Abbott Should Welcome A Debate On The Economy

Kevin Rudd wants to debate Tony Abbott on Thursday. Abbott should welcome it.

Obviously, the proposed debate, to be held at the National Press Club on the economy, is a political ruse. Obviously. And it’s easy to understand why the Coalition doesn’t want to play Rudd’s game.

But party tacticians spend too much time obsessing over the day-to-day pranks of the other side.

More important than saving face, or “winning the cycle”, is this simple fact: Labor cannot be allowed to control the high ground of Australian politics.

Kevin Rudd has changed Labor’s story about the Australian economy. But he hasn’t any policy to back it up.

Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan told us how wonderfully the economy is travelling, and how we ought to be grateful for their skilful economic management.

Lord knows why. This has been a famously bad political strategy ever since Harold Macmillan told the British people they’d “never had it so good” in 1957.

Nevertheless, just two days before she lost the leadership, Gillard doubled down. She attacked “irresponsible” commentators for their “unreasonable pessimism” about a potential downturn.

Business commentators have been going through a particularly glum stage, talking about recessions and other demonic things. Don’t stress. They do that every once in a while.

Rudd has reversed Gillard’s line. Rather than talking about how well the economy has done so far, he’s talking about how everything could fall apart in the future.

In his first press conference, the restored Prime Minister made much of the end of Chinese demand for resources. Rudd turned first to what this would do to the terms of trade, then what it would do to our living standards, then to – gasp! – unemployment.

It’s a big change from Gillard’s “don’t worry be happy”. Probably an effective one too. Fear is a better motivator than gratitude.

But we’re talking here about marketing, not policy. Kevin Rudd is good at looking serious and ruminating on future challenges. This is easy – it is always easy to find challenges.

Translating challenges into legislative solutions is harder.

The last time the Prime Minister tried to fulfil his promise of a diversified and resilient economy, he revived old-style industry policy.

Industry policy was a big part of Labor’s 2007 election platform. The industry spokesman, Kim Carr, spoke about thumping tables in foreign cities to bring manufacturing deals home to Australia.

In government, Labor pinned its industrial hopes on car subsidies. We all know the result. Ford plans to leave the country in 2016.

For all of Rudd’s solemn warnings, there is not much in the government’s policy armoury to deal with the challenges he’s talking about.

For instance, it would be a brave Labor hagiographer who claims the National Broadband Network will help us through the end of the mining boom. The disability scheme might be a good idea, but if so, it is not because it will boost aggregate productivity. And even the most optimistic analyst wouldn’t claim the benefits from secondary education policy wash through to the real economy in less than a decade or two.

The policies Rudd inherited from Julia Gillard are designed for the good times of stability, not the uncertain times of structural change.

So, yes, Kevin Rudd is good at sounding serious. He speaks with authority. He loves to dwell on specifics. But that seriousness is colour, not substance. Abbott needs to press Rudd on exactly how he plans to reform the economy out of the sort of disruption he foresees.

The Coalition is actually on strong ground here. On Monday, they relaunched their red tape and regulation policy. It has problems (I detailed some of those in the Drum in April). But its objective is admirable. An economy’s resilience depends on its flexibility. Over-regulation ossifies markets, restrains entrepreneurs, and ultimately makes an economy less adaptive to change.

Sure, the deregulation plan is inadequate. But inadequacy is better than nothing.

More promising is the Coalition’s desire to revive National Competition Policy. This was originally a Keating-era initiative to make economic reform methodical and deliberative after the often hasty and opportunistic reforms of the 1980s.

If done right, National Competition Policy would tackle things like Part IIIA of the Competition and Consumer Act, which requires private companies to share “significant” infrastructure facilities with other companies.

Part IIIA slows investment and helps create those infamous infrastructure “bottlenecks” Kevin Rudd was so passionate about clearing in the 2007 election campaign.

Part IIIA isn’t sexy. Nor is it likely to displace boats from the front page of our newspapers.

Yet the obvious economic reforms have already been undertaken. The dollar can’t be floated again. We can’t re-privatise Qantas or Telecom.

Kevin Rudd wants to talk big picture. He wants to talk about structural change and China and the dollar.

But unless he has something to announce, it’s all just a superficial exercise in branding, not a deep engagement with economic reform.

A debate on Thursday would give Tony Abbott a chance to call Rudd’s bluster out.