The Gillard government successfully passed 561 bills through the parliament before Julia Gillard was deposed as prime minister on 27 June 2013, including a number of significant policies. This is an impressive record from a minority government and even more so considering that no government bill was defeated on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Even so, the Gillard government did encounter problems in the implementation of its policy agenda. Examples of its successes and failures are documented below.
National broadband network (NBN). This was a key factor in the decision of independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to support the Gillard government and the legislation passed with support from the cross bench.
The carbon tax. Despite Julia Gillard stating during the federal election that there would be no carbon tax under the government she led, a carbon tax was introduced in the context of her government’s agreement with the Greens. The bills passed the parliament with the support of MHR independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.
Household assistance package. Household Assistance Payments as compensation for the carbon tax commenced in May 2012 with ongoing increases scheduled for March 2013 and January 2014. The package also tripled the tax free threshold from $6,000 to $18,200 to take effect from 1 July 2012.
Pension increases. Increases to base pension rates paid twice yearly each year had delivered an extra $207 per fortnight for single pensioners and $236 for pensioner couples by March 2013.
National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Government proposals for a National Disability Insurance Scheme were supported in principle by the Opposition and by the cross bench. An Opposition amendment to establish a Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Disability Insurance Scheme was opposed by the government and resulted in a tied vote which was resolved by the Speaker giving her casting vote in support of the government. The NDIS which came into effect as DisabilityCare Australia was described by Minister for Disability Reform, Jenny Macklin, as a ‘monumental change’ to Australia’s health system (Macklin, J. 2013, House of Representatives, Debates, 14 March, p. 2127). In May 2013 the government announced that because of budgetary constraints, it would introduce a 0.5 per cent increase in the Medicare levy to be put into a special fund for DisabilityCare Australia. The Opposition disagreed with the levy but did not vote against the bill because they did not ‘think that Australians with disability should miss out on a better deal’ (Andrews, K. 2013, House of Representatives, Debates, 15 May, p. 100).
Tax cuts. The government delivered three rounds of income tax cuts for low and middle income Australians. Small business received tax benefits from an instant asset write-off for eligible assets, loss carry-back and the increase in the tax threshold.
Education reform. An education tax rebate for school uniforms came into effect from 1 July 2011 and an increase in Family Tax Benefit Par A to include dependent 16-19 year old teenagers came into effect from 1 January 2012. Other elements of the education program not yet implemented are discussed below as unfinished business.
Training programs – Under the government’s expanded Australian General Practice Training program 1,000 junior doctors had taken up places in 2012, 1034 training places were provided in 2012 and 1138 planned for 2013. Australia’s nursing workforce increased from 326,669 in 2011 to 337,807 in 2012 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011, ‘Nursing and midwifery workforce 2011’ National Health Workforce Series No. 2, Cat. No. NWL48, Canberra, 2012; Keast, K. 2012, ‘Australia’s nursing and midwifery stats revealed’, Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia, 26 October, http://www.ncah.com.au/news-events/australias-nursing-and-midwifery-stats-revealed/1511).
Helpline: Medicare funded health services were made available for video consultations with specialists and an after-hours GP Helpline was established in July 2011.
Denticare: Extended eligibility for subsidized dental care to children between 2 and 28 years of age will commence from 1 January 2014. Medicare funded dentistry was a condition of the Greens support for the Gillard government.
Royal Hobart Hospital: The redevelopment of Hobart Royal Hospital was part of the agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie, The master plan was unveiled on 9 March 2012 and was said to be on track in December 2012.
Paid parental leave. The Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 was extended to include eligible ‘new dads and other partners’ to receive two week’s pay at the rate of the national minimum wage.
National Apology. The government’s delivery of a National Apology for Forced Adoptions and Removal Policies and Practices was a significant and meaningful gesture to those who had been affected by those policies.
Local government. Legislation to hold a constitutional referendum on the recognition of local government at the next federal election passed the parliament on 26 June 2013. However, the politics of federalism, including opposition from state governments would make it difficult to carry. The federal election for 7 September 2013 called by prime minister Rudd did not include this referendum.
