The Prime Minister tips his hat to the Opposition Leader

In his short stint as Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson has proved himself to be quite the policy acrobat, reversing his previous position on a number of high profile issues over the course of only a few months. It’s not difficult to suggest that this to-ing and fro-ing has not exactly done wonders for his public standing, at least if polling figures are anything to go by. Thus far, the Prime Minister has been free politically speaking to play the cleanskin; free to step to one side and (diplomatically, of course) laugh and point from the government’s side of the chamber. I am not so sure that is going to necessarily be the case anymore, as Matthew Franklin reports for The Australian:

Kevin Rudd has guaranteed one-off bonuses to carers and seniors in this year’s budget, completing a stunning reversal of his Government’s previous plan to scrap the payments.

While Mr Rudd started the day promising no carers and seniors would be worse off under his budget, he ended it by guaranteeing upfront payments this year, protecting them from his Government’s search for budget savings to reduce the pressure on inflation and interest rates.

Let’s be frank for just a second. These particular bulk payment handouts and a number of other similar schemes bequeathed to the country from the Howard Government are and always have been thinly disguised bribes. They were not written into Budget formal estimates because, in reality, they were discretionary payments aimed at buying the votes of certain sub-sectors of the electorate. They are also economically illogical; by making bulk payments of this nature, the government is effectively encouraging people to go and blow it on something expensive. It’s free money – no responsibility attached. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a very good case for increasing support for pensioners and especially carers, but I firmly believe this is an irresponsible and somewhat morally dubious way of going about it.

The sad thing, in general, is that I think that the Rudd Government probably for the most part feels the same way. However, following on from the Opposition’s fairly high volume but low impact attacks on the issue, it seems that the Prime Minister has caved in response to the media cacophony and committed to effectively maintaining the former government’s position on the payments – albeit with a bit more certainty for the recipients involved. It is the latest little plot point on a somewhat disturbing trend that started when Federal Labor was still in Opposition. Certain issues (e.g. see schools funding) deemed politically sensitive and likely to cause a furore in the press were bedded down by Labor by simply vowing to maintain the Coalition’s position on the matter. I can accept pragmatically speaking that for the occasional troublesome issue, particularly while Labor was in Opposition, this was an approach not without its uses. On the other hand, the line must be drawn somewhere: either you think the results of public policy is what really counts or the politics of a policy is is what really counts. While the politics of any given policy can not simply be ignored, there is only one right answer here.

There must have been a fistful of ways that the Rudd Government could have turned this negative story into a positive. Although we will have to wait for the Budget to be sure of the approach that will be taken, adopting the previous government’s position on these payments would have to be just about the dumbest one.

ELSEWHERE: More from Peter Martin and at Larvatus Prodeo.