27 March 2008

Liberals in government service

John Quiggin's article in today's Financial Review on the Liberal Party and government services is terrific stuff, timely while at the same time consistent with what he's been saying for years.

He's right about the insufficiency of alternatives to public provision of government services. John Howard won when he said that splashing public money around was poor policy and no good politically either. The result in 2007 confirmed this initial assessment; the result may have been different if he had stuck to his guns, or if Costello and Minchin had the guts to stand strong on the ground where sound policy and good politics meet.

The problem comes with the lack of respect for a solid service with an impeccable brand; Greg Barns looks back fondly on his days in the early '90s of coming to NSW and selling the State Bank for far less than it was worth to bankers who treated him and his then-boss like mugs. The same has applied to almost every government asset sale since that time. The catalytic empowering effects of privatisations under Thatcher and Reagan have created a momentum that continues only in the minds of Liberals. Once again, there are grounds for a rethink but Liberals lack the discipline and thoroughness to confront recent history and look for alternatives.

The Liberals should develop a determination to deliver effective services, rather than quibbling about the need for the services at all. Labor has spent 49 of the past 67 years governing NSW by demonstrating a commitment to public services, rendering the Liberals "the B-team" Quiggin talks about. They maintain the image still in their rhetoric, which explains why people have stopped listening to them. Victorian Labor won when it demonstrated a commitment to delivering public services, ending the tendency of that state to entrust Liberals with public services. The other states have similar histories; Labor has dropped the public services ball, and the Liberals should pick it up and start scoring the only points that matter - the points that actually help win the game.

Nothing else can or does work. Labor Ministers can go to prison for the most heinous crimes, there can be the most appalling corruption in Labor ranks - but provided Labor maintains an image of being able to deliver public services, it will be returned to government again and again. No amount of PR bullshit changes a single vote and successive Liberals promising same should just give up and piss off unless they want their party to stay in opposition.

The Liberals can only smash that image by establishing that they really do intend to have health, education, transport and other services delivered to a consistently high standard, and that they're not afraid to spend money to this end. Private providers should only be welcome to the extent that they would facilitate the aims of a Liberal government in providing those services over the long term.

I wish that Marise Payne and Chris Pyne had talked about this stuff rather than the flatulent nonsense they went on with.

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