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September 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Nice Smile, Shame About The Policies

September 16, 2006

by Matt Price - The Australian

It's now official. Policy is hugely overrated. Leadership and personality are what matter and deliver rewards in politics. We have a living, breathing example of this in Queensland, where Peter Beattie's main policies appeared to be: buggering up the health system, running down public utilities, and apologising.

Against this, the Premier possesses a nice smile, a cute dog and, unlike the alternatives, manages to string sentences together without making a complete knucklehead of himself. Ergo, Labor wins in another landslide.

"A good leader with bad policies will beat a bad leader with good policies every time." So concedes John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, the right-wing think-tank that for 60 years has performed grunt work in every conceivable policy area. Roskam's entire career has been dedicated to exploring, developing, inventing and advocating policy, whether working behind the scenes for Liberal politicians or beavering away for research units.

"To most voters, personality is more important than policy or politics," he wrote in The Australian Financial Review last week.

"The focus on personality is not the bane of Australian politics that it is often made out to be, and in fact is an essential component of politics."

David Willetts is an English Tory MP who's been involved in formulating Conservative Party policy since Margaret Thatcher's reign in the 1980s. Yet, in a recent issue of the British weekly The Spectator, Willetts counsels fledgling Opposition Leader David Cameron to worry a lot less about policy and a lot more about connecting with voters.

"Ironically for me, the supposed wonk, I think policy is much overrated," Willetts explains. "People want to judge what we will be like in government with all its uncertainties. Part of the Tory party's problem is thinking we could respond to the lack of trust in politicians by saying, 'We'll take pound stg. 17.9billion out of this and put it into that.'

"That isn't how you get trust in politics. Instead, we should give a sense what our beliefs are and the coherent intellectual framework in which they fit."

I'd actually tweak what we'll call the Roskam dictum and proclaim that a good leader with bad policies will often beat a good leader with good policies. Only the most uncharitable observer would deny the GST has been an unalloyed success, broadening the tax base and providing a steady source of revenue to the states. It quite clearly belongs in the good policy pile, yet when John Howard advocated this tax at the 1998 election, he all but wiped out the Coalition's huge majority, earned less of the two-party preferred vote than Labor and almost crash-landed into the footnotes of history as a one-term dud prime minister.

As Paul Keating will happily tell anybody who's interested, successive Labor governments during the 1980s and '90s introduced significant financial reforms that help drive Australia's remarkable economic boom. Yet Keating and Bob Hawke wouldn't dare go to an election campaigning to float the dollar, slash tariffs, privatise government agencies and other brave, ultimately successful initiatives; all good policy, but they'd have been crucified at the polls.

The last prime minister to win office offering a cascade of detailed policy was Gough Whitlam and look what happened to him. John Hewson would almost certainly have become PM but for a giant, smelly humdinger of a policy called Fightback.

Policy is a cross between medicine and sausages. It must be administered in careful doses, it usually tastes bad before working its wonders, and it's never especially prudent to let people know the specific ingredients. Howard knows this better than most.

Whenever you hear people banging on about how the PM is an ideologue who has held hard and firm to his political beliefs over 30 years, point them to Howard's original views on Medicare. In a series of choice rants during the '80s, Howard described Medicare as miserable, cruel, nightmarish and monstrous. He thought the universal health system "raped the poor" and dismissed bulk billing as "an absolute rort". These are the kind of strong policy convictions that catapulted Howard into the political wilderness for the best part of a decade.

Fast forward to the 2004 election by which time the Coalition had feverishly spent almost $5 billion to lift sagging bulk-billing rates to politically acceptable levels. These days Tony Abbott conspires in question time to be asked a dorothy dixer on health and each time the Health Minister manages to end his answer by declaring the Coalition Government to be "the best friend Medicare has ever had". Howard gazes at Abbott, exuding mischief and awe, awaiting his minister's shameless, anthemic apogee with gleeful anticipation.

Howard's two main policy initiatives in recent years have been engaging in an unpopular war and championing unpopular industrial reforms. Work Choices was cooked up after the election when the Coalition unexpectedly won Senate control.

Invading Iraq was brave and risky, but the decision was made infinitely easier by the fact that hapless Simon Crean was leading a dysfunctional Opposition.

Plainly Howard's political strength is drawn from perceptions of leadership and competency cemented during the dark Tampa-September 11 days five years ago.

Keating's fantastically entertaining appearance on Lateline this week was a reminder of the abiding power of leadership, personality and political narrative. Of course the former Labor PM is jaundiced, jaded and prone to barefaced exaggeration, but Keating can still string together an easily intelligible, plausible story like few others. Howard is much less eloquent, but equally adept at weaving an enduring tale - based on economic prosperity, mainstream values (whatever they are) and suspicion of doomsayers - from the random strands of daily politicking.

Kim Beazley has left it a bit late, but I suspect his flurry of ideas about values and citizenship is part of a desperate catch-up mission. It's easy to mock - I did it myself this week - but on balance it's probably better for the Labor leader to be speaking clearly about his beliefs and values than blathering about policy detail. As Roskam, the IPA wonk, noted: "Leadership might be an elusive concept ... but you know leadership when you see it."

With time running out, the Bomber - who also has a nice smile and a cute dog - still has some convincing to do.

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