14 May 2012

Chris Kenny hates Australia

It's a weakness that I read too little pro-Liberal commentary. It's been twelve years since I went cold-turkey on Liberal Party membership, and it isn't quite true that I've seen it all before or that such commentary is all illiterate and dodgy. This article by Chris Kenny is about 50% bullshit, 40% standard Coalition talking-points long-since leached of any real information or interest, and 10% value that challenges you to justify your position afresh.

The early part of any News Ltd article is a stale blast of straw man work and bluster, and so it is with this article. It really only starts with the first two sentences in the third paragraph, and even that assumes an open question (that Gillard won't be re-elected) is actually closed. Because of that, Kenny's reluctant focus on Abbott's shortcomings fails to address the important point that to deal with those shortcomings is to minimise the risk that the Coalition will lose, while ignoring or even wallowing in those shortcomings open the real possibility (more than a possibility, but hey let's humour them) that Abbott will pull up short in the next election contest.
The Left's critique of Abbott ... deliberately self-serving ... alleged flaws and failings ... political lines ... Duly parroted by many in the media ...
The only thing that can release Chris from all this squirming discomfort is a bit of Straw Man Knockdown. Once he gets that out of his system he seems much happier.
He carries unnecessary policy baggage, and the worst is one that was deliberately formulated to counter the personal attacks. Abbott forced on to his party the extra-generous paid parental leave scheme, announcing it without shadow cabinet or party room approval. Clearly, he wanted to make a grand gesture to women in order to combat the misogynist assault. To be fair, it probably worked to some degree at the time.
To be fair, it wasn't well thought out and has been overtaken by events. The first of these was the 2010 election that has been run and, er, won. The second was the government's own offering that makes this a marginal offering at best, possibly negated by the means for which the revenue is to be raised.
But now he has a scheme that undercuts his platform in two ways: it bolsters the culture of entitlement he aims to confront and it adds an effective tax burden on business when his main pitch is to lower and repeal taxes.

The $3 billion scheme is funded by a 1.5 per cent company tax levy on the nation's largest companies to fund an extra eight weeks' parental leave, paid at the parent's normal salary (up to $75,000 for six months).
Another of the events that has overtaken the PPL proposal of two years ago was Abbott's shrieky insistence in his reply to the budget that people on $83,000 p.a. weren't wealthy. Why the cap at $75k for 6 months, then nothing for the other six months of maternity leave, rather than $83k? It looks sloppy, like you've just pulled these figure out of the air. A party with access to the resources of government can hang a scare campaign on this and flip a strength into a weakness. Saying something like "it just is" simply won't do.

The above pretends that Hockey's speech against the culture of entitlement somehow took Abbott by surprise, rather than it being part of a managed strategy that informs his whole approach to government. I wouldn't mind policies not being costed to the nth degree if there was some sense of joined-up government going on, especially when you consider that the weight of cabinet experience on the Coalition side is about equal to that of the government.

One of the most important insights of the Henry tax review was the notion that those earning slightly above the median income have a greater proportion of their income deducted by government (both in tax and lost welfare transfers) than the wealthy who are merely paying the top level of tax after deductions. These are the people who are complaining about not being able to get ahead, and who are most fearful of the "carbon tax". These are also your swinging voters today; your cashed-up bogans and your mid-career professionals adapting to an outsourcing world, the people who voted Maxine McKew into Parliament and out again. They're not poor enough to have direct empathy with those who are doing it tough and not wealthy enough to splash out on that niche area of conspicuous consumption called noblesse oblige, which is why foreign aid and welfare measures don't get a lot of traction from either side these days.

