Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow

If the ‘greatest moral and economic challenge of our generation’ can wait until 2013 at the earliest, along with the savings required to repair our tattered budget, what chance does the rest of Kevin Rudd’s overloaded COAG reform agenda have?

After two and half years of this government, Australians can now clearly see Mr Rudd’s modus operandi: if it’s A. hard, B. unpopular or C. all of the above; leave it for another day.

His decision to shelve his much-vaunted emissions trading scheme (ETS) and abandon his quest to personally save the world from global warming comes as no surprise as he consistently demonstrates to the Australian people that he prefers to take the easy road.

And Mr Rudd was true to form with his underwhelming response to the Henry Tax Review, adopting just four of 128 recommendations to reform our tax system and leaving the rest until after the next election. The centrepiece of his tax ‘reform’ was a great big new tax on the mining industry to pay for his government’s wasteful spending on ‘economic stimulus’ like school halls that were meant to have saved us from a recession in 2008 – even though 83 per cent of them haven’t even been built!

The Rudd Government clearly doesn’t have the courage to make the tough decisions that the Coalition made when paying down $96 billion of Labor debt.

The ‘buy now – pay later’ approach can only work for so long, because someone eventually has to pick up the tab.

And so back to the COAG productivity reform agenda that has been put off until the never-never due to Mr Rudd’s notoriously short attention span. 

I have written before about COAG productivity reforms like the establishment of a national heavy vehicle regulator that could unlock $2.4 billion in national income. This is being held up indefinitely because NSW and Victoria can’t agree on something as simple as the width of trucks that can cross each other’s borders.

Why doesn’t Mr Rudd demonstrate a bit of co-operative federalism by stepping in and reminding the premiers of Victoria and NSW that their intransigence over a 50 centimetre difference in truck widths is costing the nation billions of dollars?

The only problem with a common sense approach like that is that trucks just don’t make good television news footage. For someone who operates more like a state Labor premier than a prime minister, sitting in the cabin of a big rig isn’t going to have the same impact as sitting on some poor unsuspecting patient’s hospital bed.

Then there is the National Partnership on Remote Indigenous Housing, which is to be renegotiated at COAG as a matter of priority after millions were spent on administration without one new house being built and repairs to existing houses cost three times as much as they should have. If this issue was discussed at the April COAG meeting, it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the aftermath.

Another issue that has gone off the radar is the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women. COAG is due to revisit this in the first half of this year, but again, more silence. Expect to see a program rolled out when another of the government’s ill-thought out policies fails some time in the future.

And the National Strategy on Binge Drinking has stalled while the PM tries to pass off another tax grab on cigarettes as a health measure.

These are all important national reforms that the community, business and industry are all expecting to be actioned.

However, if Mr Rudd’s capitulation on climate change and squeamishness towards debt reduction is anything to go by, they would be well-advised not to hold their breath.

Published on on 8 May 2010.