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Natural disaster fund could be Gillard's easy path to glory


Paul KeatingIn Eureka Street on Friday, UnitingCare National Director Lin Hatfield Dodds wrote that the Government’s proposed flood levy represents precisely the approach social justice principles dictate. But she also described it as a one-off response that won’t improve our ability to cope with natural disasters in the long-term.

Being prepared for natural disasters brought on by radical climate fluctuation is part of what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’. The fact that he did not have the courage of his conviction, and virtually gave up on it, does not mean that serious preparation for the effects of future climate fluctuation is now beyond us.

There are simple strategies that can go some way to addressing this particular challenge, including making the flood levy a permanent natural disaster fund, as suggested by the Independent MPs who hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

In fact the politics of the situation make it much easier for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to make the levy permanent. It could be a rare example of reform that she and her government can be proud of for years to come.

The current government has form in failing to legislate for reforms needed to improve Australia’s readiness to face future challenges. The Henry Tax Review was almost totally ignored.

Gillard is not alone. Most prime ministers in recent years have lacked the political courage necessary to legislate for reform. They have focused on government for the short-term, with the aim of being re-elected at the next election. They have considered it politically foolhardy to enact legislation that involves short-term pain for long-term gain.

Part of the problem is caused by the myth that electability is paramount. Contributing to this is the attitude of many Australians, who look askance at leaders who are focused on the long-term, as it’s likely they are serving with one eye on their own political legacy. We think of them as deluded by a false sense of their own grandeur. 

Yet that is not necessarily a bad thing. A politician wanting to make his or her mark on history will surely do what it takes to pass reform legislation. It doesn’t do any real harm to have former prime ministers acting like demigods, but it does a lot of good to have ‘courageous’ legislation successfully pass through parliament.

The economic reform begun during the Hawke-Keating years is a good example. Hawke and Keating will look good for ever more because of their bold actions. They cut tariffs and instituted other measures to allow the economy to interact more freely with the economies of other countries. In the short term, this killed much of the manufacturing industry and cost jobs. But years later it contributed to the economic robustness that got us through the GFC and saved us from large-scale unemployment. It also cost Keating government, but now he’s basking in glory, and most Australians are arguably better off.

By contrast, Kevin Rudd, for all his idealism, dropped the ball on climate change, and cannot even claim too much credit for the Apology to the Stolen Generations, given that it had popular support. His political legacy is shot.

On the face of it, current prime minister Julia Gillard has her hands tied. She does not have any political capital to spend because she presides over a hung parliament. Her focus must be on getting Labor back into majority government at the next election, in 2013 or before.

But the reality is quite different, because her immediate political masters are the Independents, not the electorate. They hold the balance of power, and she has to appease them or face possible rejection of all legislation. The wishes of the 2013 voters are secondary. 

Because it’s highly unlikely their hold on the balance of power will continue beyond the next election, the Independents have nothing to lose by demanding long-term reform. That is why Independent MP Tony Windsor could afford to tell Labor last week that it must make its flood levy permanent, in order to provide Australia with an ongoing natural disaster recovery fund.

Labor needs the Independents’ support, so Gillard cannot reject this demand, at least not out of hand. If she wants the legislation passed, there’s a reasonable chance that it may need to include the permanent levy Windsor wants. In that case, it would constitute long-term reform. Despite the involuntary nature of her zeal for reform, this could establish a pattern, and history may credit her with embracing some of the great moral challenges of our time.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, aged care, taxation, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd, reform, Julia Gillard, independents, vanity



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Existing comments

Sometimes the need for cooperation and teamwork should take precedence over party-political tactics.

The urgent need for the re-establishment of services and amenities destroyed by the floods is an example and the various reactions of our politicians will reveal priorities and principles.

Tony Abbott has already failed the test. He may hope to gain some votes by opposing the levy but it is a popularity grab rather than a caring response in a time of emergency.

The Greens and the various independents will also be tested. The unusual numbers-balance between the major parties in parliament has given the Greens and others a power out of proportion to their support from voters and they may choose to attempt to force their particular views and priorities on the government.

Or they may join in a team effort to repair the flood damage as quickly as possible without time-wasting bargaining and argument.

Bob Corcoran | 31 January 2011  

Julia Gillard will never achieve “Glory” as such. Julia Gillard is one of the party bred “apparatchiks”. In the eyes of most people these “apparatchiks” have no real life experiences and don’t understand the real daily difficulties many people have, such as finding an affordable home and a good school. Political leaders are selected by a small number of powerful people within the parties, representing certain lobby groups. In many ways it has become irrelevant who is the leader or which party has “power”, as the real power is with lobbyists and public servants.

I am sure that nobody can deny that the recent floods across Australia have caused Billions of Dollars in damage. The question is if we need another socially dividing tax to pay for it or should the Government use some the money, which has, been allocated for questionable projects. If we just have a look at the NBN, which will soak up to 50 Billion Dollars and create an expensive optic fibre network. The Government ignores the current trend is towards wireless broadband networking. It would be very easy to cut the cost of the NBN network by 25% and allocate close to 10 Billion Dollars towards hard infrastructure.

The Government however wants 2 more income stream for the future. It will find ways of making the “flood tax” permanent and it will be able to give the “independents” enough “incentives” to gain support. The NBN is also important as it will provide the Government with a permanent income stream by charging all residents a “connection fee” and a “service fee” similar to our current sewage and water fees. I am not sure how people using wireless broadband or very old people without Internet connection will react when they find out that they can pay another fee for a service they don’t need or want.

Beat Odermatt | 31 January 2011  

I hope she takes your advice, Michael. From the hinterlands out here she hasn't been striking me as terribly brave or independent in her thinking as of yet. The disaster fund sounds like a very wise move.

Jim McDermott, SJ | 31 January 2011  

Indeed we should have a permanent, national levy to cover disasters. This is what they have in New Zealand to cover earthquakes. The Christchurch people I visited last September all commented on the assistance this levy would provide to cover their damaged homes.

It does not obviate the need for personal home insurance, but it does assist with major disasters such as those in Queensland.
We live in a country of dramatic climate extremes so it is an obvious thing to do.
Strong and decisive leadership is required - not sickening attention grabbers such as Tony Abbott offers.

margaret cody | 04 February 2011  

An interesting article and set of responses. Unfortunately, Australian voters have been motivated by the hip pocket since the issue of Federation. We have to admit to an historical legacy of cultural capitalism, albeit on a small scale for most voters. Whilst supporting the flood levy, Gillard's comments and actions indicate that she just "does not understand climate change issues". Abbot has once again demonstrated his complete moral bunkruptcy and crass opportunism.

Dr John Collard | 05 February 2011  

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