Ask anyone: who brought the troops home from Vietnam? Whitlam (actually, McMahon had done most of that work earlier in 1972). Who set up the Australia Council to foster Australian film, literature, theatre and culture more broadly? Whitlam (Gorton set up the initial, tentative and under-resourced version of this entity). Plenty of big ideas from the Liberals are owned by Labor.
Liberals get no credit for the 1967 referendum on counting Aborigines in the census, nor for the (accidental) career of Neville Bonner, and Malcolm Fraser achieved quite a lot in Aboriginal Affairs (with ministers like Fred Chaney and Ian Viner) - but it is all knocked into a cocked hat with that image of Gough Whitlam's white fist leaking red soil into Vincent Lingiari's outstretched black hand.
That's where big ideas gets the Liberals: nowhere, politically. Proponents of big ideas seeking bipartisan support are wasting their time because there's nothing in it for the Coalition. To understand this is to understand why their only big ideas are warmed-over and inconsistent exercises in frustration and disappointment.
In the 1980s the Liberals organised around ideas, wets and dries, and a fat lot of good that did them. "Incentivation" failed in 1987. Shack's great health plan and the questions needing to be answered failed in 1990. Fightback! failed in 1993. John Howard led the tendency in the Liberal Party to disdain big ideas, and by 1996 Liberals flinched when confronted with ideas. Howard won in 1996 by stirring up apathy to Keating's "big picture" ideas on Aboriginal reconciliation, the arts and the republic. The defeat of the republic confirmed and reinforced it: forget big ideas.
Conservatives don't do big ideas. When in power conservatives see themselves as guarding the Treasury and the common weal generally, forming a gauntlet through which ideas that are costly, faddish, socialistic, or otherwise undesirable are filtered out. Any initiatives that survive such a rigorous process must truly be the Unstoppable March of Progress. Because any initiatives that survive conservative governments are considered inevitable, conservatives get no credit for them. Meteorologists get no credit for good weather nor any blame for bad.
Conservatives are disappointed that major policy initiatives in Australian politics come from outside their ranks. Independence for East Timor was a far-left irrelevance until John Howard seized the opportunity to realise it; apart from Jose Ramos Horta, nobody gives Howard much credit for that. Kevin Donnelly is trying his best in pushing for a return to classical education, but too few Liberals enjoyed such an education themselves and Donnelly has failed at persuasion/doing the numbers; they can't and won't sell it.
Howard's one enduring initiative, the gun buyback, occurred on the fly from within his office and not from the grass roots of the Coalition parties. It is being undone by conservative state governments fostering hunting in national parks and lifting restrictions on ammunition (the current government had a case to answer with lax customs detection of weapons imports, but Jason Clare appears to be limiting scope for criticism and will have made his reputation if he can render it a non-issue by September).
They can't have it both ways, acting as the scourge of new initiatives and wondering why none come from within - but yet they still wish it were otherwise. The central weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a structural shift and a passing fad, which is why structural shifts have to assert themselves politically in a way that passing fads can't. Conservatives were kept out of office until they embraced Medicare, and were not allowed in until they accepted warnings not to dismantle it. Gay marriage still looks like a passing fad to conservatives; but it isn't, and future conservatives will claim to be upset that doubt will be cast on their not-yet-evident support for this initiative.
In his youth, Tony Abbott learned the Big Ideas of Santamaria and the DLP: nuclear families made from wedded straight couples; opposition to abortion and euthanasia; and that the Church is never wrong and owes no compensation to anyone. From Howard he learned to disdain Big Ideas, and he generally does: but he is conflicted. He can't be trusted in his claims to support the NDIS; statements that the Coalition would only support an NDIS at some future time when the land is flowing with milk and honey is far more credible, however disappointing that might be for supporters.
He can't be trusted in his claims to support a comprehensive Asian language/cultural exchange program between Australian and Asian education systems (he calls this a "new Colombo Plan" for those seeking certainty in old ideas, but his proposal is nothing like that limited and outdated program). His dismissal of Big Ideas can be put down to 1 Corinthians 13:11 when it suits him, but when it doesn't his rhetoric keens for Big Ideas and the credit that attaches to them.
The two ideas from the late 1960s which Labor have been happy to leave to the conservatives are nuclear energy and northern development.
There was a serious proposal by the Gorton government to develop a nuclear energy industry. Within the current term of Parliament Josh Frydenberg attempted to revive the idea in his intellectually and politically timid way - to "call for a debate" without leading one, to ignore the developments in this area (including environmental knowledge) over the past forty years, and to generally overestimate the importance of Josh in making things happen. In Liberal terms, however, Frydenberg has revived a trusty Liberal issue that has sat in the bottom drawer awaiting its hour and its champion, and the opponents of the issue are almost all lefties so don't underestimate the frisson of political correctness that attaches to even talking about an Australian nuclear industry.
An Australian nuclear industry would be expensive to set up and maintain, and would take a long time to do so even with an unequivocally supportive government. It would, however, make a few people a lot of money. It follows, therefore, that those who stand to reap the rewards can bear the risk involved in getting the idea up. The fact that they have preferred for government to bear this risk leaves proponents looking politically exposed, attracting criticism without any compensating reward.
Northern development is like that, too:
- If you want to pay less tax, then forget about government building you free dams, rail lines and roads.
- Landholdings in southeastern and southwestern Australia tend to be small and numerous, so when you build dams there the economic benefit is widely spread through surrounding communities. Landholdings in northern Australia tend to be large and few, so a government that builds them a dam it will basically be donating public money to a small group of people who don't pay tax and aren't even Australian.
