19 November 2012

Liberals afraid of ideas

There was a time when people would join the Liberal Party as a way of making their concerns felt, and having a more direct, active and ongoing input into government decision-making than was the case merely by voting every few years. Under Tony Abbott, the party's policy-generation capacity has been exhausted. Liberals are actually afraid of ideas.

Earlier today Abbott announced a proposal for a Productivity Commission inquiry into childcare. This is not the same as announcing a policy on childcare. It is not the same as having a clear idea about what people need from childcare. Even if there was a bit of barrow-pushing from childcare providers, that would be a sign of life in policy terms.

Margie Abbott endorsed Abbott's statement but it was not clear what, in childcare policy terms or in actual outcomes, she was endorsing. It wasn't clear how her experience was being put to good use. Jeanette Howard or Therese Rein would have gleefully pointed out something that she had a hand in making happen, and then retreated back to the shadows; the expression on Margie Abbott's couldn't have been any more strained if she had a revolver jabbed between her shoulderblades.

I have two children aged under five: an announcement about childcare cuts through the static. In Abbott's announcement was, however, pretty much static. With "labour market flexibility", you need to be able to drop your kids off at childcare outside as and when required, rather than being locked in to a set number of days for a set number of weeks as per current policy. The childcare centre that Margie Abbott runs at St Ives opens no earlier than 8.30 am and closes at 3.30 pm - utterly useless for anyone who works full time. Even to speak of "labour market flexibility" would require Abbott to deal with workplace reform, the third rail of conservative politics. It's easier for him to hide behind the grey cardigan of the Productivity Commission than take such a stand.

At least Abbott's announcement knocked this into a cocked hat. As I said at the time - scroll down to the comments and search for my name - Josh and Alan are just another couple of Canberra elitist shinybums with no idea about childcare/early childhood education.

Other "announcements" of this type include:
  • A Working Group to Grow Tasmania,comprised of people who have contributed nothing so far and offer little going forward, by contrast with specific and costed bandwagon-jumping measures for infrastructure in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne;
  • A Working Group on Red Tape, featuring career public servants, which ignores the prospect of software overcoming "pages and pages of documents";
  • On foreign language teaching, there is a bit of an imperative to "work urgently with the states to ensure", but nothing at the tertiary or primary levels;
  • Simultaneously welcoming and discouraging foreign investment in agriculture;
  • When it comes to marine park assessment, there is a lot of Canberra-shinybum activity; private member bills here and committees there, and referrals, as well as advice that is supposed to be "independent" (of what? of whom?), as though marine scientists grow on trees. As though an Abbott government would respect a scientific opinion he didn't like.
These committees have increased in number at the very time when doubts have been aired from within Coalition ranks as to the nature and quality of its leadership, and whether the incumbents are best placed to lead them to government. When you understand the imperative to create make-work schemes for restive Canberra shinybums, you understand how red tape grows and how hard it can be to cut it back. They aren't taking input from Liberal branches either.

Peter van Onselen decries formerly moderate Liberals for neither departing public life or making bigger targets for his employer. He starts with a bit of duff taxonomy:
The first barrier to moderate tendencies again securing a say within the Liberal Party is the rise of the non-ideological, marginal-seat MP. They are tribal warriors who know little about why they joined the Liberal Party, other than they dislike the ALP. Normally they are dissatisfied with the government of the day, or would not have been able to win preselection for the other side because they weren't in a trade union.
Really? Looking at this list of Liberal MPs, with the most marginal ones at the top of the list, few actually fit this bill. Most seem to have entered parliament when the Howard government was in office - so much for Labor dissatisfaction. Many newbie MPs on that list, such as Alan Tudge (Aston, V) or George Christensen (Dawson, Q), have long records of political activism that belie van Onselen's attempts to label them political blow-ins.
Perhaps having dabbled in small business, usually unsuccessfully (why else would they transition into politics)
Oh come on: Russell Broadbent (McMillan, V) ran a successful furniture business on Melbourne's outskirts. The three most marginal Coalition seats are held by former public servants. Liberal MPs with a background in small business have usually been successful for a long time and looking for a change in direction, not minding either the decline or steadiness of income. There are aberrations - the less said about Craig Kelly the better, and I disdain ex-staffers who go into lobbying as 'businesses' worth the name.