Other policy achievements included winning a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council, incremental increases in the Superannuation Guarantee from 9 per cent to 12 per cent in the 2019-2020 financial year with the age eligibility for workers to increase from 70 to 75 years. The Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 gave workers the right to request more flexible working hours, required employers to consult with employees about changes to roster arrangements, enabled workers to apply to the Fair Work Commission for protection against bullying at work and extended rights to unpaid parental leave. Discrimination against gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex Australian was outlawed by the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Act 2011 and breastfeeding was established as a separate ground for discrimination. The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Improving Electoral Administration) Act 2013, allows the Australian Electoral Office to use data from the Australian Taxation Office to put voters on the electoral roll.
Under-achievements and failures
Significant elements of the Gillard government’s policy program did not proceed as planned for a number of reasons including compromise with interest groups or the cross bench and decisions of the High Court.
Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT). The tax when it came into operation did not deliver the revenues that had been expected. Vigorous and vocal opposition from the mining industry to the Rudd government’s proposals for a Resources Super Profits Tax caused Gillard to negotiate an agreement with three major mining companies to cap the tax at 30 per cent and to apply only to iron ore and coal. The design of the mining tax, including concessions given to the mining industry, a downturn in ore prices and profits and credits for increases in state royalties were said to have been responsible for the disappointing shortfall.
Managing Australia’s borders. Gillard promised strong management of Australia’s borders to address the asylum seeker issue. In a radical departure from the Rudd policy of processing asylum seekers within Australia her government turned to offshore processing. The government entered into a bilateral agreement with the Malaysian government whereby 800 asylum seeker arrivals would be diverted to Malaysia for processing and in return Australia would expand its humanitarian intake to resettle 4,000 extra refugees residing in Malaysia. This arrangement was subsequently deemed unlawful by the High Court because Malaysia was not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Government legislation to change the law to permit offshore processing was withdrawn from the parliament when it became clear it would not pass the House of Representatives. The government then established an Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers and accepted its recommendations for offshore processing on Nauru and PNG. The difficulties associated with the High Court’s rejection of the Malaysian Solution did not apply because both Nauru and PNG are signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees. The Gillard government’s objective to manage Australia’s borders was not successful. In 2012, 17,202 asylum seekers arrived by boat.
Education reform – unfinished business. Some elements of the Gillard government’s education reform remain to be implemented. Performance pay for teachers as cash bonuses under the Reward Payments for Great Teachers program was agreed by COAG (Council of Australian Governments) on 15 June 2012. The first payments were to be delivered in 2014 for teachers assessed against standards in 2013. The Reward for School Improvement program is to commence in 2015. Development of an Australian Baccalaureate is in progress. Funding was scheduled to commence in the 2015-16 budget but this may be subject to the policies of an incoming government after the 2013 election. A National Curriculum for English, mathematics, science and history was supposed to be taught from 2011 but was not endorsed by state education ministers until October 2011. Even then the politics of federalism intervened when the New South Wales government determined it would not begin the planning stage until 2013 and the Victorian government said it would overhaul the school curriculum system according to its own priorities. The Gonski reforms for school funding passed the parliament at the death-knell of the Gillard government on 26 June 2013. However, not all state governments had signed up and the process of negotiation with state premiers was continuing under the Rudd government.
Plain packaging of tobacco. The government legislated for plain packaging of tobacco products from 1 December 2012. Its right to do so was supported by a High Court decision against an appeal lodged by tobacco companies. Domestically this was a positive result for the government but it is being challenged internationally by tobacco producing countries in the World Trade Organisation.
Health reform. On 2 August 2011 COAG agreed to a National Health Reform Agreement on extra Commonwealth funding for public hospitals. However, the politics of federalism again intervened when disputes arose in 2013 with Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Budget surplus. Prime minister Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan persisted with a promise to return the budget to surplus in 2013. However, a significant reduction in tax receipts, including a fall in company tax revenues, meant that promise could not be delivered and the 2013-2014 budget forecast a deficit of $18 billion.
Sale of uranium to India. Labor’s long-standing and passionately-held anti-nuclear policy was compromised to serve the Gillard government’s international economic and political agenda. Her pre-election commitment not to sell uranium to India was broken at the December 2011 ALP National Conference where she argued that it was time to modernise the party platform, that it was ‘intellectually indefensible to sell uranium to China, but not to India’, that ‘the refusal to sell uranium’ would not prevent India continuing to have nuclear weapons and the ‘platform change was crucial to improving Australia’s relationship with the growing economic superpower’ (cited in Packham, B, 2011, ‘Labor backs sale of uranium to India’, 4 December, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/in-depth/labor-backs-sale-of-uranium-to-india/story-fnba0rxe-1226213416704).
