Gittins: Politicians behaving badly
When it comes to standards of political behaviour, our politicians seem locked in a race to the bottom. Ross Gittins comments.PT3M31S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-33egj 620 349 February 25, 2014
We are witnessing history being made. Unfortunately, it's a history-making decline in standards of political behaviour. At least it proves we're not merely imagining that things were better in the old days.
Tempting though it is, one of the things incoming governments don't do is delve into the affairs of their predecessor. The papers of the old government aren't made available to the new masters. But all that is out the window with the Abbott government's decision to establish a royal commission into the Rudd government's handling of the home insulation program and provide it with Labor's cabinet documents.
"The sad truth is that, for politicians as for most of us, the moral compass that guides us asks: what's everyone else doing?" Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It takes innocence greater than I can muster to believe the motive for the inquiry is to bring justice to the program's victims rather than to embarrass the Coalition's political opponents by raking over one of their more celebrated stuff-ups.
Labor can take its lumps. The real pity is that a long standing convention seeking to limit political vindictiveness has been cast aside. One thing we can be sure of is that when next Labor returns to power it will lose no time in retaliating, as will that government's eventual Coalition successor. Advantage-seeking retaliation will become a bigger part of the political debate.
The man who set new lows in negativity and obstructionism in opposition is now taking us to new lows in government. In a more godly world, Labor would resist the temptation to sink to the level of misbehaviour set by its opponents, thus giving substance to its repeated claims of moral superiority. But so intense is the competition between the parties that this seems unlikely. Last week Bill Shorten promised to lead a constructive opposition and not oppose everything for the sake of it. It's a wonderful resolve - one which, if lived up to, many voters would find attractive - but I fear it's another take from Tony Abbott: almost tearful promises to sin no more, followed by an immediate resumption.
The great likelihood is that Labor in opposition will model its behaviour on Abbott in opposition, in conformity with that great moral precept: tit for tat. The sad truth is that, for politicians as for most of us, the moral compass that guides us asks: what's everyone else doing?
We take our ethics from our perception of the behaviour of those around us, particularly our competitors. We all see ourselves as more moral than the next person, but when challenged our defence is always: I'm no worse than he is. After all, he started it. Thus are our politicians locked in a race to the bottom. Rather than trying to counter our fear of foreigners, politicians have preferred to pander to it, vying to be the side whose mistreatment of asylum seekers goes so far it discourages any more from coming - all intended to dissuade them from risking their lives on a dangerous sea voyage, naturally.
So far have our standards sunk that we must now suffer the indignity of being lectured on human rights by the Chinese government.
Declining standards at federal level have been matched by bad behaviour at state level. For an example of state politicians willing to blatantly mislead their electorates, look no further than the Victorian and NSW governments' dishonest explanation for the looming jump of about 25 per cent in the price of household gas.
The true reason for the rise is that the building of natural gas liquefaction plants in Gladstone will soon allow gas producers on Australia's east coast to export their gas and obtain the much higher prices paid on the world market. The east coast will go from being outside the world market to inside it.
The price rise is thus inevitable unless governments were to prohibit the companies from exporting their gas, forcing them to continue accepting below-world prices. There has been no suggestion of penalising the gas producers in this way. Rather, state politicians have taken up the dishonest claim of the gas companies that permitting them to build new and controversial coal seam gas plants would somehow prevent gas prices from rising or force them back down. But as any student of economics could tell you, there's no way NSW and Victoria could ever produce enough natural gas to significantly affect the world price of gas.
The price of gas in NSW and Victoria would stay below the world price only if the new producers were compelled to sell their gas to local users at below the world price. Again, there's been no suggestion of this.
Last week the gas companies' illogical argument was taken up by the new NSW Minister for Energy and Resources, Anthony Roberts.
I'm prepared to believe Roberts may be economically illiterate, but I don't believe his advisers are - nor that they don't read the papers, where the scam has been exposed.
Although Roberts has replaced a minister who left the cabinet under a cloud, he seems uninhibited in his efforts to mislead the electorate.
It's hard to know whether he is simply seeking to advance the gas industry's vested interests or is setting up an alibi which allows the government to blame the inevitable jump in gas prices on those terrible people opposed to fracking.
Either way, his only crime is seeking to deceive voters. And these days that's the way everyone plays the political game, isn't it?
Ross Gittins is economics editor.