Australia has elected a Coalition government. So what will this mean for key policy areas?
Our experts take a closer look at what’s in store for business, the economy, the environment, the National Broadband Network, health, social policy, immigration, science and education.
Sinclair Davidson, Professor of Institutional Economics at RMIT University:
Business featured quite prominently last night. The incoming prime minister, Tony Abbott, declared:
Australia is under new management and is open for business.
On Sky News, political commentator Graeme Richardson spoke about the loss of the “tradie” vote: people who consider themselves to be in small business no longer vote Labor and have been moving away from the ALP for ten years or more.
Perhaps it’s not “the economy, stupid”; in reality, it might be business, stupid.
I hope so. It’s very easy to concentrate on the broad macroeconomic developments and focus on highly aggregated indices of performance. But the economy really consists of men and women going to work, earning a living so that they can pursue their own aspirations.
It consists of entrepreneurs who take risks and creating those jobs that allow people to pursue their dreams.
The role of government is to enable that process – to maintain the institutional framework that facilitates business. In recent years the business community has had a view of the government as a saboteur and not a facilitator.
To a large extent this has been due to the new taxes, new regulations and uncertainty that has characterised policy development over the last years.
Under an Abbott government, consultation will need to be more than simply advising people of decisions already made; deregulation will have to be more than a slogan; taxes will have to be abolished. Public servants waging war on business will have to reined in.
Fabrizio Carmignani, Associate Professor, Griffith Business School, Griffith University:
If what Tony Abbott announced during the campaign is implemented by his government, I expect we will see the following from the economy:
an increase in volatility (wider ups and downs around the trend)
a short-term acceleration of growth followed by a decline in long-term growth potential
an increase in inequalities in the distribution of income.
The increase in volatility will result from the Coalition’s confusion between objectives and tools of fiscal policy. Fiscal policy must be run counter-cyclically to stabilise the business cycle, but the Coalition has never acknowledged this basic principle.
The short-term acceleration of growth will arise from the abolition of the carbon tax and the mining tax (if passed through the Senate). But I’m afraid it will not last long.
What really matters for long-term growth is to manage the process of structural transformation the Australian economy is going through. In this regard, the Coalition has not said much, focusing instead the whole of its long-term growth strategy on investment in infrastructure.
This is a growth strategy more appropriate for developing and emerging countries than advanced economies such as Australia.
Finally, growing volatility and the lack of management of the structural transformation process will lead to an inefficient allocation of resources across the economy.
This will ultimately result in growing income inequalities across the population; all this without counting the possible impact of expenditure cuts and jobs that might arise from the Commission of Audit.
The large cuts to foreign aid will put Australia in a very awkward position when it has to chair the G20 in 2014. Leaving aside any considerations about the moral duty to support developing countries, cutting aid means reneging on international commitments, and this is certainly not going to help Australia’s international reputation.
Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science at Griffith University:
The Coalition government will be disastrous for the environment if it carries out its campaign promises.
No credible observer believes the “direct action” proposals will achieve even an inadequate 5% reduction of greenhouse gas production. During the campaign, Abbott specifically ruled out providing the funds that would be needed to get near that target.
The outcome will be further increasing greenhouse pollution, in turn reducing the slim chance of international action to avoid dangerous climate change. With prominent front-benchers still in denial about the science, the stance is ideological.
Fundamentally, Abbott proposes to turn the clock back 30 years on environmental protection. Since the Hawke government blocked the proposed Franklin Dam, successive governments – ALP and Coalition – have curbed the worst excesses of growth-oriented states, which are prepared to approve irresponsible developments. Even our National Parks are no longer safe.
Queensland and New South Wales are proposing outrageous expansion of the export coal trade and coal seam gas. If the Abbott government abandons its responsibility to protect the environment, local people will take on the task, so we will inevitably see more litigation and direct action.
Abbott’s capacity to legislate for his Great Leap Backwards will be limited until next July by the current Senate, but then the balance will probably be held by minority groups further to the right such as the Palmer personality cult.
It is a depressing prospect.
Rod Tucker, Laureate Professor, Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society at the University of Melbourne:
The Coalition’s broadband policy has come a long way since the 2010 election. Three years ago, Abbott was vowing to demolish the NBN. Now, at least, the Coalition is actually planning to build a broadband network.
However, the demise of the visionary, future-proof fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network means the nation has regrettably lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fully reap the benefits of the global digital economy.
One can only hope that once the dust settles, the Coalition will realise how foolish it would be to miss the opportunity for Australia to acquire a world-class FTTP network. The Coalition is unlikely to do a total policy about-face. But if good sense prevails, it will modify its plans so that the network is not too far removed from the original FTTP vision.
In areas where Telstra’s copper network is unable to support fibre-to-the-node technology, for example, FTTP could be rolled out instead. Another possibility is the new G.Fast technology – due to be available in 2014 – which provides performance close to FTTP.