Future submarine project. The Gillard government’s promise to acquire 12 submarines to replace the Collins class submarines was not achieved. In May 2012 the government announced it would provide $214 million for the next stage of the Future Submarine Project to fund detailed studies and analysis to inform the government’s decision. In December 2012 a review into ‘submarine sustainment’ recommended restoring the existing fleet to an international benchmark by 2016 (Smith, S., Wong, P. and Clare, J. 2012, Joint Media Release 12 December, http://www.minister.defence-gov.au/2012/12/12/minister-for-defence-minister-for-defence-materiel-and-minister-for-finance-and-deregulation-joint-media-release-release-of-final-report-of-coles-review-into-submarine-sustainment.
Tax cuts for big business. The government did not achieve its objective of using the revenue from the MRRT to reduce the company tax rate from 30 per cent to 29 per cent. The policy was abandoned because it would not pass the parliament. The Opposition refused its support because it was to be funded by the mining tax with which it disagreed and the Greens opposed reducing tax on large companies.
Media reform. The communications minister, Stephen Conroy, introduced legislation into the parliament relating to a number of media reforms including the appointment of a public interest Media Advocate who would determine whether a media merger of national significance could proceed. He imposed a two week deadline on parliament to pass the changes or the government would not proceed. There was strong disagreement from the media industry. Lack of support from the Opposition and significant concerns raised by the Greens and the independents in the House of Representatives indicated the legislation was unlikely to pass and the minister withdrew the relevant. The failure was a function of the government’s poor political strategy in not consulting and negotiating the support of the independents and the Greens before the legislation was introduced into the parliament.
Public funding for elections. On 28 May 2013 the government announced it would introduce legislation to reform the disclosure and reporting obligations of political parties, independents and third parties and increase administrative funding by $1 to parties and individual who won more than 4 per cent of the vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate. These measures were devised by a select group of parliamentary and party representatives from both major parties and supported by a letter from Opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Government and Opposition senior ministers and backbench MPs were not consulted. Following a public backlash and concern from MPs (particularly given recent budget cutbacks) Abbott withdrew Coalition support. With the cross bench also opposed there was no prospect of the legislation passing the House of Representatives so the bills were withdrawn. This is another example of poor strategic thinking and political naivety by the government’s leadership in attempting such a measure just 4 months out from a federal election.
The record of the Gillard government is mixed. Despite being a minority government it guided 561 of its bills through the parliament to Royal Assent. Significant elements of its legislative agenda were delivered but there were also less successful outcomes. Some of the reasons include: the politics of federalism where the agreement of the states was required, pressure from major interest groups and poor political strategy caused bills to be withdrawn. The failure of 4 Labor MPs, including a government whip, to attend a vote allowed an Opposition amendment to superannuation legislation to pass and required negotiations with the Opposition to permit a new vote which the government won. The mining tax did not reap expected revenue and the carbon tax caused adverse community reaction that negatively impacted on the government’s electoral popularity. Even so, given its accomplishments in delivering policy the charge by Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, that the Gillard government was ‘a bad government, a truly bad government….that has been monumentally incompetent’ is difficult to sustain (Abbott, T. 2013, House of Representatives, Debates, 20 March, p. 2796). However, fatal flaws in its political performance including an inability to communicate its successes to the electorate, poor political strategic judgement and consistent leadership tensions contributed to poor poll results which undermined the Gillard government and facilitated the coup that deposed her.
Students should use the following material from the text book Australian Political Institutions 10e, to research how these issues relate to the functions of Australian government.
Chapter 3 The Australian Constitution pp 72-74 the High Court
Chapter 4 The Federal System pp 116-121 the politics of federalism
Chapter 5 The Australian Parliament pp 158-161 the legislating function
Chapter 8 Elections and voting behaviour pp 288-289 public funding
Chapter 11 Interest Groups pp 375-378 groups and government
Chapter 13 Foreign policy p. 431 the politics of trade; p. 439 external influences