The Economist magazine is beginning to look a lot like the Guardian, the New York Times and the Age in Melbourne: its editorial pages are so dripping wet that one has great difficulty in turning them.
How else to account for this endorsement of the Australian Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for re-election on 7 September? Labor’s ‘decent record’ in recent years, it argues, makes it the best party to face the challenges of the future.
Yet this is a government that has turned a $20 billion surplus it inherited from John Howard’s Coalition in late 2007 into a whopping budget black hole and rising national debt.
A government that has imposed a carbon price that is five times as high as that under the European Union’s emissions trading scheme at a time when Australia’s trade competitors chug up the smoky road to prosperity.
A government that wants to spend $40 billion to deliver some kind of digital nirvana to every Aussie household in the next decade, without the faintest idea how it might be done commercially or whether consumers would be willing to support the huge costs of a broadband network.
Tony Abbott, the conservative Opposition leader, is hardly the reincarnation of Milton Friedman: his support for a big-spending paid maternity scheme, for example, suggests he is sometimes prone to paternalism. But Abbott’s broad agenda consists of cutting taxes to help create incentives for private enterprise to take risks and invest.
Rudd, however, has no truck for genuine liberal principles of small government and free markets that purportedly define the Economist’s editorial philosophy. During his first term, he blamed ‘neo-liberalism’ for causing the global financial crisis, and he has since credited his government’s record stimulus spending and pro-union policies for saving Australia from economic contagion.
Never mind that Australia actually weathered the global storm thanks to a record commodities boom and free-market policies Rudd so likes to deride. Labor had inherited a dozen years of budget surpluses from the previous conservative government, of which Abbott was a senior minister, giving Rudd a strong fiscal position from which he could try to use tax dollars to fuel a recovery.
Moreover, Australia has not suffered an economic contraction since the early 1990s because its leaders from 1983 to 2007 had implemented a smart mix of free-market economic reforms, fiscal restraint, free trade and sound monetary policy that encouraged the private economy to grow. Australia still relies on foreign investment to help finance growth.
And yet just last week the Prime Minister, whom the Economist lauds, attacked foreign investment to Australia as a way of appealing to old-fashioned protectionists, whose preferences he desperately needs in order to stay competitive in his home state of Queensland.
As for border protection – a red-hot political issue down under – the Economist attacks Tony Abbott’s ‘populism’. And yet the Opposition leader merely seeks to emulate John Howard’s sound policy of temporary protection visas, refugee offshore processing and turning back the boats, which helped stop unlawful arrivals and boost public confidence in orderly, large-scale and non-discriminatory legal immigration.
The Rudd government’s decision to dismantle the so-called Pacific Solution in mid-2008 marked a turning point in immigration policy down under. By ending the Howard policy that had deterred the people smugglers, Rudd’s volte face helped lead to 50,000 unlawful arrivals and more than 1100 tragic deaths on the seas. Which is why Rudd himself, in an attempt to repair the electoral damage that his soft border protection policies have engendered, has lurched to the right of Abbott and sought to send all boat people to Papua New Guinea without any legal reviews.
And then there is what can only be described as the Economist’s condescension towards the Antipodes. It has consistently remarked that our political scene is something of an embarrassment; and its recent editorial once again bemoans the quality of political leadership down under. Not a great choice in candidates, it wails.
But what would the Economist prefer? The British, who are still recovering from the widespread expenses scandal? Or the French, who lost its star socialist presidential candidate to an ankle bracelet and charges of attempted rape in a $3,000-a-night Manhattan hotel suite? Or the Italians, whose past (future?) leader has been subjected to lawsuits for everything from corruption to under-age sex?
For a nation of only 22 million people, Australia is run by political grown-ups who preside over what most seasoned economists recognise as the envy of the industrialised and financial world.
Julia Gillard had painted herself into an unending series of political corners, but as grating as she may have been she was no Sarah Palin or Marine Le Pen. Tony Abbott may offend the sensibilities of the metropolitan sophisticates, but unlike one former British Labour deputy prime ministers he never punches punters. His conservative coalition colleagues might question alarmist predictions of man-made global warming, but unlike US Democratic Senate candidates they never shoot rifles at carbon tax bills in campaign commercials.
The fact is, barring an act of God or a military coup, the centre-right Coalition will convincingly defeat Labor in Saturday’s federal election and Tony Abbott will become Australia’s next Prime Minister. Keep the sharp objects away from the Economist’s editors, please.
Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia.