Should Rudd be trusted to regulate his political opponents?

What is going on in Kevin Rudd’s mind? The decision to spend $38 million of borrowed money promoting the government’s mining ‘superprofits’ tax will surely create more problems than it solves.

For a start, it is not clear that it will have much impact over and above the arguments and assertions the government is already presenting in the normal way. Despite the millions spent by the mining lobby, and the Opposition’s stance presumably helping bring Coalition partisans on side, the Morgan Poll suggests that public opinion has moved the government’s way over the last couple of weeks.

The millions spent by the previous government on its WorkChoices campaign had no discernible effect on public opinion. While admittedly industrial relations is a bit different, in that there are long-established public beliefs on the subject, it is a warning that simply spending a lot of money does not guarantee that views will change.

Against the quite possibly small or non-existent mining tax political gains had to be weighed the risk that this decision would contribute to a far more dangerous political problem for the government than recalcitrant miners, the perception that Rudd is a promise breaker or worse. The kind of shameless hypocrisy on display here seems to be a larger failure of character than deciding that circumstances have changed and a past promise either cannot or should not be fulfilled.

Certainly the media reaction to this decision has been harsh, with TV news services replaying Rudd’s previous strong criticisms of exactly the kind of practice he is now engaging in.

To me, it also highlights the serious dangers involved in the government proposing to regulate third party political activity. While they plan to use statutes to regulate and reduce their political opponents’ campaign spending, we now know that the guidelines purporting to regulate government-financed campaigns have loopholes so large as to make them near useless.

As this latest government political advertising scandal demonstrates, no government can be trusted on these matters, and they should not be allowed to regulate the political activities of their other-party or third-party opponents.

24 thoughts on “Should Rudd be trusted to regulate his political opponents?

  1. Here here!
    And speaking of threats to libetarism, the I-slam cult is at it again. See those articles that they want to legalise Female Genital mutilation. What a disgrace! Yep, biggest threat to liberty – even more so than the Rudd government.

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  2. It was very odd of them. I thought Ken Henry pretty much did the best job of killing the arguments of the mining guys that they could hope for (and got heaps of publicity — especially for the silly claim, that is essentially totally unrelated to the real issue, that the mining industry was responsible for getting Australia through the recession — an own goal for the mining industry it seems). Surely the best move would have been for Krudd and co. to shut up after that and say they trust the RBA rather than find loop holes to contradict what they recommend.

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  3. The recession claim is beside the point, but I thought Tim Colebatch did a good debunking of Ken Henry on that point:

    “…he kicked one own goal, claiming that, far from the mining industry ”saving Australia from recession”, the truth was the reverse: mining had ”quite a deep recession”, yet Australia had none. Mining shed 15 per cent of its employees, he said.

    Bunk. The seasonally adjusted jobs figures are not reliable at that level. They show that mining jobs rose 30 per cent in the last nine months of 2008, then shrank 15 per cent in six months, then rose another 15 per cent. How can anyone believe that – when the national accounts show mining output in 2009 was basically flat, with at most a brief fall of 1.2 per cent?””

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  4. Andrew, while I agree that it may prove bad news for Labour to break yet another Rudd promise, the current ads that I have seen are meant to offer a counter-foil to the ridiculousy one-sided criticism of Miners and the Opposition (both directly or indirectly funded by the mineral industry). A bit of balance is needed. But you are right it is a long chance.

    The point of Henry is to accept the seasonally adjusted figures – which sound very credible, given the big decline in commodity prices over that period.

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  5. Fred – An interesting point here. Few issues, it seems to me, are contests between sides with matched resources. But in this case both sides did before last week’s announcement each have the resources to have their basic points heard. The mining industry resorted to advertising because unlike the government it does not have routine opportunities to present its case to the broader public. Most Australians could not name the CEOs of any of the major mining companies. The government also has the advantage of the Labor base and a perception that well, the mining industry would say that, wouldn’t they. I don’t think the contest in this case was that uneven.

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  6. Surely $38 million is a drop in the bucket compared to how much Howard spent on ads countering the ACTU’s ads against Workchoices?

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  7. Yes, but beside the point here – Howard did not promise not to waste money in this way, while Rudd did so in extravagant terms.

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  8. I agree with you Andrew. This is an extremely cynical exercise. As much as with the ETS backdown, the commentariat feels manipulated by Rudd and this will be reflected in the public’s response, or at least in the media’s characterisation of the public’s impression of Rudd. Whatever amount Howard may have spent on policy advocacy cannot overcome the impression one takes from seeing the footage of Rudd from 2007 describing this type of advertising as a “cancer” on society and words to the effect that “every one of you (journalists) can hold me accountable for” putting the auditor-general in charge of government advertising. Is there a single thing Rudd says that can be believed?
    Incidentally, I think the 20 (or 22?) economists should have stayed out of the RSPT debate. They should have learned from the ETS that the public does not like to be told what is good for them by technocrats or wannabe politicians.

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  9. Fred;

    So let me get this right, according to you the circumstances dictate the government’s action and that prior promises have no real bearing.

    Good to know for next time.

    Would I be right is saying that you had no real problems with Howard’s decision to advertise the pros on behalf of work-choices?

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  10. Andrew and JC, I need to explain what I am saying.

    First, like Andrew, I do NOT approve of the Government’s decision to advertise the mineral resource tax – because it not morally justified, given Rudd’s firm committment against it.

