Australian federal political debate has been a policy-free zone for the last few years. Oh, there’s been plenty of policy being developed and implemented, and some of it has been good. But political discourse has been all but divorced from it. The 2010 federal election campaign was entirely divorced from anything resembling comprehensive policies, as evidenced by the Liberal Party’s excreable “action contract” and Labor’s craptacular (and never implemented cash for clunkers scheme. The bipartisan consensus seems to be that detailed policy development is a job for the beauraucrats, to be done once you’ve gotten into government. The process of getting in to government is about press releases and soundbites; detailed policies are actively counterproductive. Dream up a couple of things to spend money on that sound good, sure – Ted Baillieu had security guards at train stations – and that’ll do. For all the criticism they get for being flakes, the Greens put out much more detailed and comprehensive policies than the Opposition bothered with in 2010.
So it was frankly quite strange to read Victorian Labor’s Plan for Jobs and Growth. An Opposition, putting out a lengthy policy document, two years before the election? And, in the main, it’s not bad stuff either. If you’re the one remaining socialist in the Labor Party, you’ll be disappointed – it’s about as radical as an opera company putting on a season of Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi. There’s overblown rhetoric about the failings of the Baillieu government, and the odd bit of populist pandering (the section about local procurement, for instance). And it seems that the obsession with budget surpluses will continue under an Andrews government, should one occur.
But there’s also a fair bit of thought of the role state governments play in the economy, identifying some areas where both the Baillieu and (in some cases, and implicitly) the Bracks/Brumby governments have had weaknesses, and making plausible, coherent proposals to address some of these. And not just the exciting stuff like proposing to build infrastructure, or restore funding to vocational education (utterly necessary as that is); boring, systemic question like how do you improve the process for deciding what to build, and manage major infrastructure projects better.
But more than the specifics of the policies, the fact that this document even exists is a good sign for the basic competence of a Daniel Andrews-led Victorian Labor government, and a style of politics that we could do with a lot more of – political parties actually thinking through the issues currently exercising the electorate’s mind, putting together a serious plan to address those issues, and being prepared to stand up and argue for the merits of their plan. And they might well be a better government for doing some solid thinking beforehand, too.
It’s a long way off, and who knows what the next two years and especially the election campaign will bring. But maybe, just maybe, we might be seeing a major party try and win an election from opposition based on some degree of policy substance. We can only hope.