Gasping for breath
Today we saw the limitations of Tony Abbott and the Coalition in "holding the government ferociously to account", the neo-Maoist process by which they just oppose everything and the government collapses.
I believe that the science is settled on climate change, though many don't. One issue where it is most definitely settled is the link between tobacco consumption and such examples of life-endangering ill-health as cancer and emphysema. The Liberals attempted to box clever with restrictions on cigarette advertising, and failed.
After saying begrudgingly a year ago he supported plain cigarette packets with very graphic warnings, the Opposition Leader said yesterday he was unconvinced the changes would help reduce smoking.
Based on what? The science is strong, it is worth giving a go (not only for the intrinsic good of public health but because there are cost savings on not treating smokers for preventable ailments). On what basis will an Abbott government pursue or not pursue certain policies?
"My anxiety with this is that it may end up being counterproductive in practice."
And what would it take for this anxiety to be put to rest, petal? Does a statement like that not jar with the tough-guy persona that causes no-brainers like Niki Savva and Katharine Murphy to lunge for the boxing/rugby metaphors?
His position puts the Coalition at odds with the NSW and Victorian Liberal governments, which support plain packaging.
They have grown-up governing to do. We can't all stuff around with opposing for opposing's sake.
Politically, there are no votes in pro-tobacco measures. There is a definite constituency for anti-smoking measures, motivated to some extent by people who are not convinced that capitalism is the best way of organising society and the economy. On other issues, there is a countervailing constituency for reaction - monarchists against republicans, law-and-order versus civil libertarians - but not when it comes to smoking. Even committed two-pack-a-day smokers know their addiction is a blight on the community, and a generation of well-funded and clever campaigns by the tobacco industry have gone nowhere at all.
Abbott is stupid to cavil to tobacco. Nobody will stand up for tobacco branding. It is not part of some broader anti-political-correctness movement: even racism and torture are more legitimate in our political system than some inalienable right to smoke like a chimney. He just looks weak and his assertions about debranding cigarettes makes him look stupid when it comes to science and lacking in policy adventurousness.
As well as threatening legal action, big tobacco threatened yesterday to flood the market with cheap cigarettes, saying that the plain packaging would make it easier for contraband tobacco, or chop-chop, to increase its market share.
The alternative Prime Minister had no comment on this, did he? If there were any journalists present they may have asked a question about that. Smells like blackmail - is this the man to stand up to corporate blackmail, after his effort on the mining tax?
He said industry-funded research undertaken by the consultancy firm Deloitte showed illicit tobacco made up the equivalent of 16 per cent of the legal tobacco market, and its use would increase with plain packaging.
"At this point what we're trying to do is compete against independent gangs coming in from offshore. These are illegal gangs, Triads, the underworld … That's the real issue."
Did Deloitte really go on with that hysterical crap about triads, or was that the tobacco guy running off at the mouth? The question has to be asked, and it's a pity journalists won't ask it: to what extent does the alternative government jump at a campaign of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)? They run such campaigns - but even though you can't kid a kidder, it seems you can run a fear campaign against fear campaigners and they'll eat out of your hands.
At this point it's almost cruel to even refer to Joe Hockey's budget response. Certainly it's been done better elsewhere. Abbott can get, and has gotten, away with not addressing economic issues in the official parliamentary budget response. Hockey tried to bat away serious questions, and as they kept on coming I was waiting for the journosphere to take pity on him and lob him a few soft questions, as they would to his leader. The soft questions never came, but Hockey pressed ahead with the old lines: Libs are the party of lower taxes, journos who ask difficult questions are Labor stooges, and none of them worked.
The economy and health are major issues, and the Coalition simply do not have any answers. You don't need big visions in Australian politics but you do need to get the basics right, and look like you can be trusted to get them right. The Coalition don't have that. That's why they don't have inexhaustible resources to keep at the government, to duck and weave and attack from different angles - because frankly, if the government plug away at the economic fundamentals they can and will turn their fortunes around. Abbott and Hockey just can't keep up.
The Coalition should not be trying to defend last election's policies: an opposition only has a chance at government if it ditches the policies that lost them the last election (yes, yes, but they didn't win, did they - same thing). It's part of respecting the voters' verdict: you can pick through the wreckage and carry forward a few core beliefs, but keeping the whole lot looks like the sort of hoarding that breeds only vermin and mental illness.
The journosphere can be chided about "balance", but they can't pretend an opposition that can best be described as feeble in policy terms (particularly economic policy) is capable of forming government any day now. Any independent MP in talks with the Coalition looks like a prize fool today. The government will be increasingly able to bat away knee-jerk opposition and gainsaying, and with that might come a bit of confidence and daring. If momentum shifts the way today would suggest, let us have no more nonsense about "balance": let us see what policy comes from those who dare to develop them, and fight for them, whomever may be so motivated.