18 Dec. 2006

Sniffing Butts

IF John Howard wanted to write an Op-Ed dissing Kevin Rudd, where do you think it would be published? That's right: The Murdochian. I am reprinting it here in full so that you don't have to actually visit Rupert's site:
John Howard: Kevin Rudd is wrong, I'm no market zealot

* Far from fostering selfish individualism in our society, the federal Government has balanced economic reforms with care for the vulnerable, argues the Prime Minister
* December 18, 2006

IN the past two weeks I have listened carefully to the charges levelled against the Government by the new Labor Leader, Kevin Rudd. Unable to mount a coherent attack on our economic record, he has fallen back on the claim that we have made Australia a less fair society.

What is interesting is that, having promised a new style of Labor leadership, Kevin Rudd has adopted the same basic approach as every one of his predecessors since 1996. The same crude demonisation of the Government on grounds of fairness. The same hyperbolic overreach. The same absence of solid facts and coherent argument.

The Opposition Leader's rhetorical device of choice is the Straw Man. He conjures up a bogus image before proceeding to knock it down.

He has invested heavily in the charge that I am an extremist and a market fundamentalist. Indeed he goes further, accusing the Government of fostering an ethos of selfishness in the Australian community ("Me, Myself, I") to the detriment of the common good.

Is that it?

Of course I believe in a strong, dynamic market economy. I believe in it because it is a foundation of a good and decent society.

I also believe in ongoing economic reform. Without it, Australia will fall behind. That is why we pursued generational reform of our taxation and workplace relations systems - both of which were bitterly opposed by Labor. In the process, however, we have balanced market-based reforms with care for the vulnerable.

In a speech to ACOSS as Opposition Leader in October 1995, I committed the Coalition to a fair society in government and we've kept faith with that commitment.

With unemployment at 4.6 per cent, Australia today is closer to full employment than it has been for decades. Whether or not someone has a job is still the single biggest determinant of social disadvantage in Australia. More than 1.9 million new jobs have been created since the Coalition was elected, almost 200,000 since March this year when Work Choices was introduced.

Especially pleasing is that we have seen a pick up in employment and labour force participation from groups that have long been among the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, including lower skilled, older men. These are people Labor had basically given up on after the "recession we had to have" in the early 1990s.

Working Australians have enjoyed higher wages in the past decade. Average real wages have risen by 17.9 per cent since March 1996, compared with a fall of 1.7 per cent under the previous Labor Government. The federal minimum wage is up 11.9 per cent in real terms since we came to office.

The Government's record on fairness begins with more jobs and higher wages, but it does not end there.

Through a range of initiatives, we have ensured that the fruits of greater prosperity are shared throughout the community. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, low and middle-income households have seen their real disposable incomes grow by more than 23 per cent between 1995-96 and 2003-04, a greater increase than for high-income households.

Our family tax benefit system has especially helped low and middle-income families with children. Together with payments such as the baby bonus and childcare subsidies, overall government support for families has more than doubled since 1996-97.

Pensioners and self-funded retirees have seen their living standards grow solidly since March 1996. Single and partnered pensions have risen by almost 20 per cent after inflation. As the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has documented, the bottom 60 per cent of households are net beneficiaries from government benefits and services.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development research confirms that Australia has one of the most progressive tax-transfer systems in the developed world, with a higher share of benefits going to the poorest 20 per cent of households than any other developed country.

How can that be the handiwork of a market zealot? Labor leader Rudd needs to reconcile his rhetoric about market fundamentalism with what the Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has described as the extraordinary progressivity of Australia's tax and benefit system.

Strong economic management has allowed Australia to maintain a strong social safety net and to significantly increase our investment in health and education.

Medicare has been strengthened, including through the Medicare Safety Net (opposed by Labor) which ensures individuals and families won't face crippling out-of-pocket health costs.

We have invested heavily in schools (government and non-government), while raising standards and increasing accountability. Far from being ideological, we are pragmatic and realistic about the need to mobilise public and private resources in health and education. This ensures a healthy balance between public and private provision of services.

Policies such as the private health insurance rebate and support for non-government schools are especially attractive to many low income earners. Why should only high income earners enjoy genuine choice?

Against determined opposition from the Labor Party, the Government has also pursued welfare reform based on the principle of mutual obligation. It is only right that those who draw on community support are obliged to do something in return. Passive welfare is not just the road to despair. It's also unfair to those whose taxes pay income support.

What about Rudd's other claim: that the Government has fostered selfish individualism in our society? Again, let's look at the facts.

The Government has worked with the private sector and community groups with on-the-ground knowledge in tackling a range of problems. I've called this our social coalition approach to issues as diverse as youth homelessness, early childhood development and drug abuse.

Survey after survey shows that far from drawing back into their own private worlds, Australians are volunteering their time and money more than ever before. Just look at the magnificent work of our bush firefighters in recent days.

Where Rudd sees rampant individualism, I see a society that doesn't wait for politicians to tell it to pitch in. Australia's heart has always been bigger than the size of its government.

That is as it should be. Our social contract is not something drawn up by technocrats in an inter-jurisdictional working committee. It is written on the hearts and minds of average Australians. And it is from them that my government is happy to take its lead.
Rudd says the attack shows that Howard does not like scrutiny.

Howard rejects the attack on the attack:
"I don't think anybody's policies in Australian public life over the last 10 years have been more heavily scrutinised than mine and I'm very happy for my economic record to be scrutinised."
At this stage of the campaign, the two dogs are just sniffing each others butts. There is a little gnarling of teeth, but it's basically getting-to-know-you formalities.

Let's hope the PM will deign to give his next Op-Ed to the ABC.*

*That's just a joke, obviously.