Overall, the key challenge for the Coalition is to build a network that meets Australia’s ever-growing appetite for broadband and does not become obsolete by the time it is completed.
Stephen Duckett, Director of the Grattan Institute Health program:
The Coalition adopted a small target, steady-as-she-goes election strategy, giving no hints about what the new government’s intentions will be on the health front.
The Coalition health leadership is quite experienced. Likely health minister Peter Dutton served as a minister in the Howard government and has been shadow health spokesperson since 2010.
The team going into the election also included two medical practitioners as shadow parliamentary secretaries: Andrew Laming and Andrew Southcott.
One clear commitment is that the bureaucracy will get a haircut. The Department of Health and Ageing has already started to downsize, but the Coalition’s savings initiatives will require further reductions in staffing.
The alphabet-soup of portfolio agencies, each with its own staffing establishment is also to be reviewed, with agency mergers or abolitions on the cards.
Medicare Locals, originally thought to be in danger of extinction, have since got a reprieve, now to face a review of their
corporate practices … to ensure funding for patient services isn’t being unduly diverted for administrative purposes.
Dutton has made it clear the review will not lead to reductions in programs.
Other commitments, to expand general practice training, and scholarships for nurses and allied health professionals in areas of need, are sensible, incremental steps.
Finally, it is important to remember Abbott was health minister in the Howard government (2003-2007), claiming as his achievements that he:
introduced the Medicare safety net for people with big out-of-pocket expenses, increased hospital funding by A$2.2 billion, increased Medicare bulk billing rates, expanded Medicare beyond doctors, and resolved the medical indemnity crisis.
Whether he will be a meddler in, or a “sympathetic ear” for, the portfolio is as yet unclear.
Stephen Leeder, Director, Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney:
General practice is the field where new initiatives will probably appear first under the new Coalition government. The general practice workforce is not evenly distributed and is in short supply in many rural and regional settings.
In response to a call from the Australian Medical Association in the last week of the campaign, the Coalition promised an additional A$50 million for general practice infrastructure.
Practice incentive payments to general practices would be doubled, the Coalition said, in recognition of the need to pay general practitioners for their time spent teaching medical students.
There is not likely to be enhanced funding for public hospitals. No promises of substance have been made about aged care, palliative care and support for those with crippling chronic conditions.
What will happen with subsidies for private health insurance, funding for prevention, support of medical and health research, or the biggest infrastructural challenge facing Australian health care, IT and computerisation?
Indigenous health has received little airplay, as has rural and remote health. Watch this space. There is a lot of it to fill.
Nicholas Biddle, Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the Australian National University:
In 1994/95, 9.2% of Australians had an income below half the median wage; and by 2011/12 this was 12%. When people say the cost of living is rising they mean others are doing well, but they are missing out. In his victory speech, Abbott said, “We will not leave anyone behind”. He must be held to that.
Abbott wants to be the prime minister for Indigenous affairs; and he needs to be held to that, too. Noel Pearson has advocated an Indigenous policy based on capabilities. But this should be about people having the freedom to live the life they desire. Governments, therefore, need to accept and support a diversity of Indigenous views.
Where social policy can benefit from a conservative government is humility. Abbott should adopt an incremental, rigorously evaluated and well implemented social policy that is behaviourally informed.
People who say they know the solutions to inter-generational poverty are deluding themselves. People aren’t poor because they make bad decisions; they make bad decisions because they are poor.
Jo Coghlan, Lecturer in Australian and International Politics at Southern Cross University:
The result of the 2013 federal election means a rethink is required on harsh asylum seeker policies. While there will be a change of government, the Coalition’s hardline “stop the boats” rhetoric and Labor’s regressive offshore “no advantage” policies haven’t resonated with voters. In the western suburbs of Sydney the issue had only a marginal impact.
Adam Bandt – who becomes the first Green to retain a federal lower house seat – had maintained a strong humanitarian position on the treatment of asylum seekers, specifically opposing offshore processing and mandatory detention.
For different reasons (spiralling costs and deeming them a poor use of military resources) Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer also opposed the policies of the Liberal and Labor party on asylum seekers.
No Australians want the tragic deaths at sea to continue and the Abbott government should make this a priority. Australians are beginning to recognise that we haven’t given refugees “a fair go” and the cost of this has been too high – for those seeking refuge, of course, but also to our national psyche.
Both major parties must end the marginalisation of asylum seekers for political objectives.
Merlin Crossley, Dean of Science and Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of New South Wales:
Researchers will have different views of the election outcome, depending on their disciplines and whether they are optimists, pessimists or realists. No one will know for sure, since this wasn’t an election campaign that was greatly troubled by big or specific promises for research.
