Sean Carney is usually one of this country's best political journalists, but he's botched this one. All but the last five paragraphs are fair enough - Tony Abbott needs to get a vision for the country and something like concrete policies to fulfil such a vision (or at least make them plausible enough so that people will vote for them), and only Dennis Shanahan believes he can do it.
When it comes to industrial relations, the Liberal Party takes its cue from business. In the 1980s it was wrong of the Labor government to expect Australian business to adapt to a new world of deregulation and lower tariff barriers while keeping in place the archaic industrial relations system. The Liberals campaigned for individual agreements and an end to demarcation because that was what business was calling for. Business leaders continued calling for industrial relations reform into the Howard government, but when the union movement fought back during the waterfront dispute of the late '90s and with WorkChoices, the Libs were pretty much left to their own devices. It's fair to say that business has been sending mixed signals about what it wants in response to the Fair Work Act. Nobody in the business community is standing up to Labor over it so why should the Liberals stick their necks out?
The Coalition is still so in thrall to the idea of media management that they seriously believe there is a way where a Liberal leader can dodge the idea of industrial relations reform. They might need a minimalist policy, but they need a policy that is defensible. They need to admit that WorkChoices was a dud and that they've learned their lesson. That is what is necessary to stop incessant questioning of that policy and the Liberal agenda generally. The lesson of 2010 is that no amount of casuistry can disguise any purported intention to "bring back WorkChoices" - only a full, non-weaselly apology can and will sink it for all time.
Into this context of real policy debate comes Tony Smith, a dogpaddler in an Olympic 1500m final.
Liberal backbencher Tony Smith has found himself with time on his hands lately.Why? He's Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Tax Reform and Deputy Chairman, Coalition Policy Development Committee. He should be the busiest man in Canberra
This week, the Coalition had to pass a measure they had bitterly opposed because they "couldn't find equivalent savings measures" - in other words, "because Tony and Joe hadn't done their homework". It is Smith's fault that Abbott is utterly vulnerable to attack when delivering guff like this.
As Deputy Chairman, Coalition Policy Development Committee, he should not just be reviewing the train-wreck of Coalition policies at the last election, but have a clear understanding which parts of it compelled the independents to go against the Coalition rather than with them. Here is a man who should be ready to tweak in order to pull Wilkie, Oakeshott, Windsor and Crook over to the Coalition side - with sufficient deniability from Abbott's office if it all goes horribly wrong. Bet he has no idea at all what those guys think.
If Tony Smith's job is the Federal Coalition's equivalent of a banana lounge, Abbott and the gang are in more trouble than I thought. At the very least, Smith should be consulting widely with tax experts around the country.
Smith was on the frontbench during Labor's first term. It fell to him, in the lead-up to last year's election, to cobble together the Coalition's communications policy - or more accurately, its anti-NBN policy - which did not go well.To rephrase this slightly: Smith was responsible for the one area that truly engaged with blue-sky possibilities for the nation's future. He could've sketched out an alternative vision to the NBN, or shot Conroy's proposal so full of holes that it would rank alongside pink batts as a political punchline. He did neither. As I said at the time, to call that policy half-arsed would be flattering.
Smith has dusted himself off and has set out to persuade his party to take up the "ownership society" as one of its key objectives. As an adviser to Peter Costello in the late '90s, Smith was at the heart of the GST-formulation process. He knows that it takes years to put together deep reform.It's clear, from last year's telecommunication policy and now with the void where a tax policy should be, that Tony Smith is way out of his depth. It's like putting a connoisseur of fine dining in charge of a top restaurant ("well, he's got the experience") who has never cooked anything more complicated than toast. Smith might have been present in Costello's office but this was a guy who started out as a gofer. He might have been present when long and complex advice was wheeled in from Treasury but he wasn't witness to the hard slog of impressive minds with vast information hammering out a brief worthy of presentation to the Treasurer.
In a speech to Liberal Party members in April, which has gone unreported but has received a strong response from sections of the business community, Smith urged his colleagues to take the longer view on policy.So, he likes the idea of having ideas. His contemporaries Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and Peter Dutton do something similar when they try to sound all visionary. What they don't do is actually advance ideas, make a case for them and reveal their thinking backed by a bit of data, so that after it gets knocked around by the political process you can recognise what it was trying to do rather than some strange artefact of unknown provenance in a jumble of policies, like most Coalition efforts are (Abbott fans call this process "dynamic"). Hash indeed.
Recalling the Hawke government's tax reforms of the mid-'80s and the Howard government's GST package at the end of the '90s, Smith observed that ''in each case, the changes and reforms were argued, contested, attacked and massaged for a long period of time, but they were ultimately successful … In the end, the necessity for change became clearer after what I like to describe as the long slow policy pressure-cooker effect. This, in my view, is the only way taxation reform will occur in the future."
Any reforms should be able to be sustained for 15 to 20 years, he said. Pooh-poohing Treasurer Wayne Swan's proposed tax conference set for October, Smith said it was up to the Liberals to hash out over many months a new set of priorities for tax reform.
"Owning a share of a company has been the new wave of the past two decades. What about spreading the opportunity to own part of a business employees work in - to encourage Australians to have a stake in the business they work at, for, and in? Deep and widespread employee share ownership is … the next great opportunity in the Australian ownership enterprise project," he said.At a time when employee loyalty to employers has never been more fluid, this just doesn't make sense. Can you imagine Gina Rinehart or Rupert Murdoch, to name two leading employers of Australians (and people of influence over the Liberal Party) giving employees shares? Imagine downsizings complicated by shareholder revolts: if you think Jack Tilburn disrupts corporate AGMs, wait until Ged Kearney gets in on the act. In the UK it's the emptiest of slogans. This idea sounds like an off-the-cuff comment from Costello in about 1991 that hasn't been fully thought out. It is not a breath of fresh air, not even if you accept the low standards of contemporary politics.
Yes, the Liberal Party needs new ideas. What it does not need is ideas about ideas. It needs people who can do research, make a case and advocate it in the public debate.
Tony Abbott has tactics but no strategy. At least one of his MPs is trying to help him out with that.In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king - but we deserve better vision than is possible from a one-eyed man, particularly someone who is palpably not his own man. Carney should not be so desperate for relief from Abbott that he is taken in by the vacuousness of Tony Smith.