HISTORY shows that Tasmanians are always prepared to give a new government the benefit of the doubt. But people lose patience when they see any government overstress politics ahead of policy, particularly if it puts at risk funding for basic services, such as millions of dollars of Commonwealth road funding to Tasmanian councils.
Perhaps this is why the Abbott Government’s honeymoon period has been shorter than a Scott Morrison speech on human rights.
Tony Abbott came to power with a plan to win government but no plan to actually govern. His policy agenda went no further than dismantling the gains of the previous Rudd and Gillard governments. Because it lacked its own policy reform plans, the Government has been defined by either its ideological prejudices or crude political manoeuvring.
A stunning example of the folly of this approach is the way Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss has mishandled the $2.1 billion Roads to Recovery scheme, under which the Commonwealth provides grants to councils for spending on local roads.
Mr Truss’s incompetence has thrown the program, which delivers Tasmania a share of $350 million a year, into limbo – all because of needless politicking.
As a result, councils face the prospect of not receiving grants or having them delayed, putting their own budgets in doubt.
It is to the Coalition’s credit that it introduced the popular scheme during the Howard era. The previous Labor government in 2013 increased funding for Roads to Recovery for the following four years.
Technical legislation to continue the awarding of the grants was expected by June 30 this year. This should have been straight forward.
Given the bipartisan support for the scheme, all Mr Truss needed to do was amend existing legislation to allow the scheme to continue beyond June 30.
He would have had Labor’s backing as a matter of course. But it was at this point Mr Truss fell into the trap of putting politics ahead of basic administration.
In February, Mr Truss sought to politicise the issue by rolling Roads to Recovery into a broader piece of legislation called the Land Transport Amendment Bill.
This Bill’s prime purpose seemed to be to expunge the term “Nation Building” from government programs and avoid any accountability in infrastructure investment decisions by the Abbott Government.
Mr Truss then led a campaign by Coalition MPs in rural and regional electorates to shower their local media outlets with the claim that Labor was trying to kill off Roads to Recovery because it wanted to amend his Land Transport Infrastructure Act.
All Labor was attempting to do was amend the legislation to hold the Coalition to its election commitments on transparency in major infrastructure investments.
Mr Truss was being too clever by half. His whole tactical focus was on attempting to create a rhetorical stick with which to beat Labor in rural and regional Australia.
He should have been addressing the practicality of whether Roads to Recovery would continue.
In the process, he needlessly frightened councils across Tasmania.
Mr Truss’s tactics highlight the way in which politicking can get in the way of the actual business of government.
The irony is that despite all of the scaremongering, Mr Truss failed to actually submit his Land Transport Amendment Bill to the Senate ahead of the June 30 deadline, even though it passed the House of Representatives five months ago. Nor did the Senate devote a single minute to this legislation when it had the extraordinary two-week additional sitting in July.
Preoccupied with criticising Labor, the Government actually fell asleep at the administrative wheel.
Warren Truss was more interested in the politics than in actually doing his job.
But if Mr Truss does not want to do his job, Labor is happy to help him out.
When Parliament resumes next month, Labor will seek to bring on debate of a Private Member’s Bill I have submitted, which would amend existing legislation to extend Roads to Recovery. I would expect the Government to support the Bill.
The lesson for the Coalition here is that having won the privilege to govern this country, it needs to actually govern.
Anthony Albanese is the Federal Opposition spokesman for Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
This piece appeared in the Hobart Mercury today.