The Liberals have run out of new ideas. The central weakness of conservatism is that it cannot distinguish fads from lasting change. If the moribund party organisation is stuffed with lobbyists, whose agendas fill the space where local people's policy ideas used to be, then politicians will be less beholden to their communities than ever. Politics will become an apprenticeship for a career in lobbying, where representing general interests merely sharpens skills and builds contacts for representing small-scale interests. Nobody will be able to say "Thanks, Liberal Party!" for future policies with which they agree, because it has become a hollowed-out vehicle loaded by others rather than a political force in itself.

Now that the Gillard government looks less likely to lose by default, the Liberals will have to redouble their focus on state governments or else start the hard work of rebuilding for 2016. There are questions about the extent to which the straw men named by van Onselen can or will be part of that, as they all share the dread of repeating the ideological brawls of the 1980s and '90s.

Policies show that a party is listening and thinking, that it is comprised of people who are citizens before they are partisans. The Liberals sneered at Rudd in 2007 for promising to "hit the ground reviewing". Abbott is promising much the same except he isn't a kinder-gentler version of anything or anyone. At the 2013 election he is on track to hit the wall, not the ground. The Coalition won't be reviewing - they'll be recoiling and recriminating.

A political party that does not generate and stick by its own ideas will go the way of the Democrats, unelected and unmissed, because there are real issues that demand the focus that they lack.


  1. The comment before yours is a cracker!

    You seem to get blocked by "some elements of Twitter" on a frequent basis Andrew. Don't worry, I wouldn't want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member either.

    Nice bit of history here by AAP on the battle between the wets and the dries.

  2. Whilst I doubt the Liberal Party would go the way of the Democrats, what do you imagine would be the circumstances under which that could happen and what kind of party could replace them?

    The business community will always want a voice inside Parliament. Whether they like it or not they are the voice of, and for, business. I don't see business as allowing them to go missing; at worst, just frittering around the edges responding only to the policies of progressive parties whilst "conservatives" try to keep things the same and protect rent seekers - maybe we are already there?

  3. What about Alex Greenwich ??

    Five years with the AME and now an independent in NSW parliament


    Simon Sheikh


  4. The problem with policies is that both parties have snookered themselves with populism, which has pushed them to adopt policies which are at odds with their core ideologies. The Liberals have a particularly nasty case of this as a legacy of John Howard's unabashed vote buying through middle class welfare, despite the concept of welfare being something that should make true Liberals gag at the very thought. Labor has started to pare it back but hasn't got the guts to really do away with it.

    For the Libs, the concepts of fiscal responsibility, of personal responsibility, of freedom from state interference, should be at odds with welfare, especially non-means tested welfare. Despite the Liberals being for low taxation, spending money on the well-off is a very expensive exercise, much greater than a bare-bones safety net, because the well-off have greater wants, which requires a bigger tax take to satisfy. Accordingly the irony is that a vote for the Liberal party at present is a vote for higher taxes to maintain cash splurges to 'families', property owners, holders of health insurance, business etc. Tax and welfare policy isn't about helping the needy and society as a whole but about shovelling cash at your favourite interest group.

    Federal Labor has also put the Libs in a difficult position with their recent cuts to spending, especially on the public service - it leaves little for the Libs should they get into power, which is problematic given Abbott's line is that they'll save billions by cutting taxes and cutting expenditure (all whilst having one of the most profligate child care policies). I've not really seen many in the media call them out on this blatant paradox.

    The quality of debate in this country on policy issues is woeful. The media don't do it justice, but in all fairness to the media, the average Australian switches off when politics and policy is discussed, they switch over to Funniest Home Videos.

    I do sympathise for whomever is in power as Australians have become such a 'what's in it for me?' nation. When I hear friends whose household incomes are over $300K bitch about possible cuts to private school subsidies, cuts to the health insurance subsidy, cuts to family tax benefits, the sheer selfishness of it does my head in. Why can't people say 'hey, I'm doing pretty good, I don't mind giving up some of this to help out people who really need it' or 'I chose to have kids, I shouldn't be expecting people who earn less than me to subsidise that choice'.

  5. Cantbeeffed, for what it's worth, I agree wholeheartedly.

    Richard Dennis on The Drum [19/11/12] made the point that Conservative politicians are constantly saying that governments shouldn't run our lives, but they want to run our deaths (in reference to opposition to legal euthanasia).