- The Co-Chairman of ANDEV, Gina Rinehart, lives far to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn, in Perth. Dominic Talimanidis, Director of the North Australia Project at the Institute of Public Affairs, also lives far to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn - in Melbourne, as does the Shadow Minister responsible for confusing this with a policy idea, Andrew Robb. All three are incurring vastly inflated labour costs. If these people won't live their own proposals there is no reason why anyone else should.
- As to 'immigration' magically solving labour-shortage issues in northern Australia, I'd suggest that Gina Rinehart saw the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at an impressionable age and won't be told there's no such place as Oompa-Loompa Land from which sufficient numbers of willing and underpaid workers can be drawn.
- Forget about setting up some sort of Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine because it already exists and has done for a hundred years. If you were in a position to do so, you'd write them a huge cheque to encourage them to keep up the good work and challenge the government (the incumbents and/or the opp-pose-ition) to match it - this would have far more credibility than sitting around in Perth or Melbourne dreaming up ways of spending taxpayer money by people who would rather avoid contributing, and proposing entities that exist already.
- Alternative to previous point: set up the Lang Hancock Centre for Tropical Medicine (motto: "Get out of bed and do some bloody work!") and see how you go attracting serious research talent.
- Speaking of health, if government was serious about this proposal it would be building hospitals, schools and other social infrastructure in northern Australia. It would be costing that infrastructure and preparing detailed assessments about labour needs. In the absence of such planning, with attendant budget estimates and opportunity costs etc.
- The government has avoided deploying ADF personnel to northwestern WA for very good reasons. ADF personnel are well-trained, fit, work in teams, follow instructions, and are underpaid compared to mining industry norms. If you wanted to cut the Defence budget and our operational readiness, you'd send them to areas where they earn a fraction of their neighbours.
- If you expect government to build all this infrastructure up north, proposals like this and this and that - and donations to the vehicle industry on which they run - will need to be revised (at the very least, journalists should question them). Think about what we could have done with all that money flushed down the Ord. It's either-or in this budget climate, not all-this-and-more.
- Where is the Australian FMCG company that could actually ramp up exports to Asia if required (because only then do we even get to the idea of a "northern foodbowl")?
- Given the shelving of Olympic Dam (south of the Tropic of Capricorn) and Ravensthorpe (likewise), what problem is this 'solution' trying to solve? Engineering types working in mining and construction should have a simple and firm answer to this question: what problem is this 'solution' trying to solve?
- The Northern Development plan is pretty much limited to farming and mining, as it was in the 1960s. No Karratha Google, no Ayr Apple, nothing that takes away from those who would take more than they contribute.
- Why aren't Aboriginal communities leading, or at least involved in, this push? Normally voluble people like Noel Pearson, Alison Anderson, and Bess Price seem very, very quiet on this arrangement.
- In the 1970s the SA government proposed to build Monarto to alleviate overpopulation in Adelaide. The Liberal Opposition regarded it as an ill-conceived and expensive extravagance;
- In the 1980s the SA government proposed to build a Multi-Function Polis to boost hi-tech employment in (not-necessarily overpopulated) Adelaide. The Liberal Opposition regarded it as an ill-conceived and expensive extravagance;
- In the last decade the SA government sought to facilitate a mine at Olympic Dam that would consume more power than the city of Adelaide. Who knows what the Liberal Opposition thought of that? Do you think such a power-hungry entity, mining uranium amongst other things, would have set up a nuclear power station at its own expense to show how it's done?
... Would it not be easierThere is something to Craig Emerson's quip that Abbott can't even be positive about own policies. Suspicion immediately falls upon Peta Credlin, who loathes Robb and probably thought such a leak would not rebound upon the leader to the extent that it has. Why does anyone think there's a scrap of electoral kudos in a 40-year-old idea that is so obviously doomed? What's the alternative?
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
- Bertolt Brecht The Solution
With education and health - always big issues in Australian elections no matter what pollsters say - there are signs that the old ways won't do and that people are more open than some might imagine to trying new ways of doing things. Chris Pyne's insistence that the status quo of school funding is ridiculous. Peter Dutton's pronouncements would be just as silly if there were any. Neither man can maintain the assertion that local boards will fix more problems than they cause, or make worse. They simply aren't offering solutions to actual problems facing this country.
With his backdown on supporting people and communities with alcohol problems, and a couple of leaks, we would describe him and his team as in disarray if only these events had happened to the government. Abbott's problems run far deeper than that. This is the last election when the Liberals can dig their heels in and demand a return to all things Howard (well, except Howard himself, and Costello, and the heady pre-GFC economy ...).
Abbott suppressed initiative and centralised policy development in his own office, which he stuffed full of control-freak message numpties. Journalists should not be forming mutually-beneficial relationships with such people but going around them. Moderates of old would have bucked centralisation in the leader's office, but the hollow shells that remain have happily gone along with Abbott because they see no other alternative.
In order to cement his own position, Abbott has leached the Liberal Party of its capacity to articulate how the country could be governed differently and what it might look like if it so chose. That capacity will not return soon, either. Warmed-over ideas from the 1960s accrue no interest in the vault and get overtaken by new ideas, the development of which the Coalition play no part. They need to expire, and be seen to expire, publicly and unavoidably. New, big ideas from the Liberals will need a track record of success that they currently lack before they can take their forfeited place among those who help this country grow and prosper.