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Dec 11, 2009

The Coalition's populism could have dangerous economic consequences

While Tony Abbott’s grave misjudgement in elevating Barnaby Joyce to a position of economic responsibility in the Opposition is already becoming apparent – along with its dangers fo

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While Tony Abbott’s grave misjudgement in elevating Barnaby Joyce to a position of economic responsibility in the Opposition is already becoming apparent – along with its dangers for Australia’s attractiveness to investors – the full extent of the Coalition’s policy shift is only now becoming apparent.

This is not a lurch to the Right in the sense understood in recent decades.  It is shift toward populism – and the crassest form of populism – that entails a marked step in directions more traditionally regarded as the Left.

Abbott’s own preference for regulation over the operations of the market is apparent, placing him firmly in the populist Left on economic policy.

But disturbingly, Kevin Andrews has signalled what would amount to a disastrous retreat from the high immigration policy pursued by both sides of politics for decades, one of the key drivers and props of Australia’s economic performance.

It also suggests that notional Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison will be the moderate but ineffectual face on a hardline, populist policy driven by more extreme figures.

Andrews wants immigration reduced to around 35,000 “as a starting point”.  In 2006, net migration was 182,000; the following year, 216,000 and in 2008, 253,000.

The economic ramifications of that were neatly demonstrated on the front page of the Liberal house organ today, when The Australian, as part of its efforts to sell a new round of industrial relations deregulation, reported employer warnings of skills shortages re-emerging as unemployment peaked and began falling.

The Coalition’s response to that appears to be not merely a return to individual contracts, but to slash immigration by 85%, depriving employers of much-needed labour.

The policy prescriptions being advanced by the Coalition wouldn’t look out of place on the far Left – opposition to foreign investment, resistance to high immigration levels, support for regulation and intervention in the economy.  Cuts to immigration would also attract support from the left of the Green movement, where high immigration is regarded as an environmental disaster.

Andrews’s proposal, and Barnaby Joyce’s lunatic claims, mark not merely a retreat from the policies pursued by the Howard Government – Andrews as Immigration Minister happily presided over an Immigration program of over 200,000 – but a break with the economic orthodoxy followed for the most part by both sides of politics since the 1980s.

The exception was Labor’s period of drift away from the reformist tradition of Hawke and Keating under Kim Beazley and Simon Crean.  The Coalition now appears to be undergoing a similar, but far more febrile, version of that episode.

It will also confirm the concern of senior Government ministers that the Coalition would become desperate enough to resort to a xenophobic immigration policy in an attempt to appeal to blue-collar voters who see immigrants purely as employment rivals.

The next step may well be protectionism, especially in Government procurement.

Where are the countervailing influences in the Liberal Party that will uphold the party’s recent reform tradition?  Joe Hockey, now the most powerful moderate, lacks the policy grunt to resist the populist urgings of Abbott, Joyce and Andrews.  Nick Minchin’s ministerial record was undistinguished, mainly because he was more focussed on factional warfare than on his policy responsibilities.  He certainly failed to play the traditional Finance Minister’s role of Dr No in the final Howard term.

It will be up to the party’s key business backers to explain just how disastrous the prescriptions of Andrews and Joyce will be. It might perhaps be too much to expect the commentariat to do the same.  But one can imagine how Julia Gillard in 2002 would have been pummelled by the right-wing media if she had called for an 85% cut in immigration, or if a Labor shadow Finance minister had attacked Chinese investment and suggested America was going to default.  They would have been called unfit to hold office, and correctly so.

Let’s see if there’s a double standard when Coalition figures peddle that nonsense.

In the unlikely event that this economically disastrous populism gets Abbott elected, there’s always the chance wiser heads will prevail in government.  If it doesn’t, the Coalition will have shredded its reputation for economic competence not merely with voters but with its business base.

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