Short-term thinking is the greatest enemy of good government. Whether politicians are dealing with complex policy problems or trying to communicate with the electorate, it makes sense to establish a clear, long term narrative underpinned by forward-looking policies to deliver on its vision.
That’s my starting point as I consider what lessons the Labor party can draw from last year’s election loss. I accept the verdict of critics who say the Rudd and Gillard governments over-emphasised the 24-hour news cycle. We worried too much about the media, and that was a mistake.
However, I insist that Labor policies in areas like health, education, the environment and infrastructure development fitted squarely with the Labor tradition of long-term thinking. I also insist that our economic stimulus response to the global financial crisis was an action of which we, as a nation, can be proud.
The very best Labor governments in our nation’s history distinguished themselves by thinking big and, wherever possible, resisting the temptation to overemphasise short-term political considerations.
When Bob Hawke and Paul Keating took office in 1983, they set about implementing an economic reform agenda they knew would take years to put in place. They stuck to their long-term vision and delivered years of stunning economic growth. When Ben Chifley began building the Snowy Mountains Scheme, he was not only providing a critical economic stimulus for post-war reconstruction. He was nation building, investing in a way that would stimulate the economy of the day while adding to the national platform for future economic growth.
As contemporary Labor plots its political recovery, we must embrace and modernise the best of our tradition. While policies need constant updating, we must never abandon our commitment to long-term policy making rooted in our progressive principles.
There’s no better example than investing in roads, railway lines and ports. When Labor took office in 2007, our nation was burdened by a debilitating infrastructure deficit. Australia was ranked 20th out of 25 OECD countries for investment in infrastructure as a proportion of GDP. Who could forget the images of massive freighters lining up for days outside the nation’s ports because growth in exports had exceeded investment in those ports? Over Labor’s six years in office, we cleared the bottlenecks with record infrastructure investment which created tens of thousands of jobs. Indeed, by the time we left government, we had climbed from 20th to first in the OECD in infrastructure investment.
The work we did in upgrading 7,500km of roads, 4,000 km of railways track and crafting development strategies for aviation, ports and freight will continue to create jobs for years because they have are continuing to drive productivity gains. Increased productivity equals more jobs.
Labor also created Infrastructure Australia to audit and rank competing infrastructure priorities on the basis of their potential to add to national productivity. This created a system where the government could use Infrastructure Australia’s independent advice when making investment decisions. We did just that, investing in every single one of the 15 projects recommended by Infrastructure Australia as having the greatest potential to boost economic productivity.
Previously, in the absence of evidence-based decision making, governments were tempted to consider their political interests when spending on infrastructure, rather than the national interest. Disconnecting the long-term infrastructure investment cycle from the short-term political cycle was classic systemic reform for the benefit of the long-term. Regrettably, the current government is in the process of unwinding this critical reform.
Labor’s record investment in education was also geared to the future. Introducing a needs-based funding system for schools was about ensuring that all Australian children had access to a great education. But beyond that, it was about delivering a well-educated workforce for the future – one able to help drive the productivity gains needed to support an ageing population.
Then there is climate change – the ultimate in long-term thinking. Labor believes in sustainability. We believe in acting on climate change, not just talking about it. We see ourselves as having a responsibility to not simply pass on the cost of avoiding dangerous climate change to the next generation. We believe that anyone who seeks the privilege of governing this nation ought to see it as their duty to think in the long-term.
That’s one of the greatest divides in Australian political life. Labor looks to invest in the future. Our opponents tend to operate on a shorter timetable, offering their versions of solutions for today to secure power as an end in itself, not as a pathway to a better future.
The current government’s approach to public transport is an excellent example. Our cities are suffering from traffic congestion which urban planners agree requires greater investment in public transport, particularly better train services. They also require an integrated transport strategy, not one which excludes some modes of transport.
Projects like the Melbourne Metro and Brisbane’s Cross-River Rail have been identified by Infrastructure Australia as priority projects, and were funded in the 2013 budget. Taking the right decisions right now will pay off in the future, while making politically timid compromises will short-change the future. The same can be said for long-standing proposals for a high-speed rail linking Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra. The high speed rail study showed a positive economic benefit of $2.30 for every dollar invested. It makes sense to secure the corridor now, before it is consumed by urban sprawl and made unviable.
My private member’s bill currently before the parliament would do just that, creating a high speed rail authority to co-ordinate action across government jurisdictions and engage with the private sector.
That’s long-term thinking.