Features | Politics | Oceania

Australian Election Special

The Diplomat speaks with John Roskam, head of the Institute of Public Affairs, about immigration, climate change and taxes.

What do you see as the key issues the upcoming election will be fought over?

I think there are two things. The first is the general issue of competence to run the Government and the question of who’s the best personality to be prime minister—their general attitudes to the economy and to foreign affairs. There’s a general theme of personality and trust.

Then I think the specific issues are certainly about industrial relations, climate change, economic management and, of course, asylum seekers. In addition, the fifth issue with the way our marginal seats are structured means there are actually many local campaigns and factors at play. So what usually happens in Australian elections is that there’s no such thing as a universal swing across the country. The Government might lose some very safe seats and hold on to some more marginal seats, so usually the swing is very uneven and difficult to predict.

A big issue over the last few years has been waste, mismanagement and government spending, and certainly the Opposition is presenting an argument that it can be trusted more and is more competent. So it’s not a question of necessarily the Opposition promising to do anything different, but more of the Opposition promising to do things better.

In that regard, the comment has been made that even though we’re only a few days into the election campaign, there actually aren’t many policy differences between the parties. So, to some extent, it’s going to be about who is the leader they trust.

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So the question for the current prime minister is, is she trustworthy as there’s the question of how she got to the role—by overthrowing her predecessor. Questions for Tony Abbott are: is he seen to be too Catholic? Is he too conservative? And will these things influence his policies if he wins the election?

There appears to be wide agreement that the budget deficit needs to be tackled. What do you think the next government needs to do about this?


The next government has a couple of challenges. One challenge is that there’s potential for a double-dip economic recession, and this is going to be a threat to the global recovery and to Australia’s recovery. Second, there are inflation pressures, because the resources part of the economy is still relatively strong, so you’re going to have the Reserve Bank contemplating perhaps increasing interest rates in the short term.

No party has promised swingeing cuts in expenditure. What both parties have basically promised is that as the economy grows, the government will grow at a relatively slower rate. But so far most of those promises are reasonably ill-defined, as you’d expect them to be, given that we’re only a few days into the campaign.

So you would expect the size of government to grow, regardless of who comes to power?


I think on every indication the size of government in Australia has grown over the last 50 years and every indication is that it will continue to grow. And related to that is that the federal government will have more and more responsibility for issues that are the responsibility of state governments. There’ll be an increasing centralisation to Canberra.

What about the recent Henry tax review, which included changes to resource rent tax on the mining sector and tax reform for small businesses among other things. How should the next Government take that into account?


The response to the Henry tax review depends on which side of politics wins. If the current government returns, then you might see more of an effort to try and reduce the corporate tax rate and to try and manage the ageing population and have measures to have people maintain their position in the workforce for longer.

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If the Opposition wins, then I think the status of the Henry tax review is very uncertain because a key element of the review was the assumption that the government would keep on growing. So the status is very unclear, and there’s a chance that most of it would get thrown in the bin.

What do you make about the current state of the debate over immigration policy in Australia?


This is a key question. The immigration debate in Australia is tied up to the question of population policy and asylum seekers, so I see it as three interconnected strands. The point about population policy in Australia is that there has always been bipartisan support for a relatively high level of migration into the country, and that’s been relatively uncontroversial for 50 years.

Even though the number of asylum seekers is relatively small compared to the total number of those emigrating to Australia, the government’s perceived lack of ability to control who is coming to Australia is now a political issue and is getting people to question not just our processing of asylum seekers, but our entire process of how we handle refugees.

This is connected to the problem of how we manage growing cities, infrastructure strain, environmental strain, lack of water, how the population will be supplied with power and other things. At the moment, it seems that both parties have in some sense repudiated their previous positions. Of course, the Coalition supported very high migration levels when it was in government, and until a few weeks ago the Labor Party supported what it called its ‘Big Australia’ policy. This has now changed. The differences about population policy I think are more at the margins as both parties are rushing to the middle to manage community concerns about population.

It seems little progress is being made on the Timor-Leste offshore processing centre.

This has been bungled by the prime minister. The government, having been very critical of John Howard’s Pacific Solution, couldn’t then reinstate this, so they had to invent the Timor solution, which in practical terms was very similar to that of the Howard government, but in political terms had to be presented as entirely different. So to most of the public there’s not much difference between the government’s position and the Opposition’s position. The government attempts to portray itself as more humane, but the practical difference I’d argue is reasonably minimal.


Is offshore processing a workable solution, or is there a better strategy?


