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.
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.