Tuesday 23rd of December 2014

jekyll & all hide ....

jekyll & all hide ....

The Coalition has been telling us for a year or more now that they have all their costed election policies in the can.

''By the end of next week we'll have the policies for an election campaign,'' the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said last June on the ABC's Q&A.

At every public appearance, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, tells us he has a ''real plan'' and ''real solutions'' ready and fully costed and raring to go.

And indeed private conversations with opposition members indicate they have been hard at work on developing policies that will be released over time.

But the draft discussion paper on northern Australia leaked this week suggests at least some Coalition policy ideas remain unreal, unthought through and decidedly half-baked.

Several ideas in the developing northern Australia discussion paper were ditched by Abbott almost as soon as they saw the light of day - including different taxation zones (which he conceded was likely to be unconstitutional, the same reason John Howard and Peter Costello rejected it on every one of the many, many occasions it was raised by the Nationals during the Coalition's last term) and the idea of cutting the aid budget by $800 million to pay for new medical facilities in the north.

The Coalition also immediately jettisoned the proposed ''first term initiative'' of moving federal departments to northern Australia. As the government quickly pointed out, many public servants responsible for policy delivery already lived outside Canberra. Presumably the ones advising future Coalition ministers would need to stay within earshot in the national capital.

And since the Coalition is planning major savings from cuts to the public service and sweeping changes to the way it does things, spending money moving people and departments around the country could run a little bit counter to the plan.

If these ideas were so obviously out of the question, it is unclear why they were included in a document sent by the opposition finance spokesman to premiers just last month, and included on the list of things the Coalition ''proposes to do'' in its first term.

And the ideas left on the table by Abbott raise even more questions.

Personal tax rebates to lure workers to remote regions were not judged important enough by the Coalition to rate a mention in the regional development policy it took to the last election.

But they did get a look in during the desperate days after the 2010 poll when Abbott was trying to convince the independents to support him to form government.

In letters to Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, Abbott promised to trial personal tax rebates of $10,000 a year in five local government areas, with a review after two years.

The leaked policy refers only to a ''review'' of relocation and personal tax incentives, but Abbott pointed to the 2010 post-election promises as an indication of what he had in mind.

At the time, the Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce said the trial would cost about $100 million a year.

Since mining companies are already paying as much as $150,000 in bonuses and incentives for workers to move to remote towns, as well as high salaries, and still cannot attract enough skilled staff, it is likely a tax rebate might have to be considerably bigger to have the desired effect. Whether it would have any effect at all in Cairns and the far north, where unemployment is running at twice the national average, is also uncertain.

Nor is it obvious why the Coalition would be paying hundreds of millions of dollars to attract workers to places such as Karratha - which thanks to the mining boom are going gangbusters - rather than to places in Tasmania or South Australia or Victoria struggling in the nation's economic slow lane.

And the whole policy of government intervention and spending to change the market-driven patterns of economic development sits strangely alongside the Coalition's self-professed ''principle'' for all its policies, to ''wind back the nanny state''.

It is clear, however, that the ''visionary'' document aligns almost exactly with the manifesto of the mining magnate Gina Rinehart and others who have formed a lobby group called Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision.

Coalition sources confirmed the proposed review of immigration policy would look at using it to find more workers for remote mining and farming regions, similar to an expanded system of 457 visas for temporary workers and the prospect of fast-tracked permanent residency for skilled migrants settled in the far north.

The director of the ''north Australia'' project at the Institute of Public Affairs, Dominic Talimanidis, says addressing labour shortages and ''heavily inflated wages costs'' is crucial for northern Australia to ''reach its full potential''.

''If the north is to reach its full potential, we need to facilitate an increase in domestic migration and a more workable scheme for allowing skilled international migrants to fill the areas where a deficiency exists. Bringing inflated wage rate in the resource sector down to internationally competitive levels will allow more projects to go ahead and increase national prosperity,'' he says.

Most politicians would want to encourage the development of the mineral and farming riches in northern Australia. Labor's Asian century white paper was full of similar long-term dreams.

Australians might indeed want to see some brave policy vision and instead of sending out almost a dozen ministers to ridicule the Coalition plan, Labor might have been better advised to explain its deficiencies.

Most sensible politicians would remember that many previous attempts at decentralisation and developmentalism - Gough Whitlam's dreams for Albury Wodonga and Paul Keating's ill-fated ''multifunction-polis'' idea - came to not much at all.

And it's hard to argue you have a finalised plan when you are still asking for input on half-thought through draft discussion papers.

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