Optimists will note the Coalition promised not to cut medical research and to broadly maintain education. The really optimistic will hope Abbot re-invigorates the best parts of Howard’s agenda, perhaps by interpreting medical research broadly, investing in it, and also supporting research infrastructure as was done under the Backing Australia’s Ability programs.
People will look for the establishment of a National Innovation Council and demand investment in the knowledge economy so that we can keep pace with Asia.
Some will hope for an emphasis on quality and individual excellence. Programs such as the Federation Fellowship scheme and the Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence program have the philosophy of concentrating and building on excellence rather than spreading resources thinly.
The pessimists will be worried by the pre-election announcement that the Coalition might micro-manage the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) excellent peer-review grant funding system.
Such an approach would seem to run counter to the Coalition’s commitment to small government.
The pessimists will point out that the last Coalition government was haunted by its attempts to impose political criteria on top of research excellence in deciding on which ARC grants should be funded. The Chief Scientist’s proposal to more broadly direct funding to national priorities is a better way to direct resources.
But many will worry that this may also mean research will be redirected away from the humanities, at least until the government realises the work done in these disciplines is valuable or that the amount the humanities currently get is so small that redistributing it is of minimal value.
The realists will probably not be overly fussed and will expect the status quo. The universities and research centres are unlikely to enjoy major injections of investment, but they may have the ability to grow if regulation is wound back rather than more regulation being imposed via politically interfering with the ARC system.
David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University:
The election of a Coalition government with or without Christopher Pyne as minister for education has serious implications for the future of public education in Australia.
The party’s education adviser Dr Kevin Donnelly is not only an arch conservative when it comes to teacher pedagogy, wanting a return to teaching the basics through “chalk ‘n’ talk” and a rejection of student-centred learning; more significantly, he has no regard for public schools and their teachers.
Already we know there will be fundamental changes to the National Curriculum developed by education experts. We will see a reversion to a white armband sanitised approach to the teaching of history ignoring Indigenous Australia and the contribution of workers to our development in favour of a famous (rich white) man approach. We will see a return to an emphasis on a Judeo-Christian European narrative, ignoring our place in Asia.
We can look forward to: more forced competition between schools as they struggle to become “independent”; the imposition of performance pay for teachers, setting them against each other; larger class sizes; and the promotion of a fictitious “choice”, with more schools relying on charity and local fundraising, leading to further erosion of our public schools’ standing.
But the biggest danger to public education could be a rejection of the so-called unity ticket, offering only a paltry one-third of the proposed Gonski increase in funding to disadvantaged schools after the Coalition finds a “budget black hole” and returns to the discredited SES funding model (which they have always supported), that will continue to privilege the wealthiest and most elite private schools at the expense of the working class and the poor.
Andrew Norton, Program Director, Higher Education at Grattan Institute:
As it did in 1996, the Coalition enters office effectively promising not to overturn Labor’s higher education legacy.
That includes keeping a more market-based system of distributing university places, an idea first proposed by the Liberals in the 1980s but finally implemented by Julia Gillard.
The Liberals supported Labor’s creation of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), and will probably keep it while supporting proposals to reduce red tape.
The Coaltion’s New Colombo Plan to increase the number of Australians studying and taking internships in Asia has been well-received, but at least initially it builds on, rather than transforms, Howard and Gillard-era policies with similar goals.
Late in the campaign, a Liberal MP provocatively announced the Coalition would audit “ridiculous research grants” awarded by the Australian Research Council. Some ARC funding will be re-directed to health research.
Labor’s plans to prioritise research funding may also have weakened financial support for projects without “useful” outcomes.
The big fear is that, as in 1996, the Liberals will reduce higher education spending. But 2013 again showed budget deficits more than party ideologies drive cuts.
If there are compensating increases in student contributions universities may be no worse off.
Stephen Duckett is a Board member of Northern Melbourne Medicare Local.
Andrew Norton was a ministerial adviser on higher education for the Howard government 1997-99.
David Zyngier receives funding from DECRA Democracy in Education 2013-2015.
Fabrizio Carmignani receives an ARC grant for a project on the estimation of piecewise linear continuous model and its applications in macroeconomics.
Ian Lowe is President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Merlin Crossley is on the boards of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and the Australian Museum. He receives funding from the ARC and NHMRC.
Rod Tucker was a member of the National Broadband Network Panel of Experts, appointed by the Rudd government in 2008 to assess proposals for and provide advice on the NBN. You can read more about that panel here: http://tinyurl.com/lrtbk39.
Sinclair Davidson is a professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University and a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He has held ARC research grants in the past.
Stephen Leeder is a professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Sydney and chairs the board of the Western Sydney Local Health District. He is editor of the Medical Journal of Australia.
Jo Coghlan and Nicholas Biddle do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published at The Conversation.