In order for government to relieve cost-of-living pressures on the middle class, on small businesses and even non-small business outside the mining sector, a responsible party of government has two choices. It can slash spending or it can raise expenditure from elsewhere. During its last period in opposition it tried both, promising to slash Medicare and crack down on welfare without necessarily being explicit about cutting taxes for the wealthy. These days, the Coalition's commitment to abolishing the mining tax and pussyfooting around means-testing welfare transfers for those earning well above average incomes means that cost-savings can only come by cutting services, and possibly cutting certain subsidies (no details, so don't hold your breath).
Given his standing in the polls now, and the increasing doubts about economic prospects, Abbott has the political capital and rationale to simply drop this scheme.
Sure, like Rudd had the political capital to drop the ETS. If Abbott drops paid parental leave, the whole family-family-family rhetoric which is core to his political persona goes by the board. So Abbott has children, so what? He has that in common with Mark Latham, Simon Crean, Kim Beazley, Alexander Downer, John Hewson, Andrew Peacock and Bill Hayden. You can laugh and shake your head at NSW state politics, but Bob Carr saw off four Liberal leaders who, unlike him, were all married with kids.
If [Abbott] is particularly wedded to [his 2010 paid parental leave scheme], he could leave it on his list of aspirational policies, for later.
Where is the sorry clown who thinks this "aspirational" bullshit is going to work? You either promise to do it, or you don't; nobody is going to believe this "aspirational" crap. If Labor introduce a policy and the Libs airily put it on the never-never (e.g. the NDIS), Labor look like doers and the Libs like bullshitters. If that happens often enough, Labor are back in and Abbott becomes the biggest joke in Australian politics since John Hewson. Kenny does the Liberals no favours by pretending "aspirational policies" are to be confused with smart politics.
Likewise, given he opposes the mining tax, Abbott ought to reject all the cash handouts and family payment increases the government intends to fund from it. None of them were mentioned in the case for the tax -- which was supposed to fund a company tax rate cut. Abbott talks a good fiscal discipline game -- in his budget reply speech, he said "the only sustainable tax cuts are based on a permanent decrease in the size of government" -- but he hasn't matched the rhetoric with hard commitments.
No, he hasn't. He's had three years, including the searing experience of a so-close-but-yet-so-far election loss (yes, it was a loss. Close enough isn't good enough in binary high-stakes contests). If he won't get off his arse after all that, when will he do it?

The last hung parliament was the 16th Parliament of 1940-43. It was elected on 21 September 1940 in a time (to say the least) of global upheaval and uncertainty. John Curtin came out of that election as Opposition Leader, but 13 months later had won over key independents and become Prime Minister, cutting deals and learning on the job and holding it together until the following election, which he won in a landslide.

Abbott's 13 months were up last October. All the independents think he's not suited for the office he holds currently, let alone higher office - and they work closely with the guy. Since last October, Gillard has reshuffled her ministry a couple of times and buried a leadership challenge. She has cut herself off from a couple of sleazy scandals to a greater extent than Abbott has been able to; it's almost as though Abbott is at sea with all that economics and policy stuff, but he goes in hard at the first hint of sleaze.

Hell, given that Asian languages was the one big set-piece of his budget reply, where are the details? In any decent policy/media strategy, there would be more and more detail released on that until we were all convinced that Abbott was the only one who cared about Asian languages teaching, that the only way to get some of that Asian language goodness was to vote Coalition, and that anything offered by Labor was inadequate. None of that has happened.
Apart from parental leave and a penchant to keep Labor's family handouts, Abbott wants to keep Labor's increased compulsory superannuation payments and touts a dramatically expanded Green Corps scheme. When you couple this with his commitment to Renewable Energy Targets and the direct action plan that aims to match the government's 5 per cent carbon emission reduction target, it becomes difficult to envisage a small-government agenda. Whether he keeps these policies or scraps them, they are so marginal in the political debate that they are unlikely to have an impact on the looming Abbott landslide. But if he keeps them they could have a stultifying impact on his first term in government.
He should scrap them. He should kybosh the pretence of an environmental policy and the various payments and just say he'll run a no-frills government. He should stand or fall on a four-word environmental policy: "climate change is crap". Just imagine the electoral tsunami of libertarian preferences that would sweep away dozens of Labor MPs.