    Of course, the idea of personal freedoms becomes even murkier when the people who are often most in favor of personal freedoms are the religious right (especially in the USA). The religious right detest government regulations, however they are very comfortable with an alternate form of institutional structures that make impositions upon: personal freedoms for women, the right to marry for gay and lesbians, as well as the right to affordable healthcare for all (is it not a common Christian tenet to "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "do unto others as you would have them do to you"?). [Not to mention the attitude towards unemployment benefits/welfare from the Republicans in the USA]

    To add to what you mentioned, Cantbeeffed, we have a Liberal party in Australia who supports a direct action plan* for climate change (when market intervention should be anathema to the party of the free market and small government) and a Labor party who supports a market mechanism to reduce carbon pollution. Another classic role reversal (although since Hawke/Keating the ALP has been more open to showing leadership on deregulation).

    Another example was the recent vote against wheat deregulation by the Conservative side of politics. Madness in the name of cheap political point scoring, aka saying no to everything.

    "Why can't people say 'hey, I'm doing pretty good, I don't mind giving up some of this to help out people who really need it' or 'I chose to have kids, I shouldn't be expecting people who earn less than me to subsidise that choice'."

    Well put indeed. It really is all about money. I fear that part of the problem is that too many in our parliament put fear into the hearts of the electorate by talking down our economy and preaching that we should be scared of how badly we are doing. The MSM, shamefully, also peddles this message on an all too regular basis.

    Carl Gustav Jung, if he were still alive today, would love to analyse the identity constructs within both major parties at the moment. Perhaps he would make very light work of it, or, why bother at all when he could simply employ the services of a focus group instead! Oh - wait, that would be the lazy way of doing things. Heaven forbid we take the easiest possible way out and engage in a race to the bottom.

    *Even though their leader endorsed a carbon tax in an interview back in 2009.

  6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00z8f6c

    The selfish Australian middle class ethos was best described here in this interview with prominent playwright Christos Tsiolkas

    Refreshing to hear an Australian talk about the reality of who Australians really are in modern times!!

  7. WorkChoices is what they want and all they need.

    a) Widens the gap between rich and poor - always a core Liberal objective.

    b) Hurts Labor financially by crippling unions.

    c) Business will be eternally appreciative for wage costs being put on a downward slope.

    d) It was John Howard's lifetime policy objective, so who is any Liberal to object to THAT?

  8. Cantbeeffed, you've got John Howard to thank for that attitude. It certainly wasn't present in Australians to the same degree before he came to power. Relaxed and comfortable, indeed.

  9. Howard and The $1,250,000,000,000 Debt That Changed Australia.
    Now what debt would that be?
    What $60 Billion annual interest bill, ultimately paid by employers through wages would that be?
    What $60 Billion annual interest bill will still have to be paid even if a revamped work choices reduced wages?
    What numberdunces in small and large businesses fail to see the recipe for recession in the Howard Debt That Changed Australia?
    What dunces in the media fail to have the fogggiest idea what the Howard Debt that Changed Australia actually is?
    What simpering middle class fops typically shut down any discussion of the Howard Debt that Changed Australia because numbers are so boring, darling!

  10. Interested in the topic of child care. My son/family live in South London. Both his children attended a v good chld care centre from age of 6 months to 3 years; 4 days a week 8.30 am to 6 pm. He said the cost was equal to taking on a another mortgage.

    At age 3 years, both children transferred to local primary school. This school is an academy school. The children are the only white caucasians in their classes - everybody else is African or south asian. The two years "nursery" provided outstanding pre-school education. It is all free. On entering the school itself at age of 5, the eldest child also now attends "after school club" which lasts until 6pm.
    I am deeply impressed by the Poms providing all this..

    Anyway Andrew, I was recalling that when Labor was elected in '07, Julia was in charge of two departments - industrial and education, including pre school. Maxine McKew was her parliamentary sec in charge of the latter. My recollection is that the two of them set about integrating pre-school/school. What became of their endeavours?

  11. No info abt that Andrew?

  12. Sorry, bb. Seems to be a work in progress, with Kate Ellis having made some strides but not many. Gonski doesn't mention it in detail and neither did Asian Century - hmm, might be a blogpost in that.