[Viewpoint] Miracle economy on hold

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[Viewpoint] Miracle economy on hold

Here’s the plot: an unmarried, foreign-born, atheist woman whose partner is a male hairdresser wants to lead a nation famous for manly men. Her opponent is the “Mad Monk” - a Speedo-loving amateur boxer who once studied to be a priest.

The latest Fox sitcom? Nope, it’s the script for next month’s Australian election. And yet there is a farcical angle worth noting here. The Aug. 21 election has been dubbed the “Seinfeld Election,” with the implication being that it means nothing.

No bold plans for Australia’s future from Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard or Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott, no grand designs to improve competitiveness and no fresh thinking about the risks of becoming China’s fuel station. Plenty of chatter about emotionally charged issues like asylum seekers arriving by boat. Little about what role the nation of 21 million wants to play in a fast-changing global economy.

This idea-starved election should concern all of us who have grown accustomed to Australia beating the odds. Nineteen consecutive years without a recession is bound to breed complacency on the part of officials in Canberra. That also goes for investors who see Australia as a risk-free part of their international strategy.

“Yada, yada, yada,” to borrow an oft-heard phrase on Jerry Seinfeld’s 1989 to 1998 television show, won’t do for Australia. Autopilot has been the setting for this $1 trillion “miracle” economy for a decade and it’s time for officials to grab the controls again.

The nation’s failing infrastructure, overstretched education system and increasingly polarized economy need to be addressed immediately.

So lackluster is the discourse that politicians are competing with “MasterChef.” Last night’s Gillard-Abbott debate was rescheduled to avoid clashing with the popular cooking show’s finale. It’s a sad commentary on the caliber of Australia’s choices when voters are more interested in who churns out the tastiest tuna tataki or best masala potatoes than who runs the nation. If Welsh-born Gillard and her opponent, Abbott, are wondering about the missing ingredient, it’s inspiration.

Gillard and Abbott are untested entities devoid of vision when the need for it has never been greater.

Australians clamoring for visionary leadership faced a bit too much nostalgia as former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating brawled in the media over their respective legacies. It was a bizarre and ugly exchange prompted by a book published by Hawke’s mistress-turned-wife. Keating defended himself in a letter to Hawke published in an Australian newspaper, claiming his achievements were airbrushed over.

While the spat won’t sway the election, it raised two questions about Gillard’s Labor Party. First, are divisive politics distracting Labor from addressing Australia’s big challenges? Second, and more importantly, where have the really big thinkers gone?

The combined tenures of Hawke (1983 to 1991) and Keating (1991 to 1996) were a watershed for the 14th-biggest economy. Import tariffs were removed, the dollar was allowed to float, the financial industry was opened and a national, compulsory pension program was introduced.

It has been coasting ever since, sometimes in the wrong direction. John Howard (1996 to 2007) seemed to forget that Australia is near Asia, preferring to cozy up to former U.S. President George W. Bush and his foreign-policy disasters. Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd (2007 to 2010), was far more focused on the fast-growing regions in which Australians live.

Dismal approval ratings and few solid achievements did in Rudd last month. His planned tax on mining profits enraged the business world and backfired. After deposing Rudd, Gillard will have the challenge to set out a clear road map for the future. All she is offering are vague platitudes.

Take environmental policy. Gillard’s government unveiled plans for a citizens’ assembly to build consensus on putting a price on carbon. Presumably, she has forgotten that Australia already has a 150-person-strong group that voters select and pay for that job. It’s called parliament.

Chinese demand for resources is another challenge. This mining boom is creating a “two-speed economy,” pitting Western Australia against the rest of a nation facing tepid wage growth and the threat of higher interest rates. Immigration also looms large. Gillard has already put the kibosh on Rudd’s “big Australia” policy. She’s couching her stance on population control in environmental terms. The fact she hasn’t defined sustainable population growth has critics arguing that she is pandering to voters aggrieved by what they perceive is lax immigration enforcement.

Talk about weak-kneed approaches to the biggest challenges of our time. Since this is an election about nothing, lots of focus is on Gillard’s lifestyle. Is a woman perceived to put career before family a good role model? It’s a question journalists ask, but it’s irrelevant to her leadership skills - not to mention unfair.

The question that matters is how Gillard or Abbott plans to lead Australia. No one really knows, and, unlike Seinfeld, this is no laughing matter.

*The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist.

By William Pesek
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