Seriously though, by concentrating on Abbott's first term agenda and brushing off the need to engage Labor in a contest, Kenny demonstrates the sort of hubris necessary for a Labor victory. Twenty years ago I remember heated discussions about Carolyn Hewson having to resign directorships when she went to The Lodge, and witterings about GST on chocolate cakes; a sign, then and now, of strategists losing sight of the main game. They practically invite the voters not just to stultify, but to head off, such a government.
Abbott was right in his budget reply to point out the absence of a plan for economic growth from Labor.
No he wasn't. He drew attention to his own inadequacies in that respect.
... the private sector will want more, including a mandate for greater workplace flexibility. Sadly, given the ogre of Workchoices, that might have to wait for an Abbott re-election campaign.
See what I mean about the hubris? Re-election my arse.

The "ogre of Workchoices" will have to be dealt with now. In 2010, Abbott had the momentum necessary for outright victory until the first week of the election campaign, but Workchoices killed it.

The parallel is the way Howard dealt with Medicare. The Coalition were committed to repealing Medicare during the 1980s and '90s, including under Howard's first term as leader. By 1995 being anti-Medicare was a non-starter, so Howard repeatedly and strongly affirmed Medicare would be preserved and reinforced under his government. By the time the Labor scare campaigns were rolled out nobody but rusted-on voters believed them.

The Coalition needs a workplace relations policy. It has three former ministers on its front bench, plus another one (Peter Reith) who is clearly underemployed. If they have no cogent and coherent policy by this time next year, you'll know that the Coalition are not serious about winning government.

If "the private sector" wants reform, then "the private sector" will have to vote for it. The Coalition were largely abandoned by "the private sector" in 2007, so Workchoices died. Business then set about kicking Labor hard and often over pretty much everything they did, and couldn't work out why they missed out on a tax cut. When it comes to politics, "the private sector" can be pretty stupid. Insiders like Chris Kenny make their money from that stupidity, but even so they have a role in educating and not indulging that stupidity.
All this makes life difficult for his economic team of Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb. Both have been strong contributors in different ways, but in their current roles they haven't worked well together. They have become emblematic of a broader problem -- that Abbott is not fielding his best team. Hockey and Robb would always be in Abbott's best dozen, but their stumbles have served to highlight the under-utilisation of Malcolm Turnbull's economic nous, and of the wise head of the new senator and former chief-of-staff to John Howard, Arthur Sinodinos.

In reality, Turnbull has excluded himself from the Treasury portfolio. He could be considered for it only if he acceded to the party's carbon policy and came to a public and private accommodation with Abbott over leadership. It is genuinely a pity for the nation, let alone the Liberal Party, that this cannot happen.

It would give a Coalition government the best of both worlds -- Abbott's retail politics with Turnbull's economic insight; Abbott's shop-floor ease with Turnbull's corporate schmooze; Abbott's conservative instincts with Turnbull's liberal credentials.

There would be tensions, but they would be the creative tensions of liberalism and conservatism that should be at the core of Coalition success.

Still, the logical move is for Abbott to slip Sinodinos into the finance portfolio, so the economic jobs are split between the chambers. A Hockey-Sinodinos team would be impressive and Robb could easily slot in to a range of other portfolios.
Again, Kenny is getting ahead of himself in talking about government when the campaign is not yet begun, but it's hard to disagree with the above - save the fact that it is the Coalition that will have to develop a climate response rather than the climate that has to accommodate the Coalition. Again, hubris lets the analysis down to the point where it could get in the way of a sound election strategy.
Elsewhere, generational intransigence is holding back a mediocre frontbench team. People like Kevin Andrews and Bronwyn Bishop are holding back opportunities for tyros like Kelly O'Dwyer and Josh Frydenberg.
Here we come to the central flaw of Kenny's argument.

Abbott is all about restoring the Howard Government - well, the perceived positives of that government anyway, except without John and Peter and more than a few others. Andrews, Bishop and any other frontbench duds you care to name are inextricably part of that approach. If you start getting rid of those people and replacing them with those who weren't Howard Government ministers, you have to start wrestling with issues that weren't settled in 1996-2007, and then you have differences of opinion, and LIBERAL SPLIT SHOCK and Gillard re-elected. Do you want that, Chris? Then stop denying the dream of the Howard Restoration.

