Read the signs: stimulus package at work here

The opposition seems to be in a permanent state of denial these days, and not just about climate change.

Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues appear to be unable to come to terms with the single most pertinent fact about the government's stimulus measures, which is quite simply that they have worked.

Australia has not fallen into recession, technical or otherwise. By almost any yardstick we are in front of the rest of the industrialised world with lower unemployment, no serious financial failures and higher economic growth. Sure, the last year has not been entirely painless and there is more to come; we are, as Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan keep warning us, not yet out of the woods. But our time in the woods has been a teddy bears' picnic compared to what was being predicted just 12 months ago ago.

It is worth recalling that in September 2008, when the collapse of the American bank Lehman Brothers signalled the start of what is now known as the Global Financial Crisis, there was near universal panic. Commentators harked back to the Great Depression of the 1930s, with mass unemployment persisting for many years. Economists talked of a catastrophic economic meltdown that would take a decade to fix, if it could be fixed at all; the entire structure of capitalism was at risk of collapsing, with no obvious alternative in sight.

Australia, with its history of catching pneumonia if the United States so much as sneezed, watched aghast as more American banks failed and the hitherto indestructible motor industry went cap in hand to Washington begging the taxpayers to bail it out. These were dark and desperate times and the mood was that the government should throw caution to the winds and do whatever it took to ameliorate the damage.

No one believed for a moment that we, of all people, could avoid the abyss; we would be inevitably be dragged down with the big players. But we expected, in fact demanded, action from the government and as quickly as possible. This was not a time for scrimping, cheese-paring and penny-pinching. We wanted our elected leaders to go for broke; and they did.

With the imprimatur of the Australian Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to name but three, Rudd, Swan and their colleagues came up with a series of packages designed to stimulate the local economy through what was likely to be a fairly lengthy period. First, of course, there were the direct cash handouts to keep consumption moving until other measures could kick in. Then there were the subsidies for infrastructure in schools and local government to kick along the construction industry in the relatively short term, as well as more substantial projects which would last longer.

Of course it was all put together in a rush; normally spending of such magnitude would require weeks if not months of preparation. But speed was critical if business and consumer confidence, perhaps the two most vital ingredients of all, were to be maintained. And they were. This was in itself a convincing indication that the approach was the right one and as other figures started to emerge its success was spectacularly confirmed.

But from the first, the opposition whinged, carped and nagged. It was too much too soon, it should have been more tightly targetted, money has gone to the wrong projects and the wrong people, it's going on too long, it wasn't really necessary in the first place and now our children will have to pay for it. Well, perhaps there is some truth in some of the criticism; had we but world enough and time it might - with hindsight - have been done a bit differently and a bit more efficiently. But it was seen as a crisis, and it demanded a crisis response.

Think of it as the urgent defence of the nation. And in that context, it is worth noting that however extravagant and wasteful Rudd's spending might be shown to be, it pales into insignificance beside the extraordinary dissipation of the budget for military defence, with its never ending blow outs, delays, bad choices and purchases which, when - if - they finally arrive fail to perform as promised or even to be what was ordered in the first place. At least Rudd's prescription was delivered at cost and on time, and it did what it was meant to.

Turnbull and the rest of his chorus of Cassandras should acknowledge it, and lighten up. This is a time to celebrate an amazing escape, not to gripe about the bill.

However, the opposition got one complaint right, and that was about the billboards the government insists should adorn every new school building until the program winds up in 2011, coincidentally shortly after the next federal election.

The Electoral Commission has ruled that these may constitute political advertising, and must therefore carry a government authorisation. But hang on. If they are political advertising, as opposed to government information, then the authorisation should be political: it should be from the Australian Labor Party, not the Australian Government. And indeed, the Labor Party, not the taxpayer, should be picking up the tab.

Placards of this kind are not a misuse of public moneys in the ways that John Howard's campaigns for the GST and WorkChoices were: those were running before either program was even in legislative form, let alone implemented. They were no more than party policy, and subverting taxpayer funds to promote them was very close to open corruption. At least Rudd's buildings actually exist. But he did promise to reform the system and abide by the umpire's decisions on political advertising and this is clearly a borderline case.

Rudd rightly prides himself on his integrity and his ability to keep election promises. The placards might warrant further consideration.


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