When Hyperbole Comes Back To Bite


On Lateline earlier this month, Leigh Sales asked Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner a question that has continued to resonate.

Discussing the very bad poll results for Labor in early May, she reminded Tanner that Kevin Rudd had once called climate change "the greatest moral challenge of our time", and that Wayne Swan was calling his tax reform package "the greatest reform in living memory". She then went on to ask: "Does this government have a problem with hyperbole?"

Tanner spun his way through the interview, but the "hyperbole problem" has started to pop up in other media too, perhaps because it describes one of the key characteristics of this Government so well.

Part of the problem for Rudd and his senior leadership is that — like any politicians — they are struggling to match words with actions. If Rudd hadn’t reneged on his promise to introduce an emissions trading scheme, he wouldn’t be getting reminded of the phrase "moral challenge" at every opportunity.

But part of the problem lies in the language itself, indeed in the very way the Rudd Government likes to govern. More than any other government in recent memory — certainly more so than the Howard government, but more so than the Hawke-Keating governments too — policy-making under Kevin Rudd has been driven by a large number of public inquiries.

Before coming to office, Kevin Rudd made some bold statements about his belief in "evidence-based policy". In terms of gathering evidence, he has lived up to that promise. Since coming to office, the Rudd Government has commissioned more than 100 different government inquiries, commissions, round-tables and working groups, on everything from climate change and the nation’s tax system to bottle recycling and Olympic sport.

The Rudd Government’s hunger for the evidence is so keen that it is taking it in some strange directions. Last week, for instance, the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced it would be conducting one of the largest national health surveys ever, and that it had the power to fine people $110 a day if they refused to take part.

As Paul Colgan observed in The Punch, this is paternalism taken to absurd lengths. Those failing to comply "may … get a knock on the door at 3am from clipboard-wielding statisticians," he quipped.

Libertarians and other opponents of the Rudd Government have pointed out that, particularly on health and welfare matters, this is a government that likes to tell ordinary citizens what to do. The alcopops tax, the recent hike in tobacco excise, the continued imposition of welfare quarantining in the Northern Territory, all seem to reinforce the emerging pattern.

But what happens to all this data once collected? This is where the Government’s hyperbole problem has started to set in: Kevin Rudd and his ministers are all too ready to abandon the inquiries, evidence and data for political expediency.

The best example of this is on the issue of climate change. The Rudd Government’s climate policy development process was long, detailed, comprehensive — and ultimately ignored. First Ross Garnaut was commissioned to produce a White Paper. Then Penny Wong and her department responded with a Green Paper. Labor’s eventual CPRS legislation ran to six bills and thousands of pages. And now all of it has been put on the back-burner until 2013.

The Henry Tax Review is another case in point. This "root and branch" review of Australia’s tax and transfer system took 18 months, issued an interim report and finally made more than 100 recommendations. Wayne Swan sat on the Review for five months, and then accepted only two of the review’s recommendations. He is even pursuing a policy — to increase the superannuation levy to 12 per cent — that the review didn’t recommend. Evidence? Yes. Evidence-based policy? No.

Welfare quarantining in the Northern Territory is a particularly disingenuous example of the way this Government plays with the evidence for political gain. After inheriting the Northern Territory Emergency Response from the Howard government, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin formed a review board to advise her on the policy’s effectiveness. But did she listen to what they said? The three key recommendations of the NTER Review Board were that the Racial Discrimination Act be reinstated, that welfare quarantining be abolished and that the permit system for remote communities be rehabilitated. Macklin ignored all of them.

And she is still refusing to remove the blanket provisions of income management, despite the accumulating evidence that it doesn’t work. A recent, peer-reviewed, quantitative study has revealed that income management has no effect on the purchase of healthy food or harmful booze and cigarettes (see Thalia Anthony’s article about the study on newmatilda.com today). If the Rudd Government wants evidence, here is some very robust data indeed. But Macklin has ignored it, because it is politically convenient for her to do so.

There is a clear pattern emerging here. While the Rudd Government certainly likes to appear to be consultative, to seek evidence and to listen to the views of experts and the community, when it comes to the hard reality of everyday politics, it will act in its own ruthless short-term self-interest. There are now countless major inquiries sitting on ministers’ desks, whose recommendations will likely never be implemented. Remember the 2020 Summit?

No wonder the Opposition’s attacks on "Rudd Government spin" appear to be biting. On the evidence available, evidence-based policy is just another example of this Government’s hyperbole problem.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.