Why do hate the Liberal Party, Chris? Why do you hate Australia?

O'Dwyer and Frydenberg come from the wrong state, which is why dills like Dutton and Cormann are on the front bench at their expense. Everyone knows that the next government must focus on the challenges of the future rather than the past, but if you let that light in on the magic of the Howard Restoration, it may not survive: so I ask again, Chris Kenny, why do you hate the Liberal Party and Australia (as if there were a difference)?
Abbott, wisely, has rewarded loyalty, and it is understandable he doesn't want to upset his team with a reshuffle before an election. But the cost of leaving promotions till government will be the lost opportunity to build experience.
It might stop him getting into government at all, Chris.

Kenny has repeatedly pointed out examples why Abbott can't get out of his own way. If you add them all up you have to start asking whether he really is the guy to lead you to victory. Kenny is kind and diplomatic in his remonstrations but there will come a point where he and his will have to wake the contestant he's backing to win a race that is far from won.


  1. What amuses me so much about people like Kenny is how they sign up to Abbott's rhetoric because it reminds them so much of fighting the lefties at university and youth policies and they kept swept away by the values statements, but when they actually look deeper into the policies, they get very concerned that what he's proposing isn't what they really want.

    Abbott's committed himself to a climate change policy via regulation, no work choices or any other form of free market IR policy, a Paid Parental Leave scheme that's based around taxing business and an Asian Languages policy which Paul Keating would be proud of and if he backs down on any of these things, he's going to get destroyed by the electorate as his campaign is based around the fact he's more truthful than Gillard.

    To cap it off, such people then suggest that Hockey and Robb should be replaced with smart economic minds like Turnbull and Sinodinos without the understanding that if Abbott moved any of them (or anyone else on the Coalition front bench), the house of cards would fall in on itself and there would be mid 2009 style pyrotechnics (maybe even a Liberal/National split).

    Not to mention the consequence of making simple promises based on an extremely complex political realities that involves election timing (how Abbott's meant to line up his political ducks in order to repeal the carbon tax and MRRT after July 1st is beyond me), economic certainty, international political events and the senate configuration.

    It's unbelievable mass denial. Similar to how ALP supporters were when they thought Rudd was Jesus from around July 2009 - January/February 2010.

    1. You're right, Gordon. So long as the polls remain up Abbott is safe from his party room. Polls slip a bit and he's finished, and gone for all time.

  2. Was that pay-walled when you wrote this?

    1. Yep, sorry. I use Google News to get around the paywall.

  3. Another small point Kenny has forgotten. If Abbott makes any changes to his shadow ministry, then one of them has to go. Abbott has one more member on his shadow ministry then the govt has on its benches. A condition of the new salary curtesy of the Remuneration tribunal, is that if Abbott makes any changes then he has to bring his lot in line with govt numbers. That might be a bit too much to ask of Abbott.

    1. Good point Sue, one false move and Abbott's history.

  4. To be honest I hadn't stumbled across Chris Kenny before; then I read this and then, last night, I wasted some minutes watching a show on Sky News (oh, the joys of hotels..) with David Speers, Peter Van O, Richo, some other dude and Chris Kenny. Talk about wasted oxygen. All in furious agreement that Gillard has to go, and that all Abbott has to do is what he is doing now, or nothing, (though I can't be sure there is any difference). Chris Kenny thought he should take things down a notch or two, meaning I think , from shrieking Dr No to just whining Dr No. Vacuous, self serving shite really fromt he lot of them. I think there is a change in the wind adn the great unravelling is near.

  5. Turnbull thinks of Turnbull only ! The man was an absolute disgrace when he was Leader of the Opposition .......We had no Opposition !! The games he played and the wink of the eye between him and Krudd made Parliament an utter joke an insult to every Australian watching QT .
    The man wants his ETS and that's all that counts with him a way to build up his personal wealth in the share market, his loyalty to Goldman Sachs (Traders in ETS )is his aim .

  6. Australia should find ways to address economic issues to prevent underemployment and unemployment.