    Secondly, that said, I believe there much merit in offering a more balanced perspective on the distorted Mining-Opposition stance. But it must be done some other way (including paid advertising)

    Thirdly, I equally disagree with the Howard Government decision to introduce WorkChoice into legislation without any prior warning that he had that in mind – and then proceeded to justify its introduction by intensive advertising before the election.

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  11. Fred:

    He promised he wouldn’t do such a thing, calling it a cancer on the political fabric of the nation.

    The minute he’s in a tight corner out the window goes the promise.

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  12. This puts it into perspective. Basically, Rudd is seeking to negate the miners rather than necessarily to win hearts & minds. Remember, Rudd is the incumbent: all he needs to do is muddy the waters and he gets the benefit of the doubt. Painting the Liberals as stooges is a bonus.
    Rudd’s 2006 articles in ‘The Monthly’ were aimed at rallying Labor voters and this round of ads are designed for the same purpose: Labor voters appreciate the message and overlook the public funding, Liberal voters oppose anything Rudd does anyway, and any opposition to public funding is lost in the partisan noise. Howard’s mistake was to run ads aimed at a middle ground, which resents partisan advertising: the target audience resented the message. Rudd does not face an Opposition Leader who can credibly claim that he’s above publicly-funded partisan advertising: either of Abbott’s two predecessors could have.

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  13. Andrew E – Though the ads I’ve seen don’t seem especially designed to do this; though the goal is to attack the miners they read like a public servant wrote them. To my mind, it makes it less likely that this political gamble will pay off.

    There are two negatives here, general public opposition to taxpayer-funded propaganda – which will get a few grumbles but no more (such as over the health reforms) and as you say give no reason to think the government is worse than the alternative, and a far more serious problem of loss of personal trust in Rudd. If this was the first back-flip it would not matter much. But now it is feeding into an impression that will be hard to undo.

    Lost personal trust and bungled programs are now the two lines of criticism that will probably bring Rudd down as leader. The latter are to date mainly due to massive and hasty spending programs aimed at averting a recession, so are perhaps the price to be paid for Rudd’s main perceived success to date. The former owe a lot to inflated expectations created by Rudd in the 2007 campaign, and with many more disappointment to come the lesson is keep promises modest.

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  14. My kneejerk reaction is to criticise government advertising, but on further reflection I think there is something in Fred’s arguments, and that in fact one may be able to go further that Fred. From parallel import restrictions on books to tariffs on textiles to the mining rents tax, there is a range of economic reforms with diffuse winners and concentrated losers. The political calculus sees the losers’ interests being elevated unduly over the winners’.

    Recognising this, is there not a public interest (that would be unfunded via private incentives, due to coordination costs and free rider problems) in countering the disinformation campaigns of the losers? Now, I don’t pretend that the glib ads being put out by the government at present* in this case are appropriate, but in principle one can surely see a role for the expenditure of public money on such campaigns.

    ___

    * When I hear ‘fairer and simpler’ in a pleasant female voice, I know its going to be little more than spin.

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  15. What disinformation campaigns, Tom N? Is that code for things you don’t like?

    Can you offer up one explicit lie by the miners advertising. One is enough.

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  16. True, Andrew, though with such campaigns, maybepervious welfare-enhancing reforms would have been implemented sooner, and some of those at the political margin that have to date been thwarted (eg books) would have got up.
    ___
    PS: Yes, JC, although as you’re rarely interested in little more than childish point scoring, I do not intend to do you the dignity.

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  17. That’s not right, Tom. I am genuinely interested in knowing exactly what the miners have said that would be considered a lie by a reasonable person and not a rusted on ALP supporter.

    By supporting Fred you also made the claim that Rudd had to break his promise to correct the record of disinformation, so if it exists please tell us what disinformation needs to be corrected.

    I have not attacked you views here as I’m genuinely interested in getting an answer.

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  18. Tom – Maybe, but legitimising a propaganda state that can outspend any organisation in civil society – even very rich interest groups like the unions or miners – seems to be a dangerous move.

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  19. JC, just read Ross Gittins in the SMH yesterday.

    He has frequently attacked Rudd – yet he now points to three big “lies” told by miners. First, their view that the planned increase to a more efficient super profits tax is not a significant attempt at microeconomic reform, Secondly, that the new resource tax would greatly increase sovereign risk (contrary to what the term usually means). And thirdly, that a resources tax involves a form of retrospectivity (which it does not).

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  20. I don’t disagree Andrew, so one would want to think hard about what kind of triggers, institutional arrangements, checks and balances would be required before supporting a particular proposal.

    At present, of course, we don’t have any and so we get the fluff currently coming out of Canberra. Given that the game’s being played (and will most likely continue to be played), and also that one can come up with an ‘in principle’ case for the game being played properly, its possibly worth someone’s time thinking harder about the conditions under which such campaigns might be warranted.

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  21. Sorry Fred,

    I disagree. All those points are valid as far as i can determine.

    Tom, I’m still waiting for you to present the disinformation miners are advertising. I take it your silence is an admission.

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  22. Tom,

    In order to refine the point I’m making, you need to show why the ALP government was arranging advertising deals two weeks before anyone knew about tax and how you reconcile that with the disinformation campaign you suggests exists… two weeks before the announcement.

    Please don’t answer unless you feel you can, as I’m not forcing you to.

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