Offshore processing avoids the central issue which Australians are reluctant to face up to, which is how many unauthorised arrivals can Australia manage. Australians have still not dealt with the nub issue of whether: if you come to Australia and if you are a legitimate refugee then therefore you can stay. And there are many more legitimate refugees in the world than the Australian public will tolerate being settled in the country.

The question is, what do we do when we realise that there are many more people who want to come here than can be accommodated? So offshore processing is basically avoiding this very difficult question. It also avoids the question of why these people aren’t being processed in Australia if we accept they are legitimate refugees.

So I think to some extent the political system is dancing around the question, and I think the more honest solutions on both sides of the debate are either those who say, ‘Well, if you come here and you’re legitimate then you can stay regardless of the numbers’, or those who say, ‘If you come here you’ll be sent back home even though this might violate our treaty obligations.’

What are the most recent developments in the debate on environmental policy, and what sort of policy do you think would be in Australia’s best interests?

Well, the problem is that in Australia there’s still a strong division between those who believe climate change is man-made and the climate change sceptics. There’s still the problem that Australia has said it would proceed unilaterally with an emissions trading scheme (ETS), regardless of what the rest of the world is doing, and of course the Labor Party is still committed to this.

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The Opposition has promised a policy of what it calls ‘direct action’, which is effectively trying to reduce carbon emissions without imposing a carbon tax or price increases on carbon. The view of the IPA is that both the government and Opposition policies are foolhardy, given that Australia is a negligible contributor to world emissions and Australia has a very energy-dependent industry, and anything Australia does will be pretty negligible in the world scheme of things.

But it seems the public is still demanding climate change action, whether it’s through an emissions trading scheme or something else. You have to say that every indication is that Australia will get a carbon tax rather than an ETS, because some sort of tax is much simpler and easier to administer.

The disadvantages of such a unilateral policy to reduce emissions would be that significant industry would move offshore, and it would mean that jobs would be lost and energy prices would be significantly higher, which would flow through the rest of the economy. This is, of course, the reason why Kevin Rudd delayed the introduction of an ETS. And of course there’s some part of the electorate that would like that to occur, regardless of the economic consequences. But our political leaders realise that the consequences of doing so into the medium term could be very substantial.

What do you make of the urban-rural divide in Australia? Is this a pressing concern that the next government will have to address?


I think the ‘urban-rural divide’ is more a question of those in rural and regional areas seeking access to the same sorts of services that people in the city get. I think the situation in Australia is not so much of divide but one of making sure there’s equity in services.

There’s an emerging debate about decentralisation in Australia and stopping big cities growing, and having more people living in remote and rural areas, but that is a situation that I think is going to take some years to develop. The situation of the rural divide is one that I think relates to attitudes to refugees, to climate change, and so on. I think it’s more about a change in perceptions rather than a factor of concern to the Australian electorate. Compared to the United States, the proportion of people living in rural areas is significantly smaller, so this has nowhere near the same impact.

How much of a debate do you expect over Australia’s place in the world, and over the international role a power like Australia should be playing?

I think the questions of foreign policy during federal elections are of concern to the policy elites. At the moment, the only impact of foreign policy questions will be connected to those about asylum seekers and refugees.

Many of Kevin Rudd's initiatives that he pursued in relation to the Asian region, for example, have been barely noticed by the electorate. Most people would be unaware of Rudd’s desire for Australia to get a seat on the UN Security Council. A more critical approach to Israel I think some Australians would be aware of, but again for most of them it would barely register.

I think Australians understand that Asia, especially China, is very important to Australia’s economic well-being. I think many Australians would understand that China has received the bulk of attention of foreign policymakers, compared to Indonesia, Japan, India or South Korea. I think people would also understand that India is increasingly becoming a significant player. But again, all of these things are at the margin. You wouldn’t expect foreign policy to be a major issue at the election. Also, the main contours of foreign policy are basically unchanged. So, by and large the United States is seen as a key ally by the two major parties. The Labor Party is also usually perceived traditionally to be weaker on foreign policy, so they will try and stick firmly to the centre.

What do you make of Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat?


From my personal perspective it was a waste of time—it was grandiose grandstanding by Kevin Rudd to basically appease his own personal desires. What it would have required is Australia to make too many bargains against its own self-interests. It would have required Australia to perhaps be weak in our strong stance on human rights, and it would have required Australia to perhaps start distancing itself from the US alliance, in order to appease countries in Africa and Asia. So I think it was always a folly and I’d be surprised if Prime Minister Gillard pursued it with the same intensity that Kevin Rudd did.

Interview by Jenghiz von Streng.