boxes, digital television, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Conroy, pink batts, insulation, scheme, schools



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Existing comments

I'm a pensioner. Myself and all the pensioners I know have had a set top box for years. The scheme is just that; a scheme by schemers: probably all lawyers.

Greig WIlliams | 30 May 2011  

There is a lot to comment on in this article . The first is that as a Professor of Political Science John , the writer , sees everything as do our elected representatives as " Politics ",hence the title .The Australian taxpayer does not and sees waste for what it is . The second is that those on pensions are not technical idiots just because they are on a pension and therefore in need Big Governments Mothering .Family help ,already are OK ,self help ,all these work in a community of people .The exceptions can be offered help but do not assume all are idiots as this policy does . This is bad because it is bad use of scant funds not because it wont get re election for politicians

John Crew | 30 May 2011  

Cheque-in-hand means tested, is the fairest and compensates those who already have a set-top box. This would eliminate any disputes - what a great idea! By the way - I am not a beneficiary, but just concerned about the idiocies of politicians. Then again - the media has a ball!

Peter M | 30 May 2011  

Last year I purchased a set-top box, from BigW, for $49.00. Though it works fine, it is a complicated procedure. So last week I purchased a 60 cm digital TV set for $304, including delivery and GST, from BigW. Perhaps a well meaning government could reimburse pensioners (those without an extra income) for the cost of a digital TV set when a receipt is produced.

Joyce | 30 May 2011  

For $350 you can get a small to medium sized digital television complete with inbuilt box. You can barely buy a tv now that needs a set top box as well. Maybe try putting the money into helping Australians afford devices like solar power and that will cut down living costs for longer than one outdated set top box

Paul | 30 May 2011  

WEll no-one has to take one but where I am my antenna will have to be changed over to accept digital and it would have cost me about $350 to get it done.

My daughter's boyfriend has been trained to adjust them in this area which is a digital black spot.

So why is it people are whining?

Marilyn Shepherd | 30 May 2011  

Here we go again! When will people start to look after themselves? We have a green-socialist Government going crazy on old fashioned socialist schemes to provide a massive income for more con artists. What’s about the people who have been using their own initiative and bought set top boxes?

Beat Odermatt | 30 May 2011  

My cheap as chips set top box works inadequately with my cheap as chips tv set and as a single homeowner pensioner I can't replace things until completely defunct. Refunding new digital tv sets on production of receipt, up to a reasonable limit, seems fair and uncomplicated.

Marjorie | 30 May 2011  

The premise of this article seems to be that there are smarter ways to give away public money than evidenced by the government's set-top box freebie. Sure, but we might ask, what is the merit of the policy in the first place?

walter hamilton | 30 May 2011  

Walter Hamilton: With luck you too will be old one day and may welcome a helping hand. (Who is fit forever?)

Joyce | 31 May 2011  

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