Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
- Walt Whitman Song of myself
There remains a desire in this country to hold the government to account. Some people want the government to do what it was elected to do, others want it to do something else. Traditionally the media also held governments to account, but these days they only do polls.
What do people mean when they say "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister"? What do others who hear that think it means?
When Liberal voters hear "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister", they hear sad people in denial about the country from whose government they have been removed. In politics, as in sport, it is not enough to win; others must fail, and people upset that Tony Abbott is doing what he always said he'd do must have failed.
Despite the fact that Coalition supporters treated Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard with contempt, and despite their often appalling behaviour extended to non-members of the last government like Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Tim Mathieson, they seriously believe that the nation should just shut up and let the Abbott government do whatever it feels like doing. Even though every government gets criticised for what it does and doesn't do, they sincerely believe this government should be heard in the respectful silence that Coalition functions extend to visiting Abbott government ministers.
When those who opposed the government, or who oppose particular policies, say "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister", they mean that they think the country is better than Abbott and the policies that he brings with him - 7 September notwithstanding. They take the ability to criticise the government - any government - pretty much as given. Dissent need not be impolite, let alone as insolent as Coalition fans think it is. When a government is dismissive of the authority that comes with experience and learning, and appears to be in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it can make civil discourse that much more difficult (while also overestimating their ability to prevail when things turn ugly).
Tony Abbott isn't "my" Prime Minister, or yours, because you and I aren't Rupert Murdoch. All of Abbott's life has been consumed with snuggling up to authority and then gradually assuming it, without having to justify that authority or answer to it in any meaningful way. As Health Minister, he was rarely interviewed by journalists who specialise in health policy; when he was interviewed by political journalists they would ask him about anything but his portfolio, which they never really understood, not even when Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek introduced measures to compensate for Abbott's inaction or maladministration.
In only a few days in office the Abbott government has attracted a lot of criticism over two issues: having few women ministers, and cutting environmental programs. In both areas, its post-election behaviour is pretty much the same as its pre-election behaviour. While it is always possible to hope for more and better, it is silly to be disappointed at eminently foreseeable events like the dismissal of Tim Flannery and the dissolution of the Climate Change Commission. Take this letter in The Age yesterday (Courtesy @davidadonaldson):
Oh yes you did, Ms Paton. You ignored the warnings and believed all the blandishments. Yet, there will be more like you than those who go the other way.
Does this mean Tony Abbott is my Prime Minister? No. Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of my country. I take responsibility for the vote I cast, and while I wish more of my fellow voted in a similar way to what I did, I recognise the reality of what happened. Australia has one of the most open and fairest electoral systems in the world, and I do not believe the Coalition subverted it by force, graft, or other illegality such that would invalidate the result. I do not believe our political system is the kind of choice-of-two-evils facing the people of Egypt, the non-choice of evil in Zimbabwe, or the non-choice of many evils besetting Syria.
If you're an Australian then Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of your country, as Sarah Burnside points out:
There is nothing inherently wrong with political conflict and there is, certainly, a great deal in Abbott’s mean-spirited platform about which to be angry – for instance, deep cuts to foreign aid and to the Aboriginal Legal Service (which Warren Mundine now suggests may be reversed) ...This will be an interesting test for Mundine. Having left the ALP, where he had been National President, to take up with the Abbott government, Mundine had better be right about statements like that. If he keeps insisting that we look on the sunny side of the Abbott government, and were such optimism were to go unsupported by what the government actually does, Mundine's credibility might suffer; how strange that would be where the Prime Minister was so committed to Indigenous issues.
Burnside rightly points out:
The desire to parade one's despair and anger with our new government is civic engagement of a rather narrow kind. The sphere of the political seems to shrink; instead of a concern with the wider world and the clashing ideologies and the power relations that shape our society, politics is a matter of individual performance. The personal is political, the political personal, and the snake devours its tail until nothing is left.That's true about despair in general. It might also be fair to say that about those who insist that "Abbott's policies on [whatever] are truly scary". Oh, please. What we have here is a series of rallying cries for those who are out but not down. Tony Abbott gave no quarter or respect to the last government and is owed none in return. Burnside seems to be arguing against the sort of quietism that overcomes football fans once their team drops out of finals contention, unless she is arguing for it as Liberals are; it is unclear what she is arguing for, how those who oppose the government wholly or in part should go about the business of securing outcomes they perceive as better.
Not everything that governments say or do are justified by a mandate. John Howard did not have a mandate to help East Timor secure its independence, nor for WorkChoices, yet both came to define his government. Paul Keating, definer and scourge of Balmain basket-weavers, was the last person you'd expect to deliver the Redfern speech. It is possible that those who urge Abbott to go against his base (and base instincts) may be doing him a bigger favour than his rusted-on muckers egging him on to do his worst.
Barrie Cassidy wrote:
Tony Abbott's immediate media strategy is to put the country to sleep, or at least lower the volume so that everybody can enjoy a little quiet reflection after a tumultuous few years.No it isn't. It might be different were the government basking in the sort of roseate glow of goodwill that lasts for a while after a new government takes office - that has all but gone in this case, and your crusty old journos who've seen governments come and go missed that entirely.
That approach is eminently defensible and politically smart.
On what are they/we reflecting? Bad things about Abbott: his discomfort with women in positions where they might challenge him, and the fact that the challenges surrounding climate change will be squibbed altogether rather than tinkered with. His base might revel in that, but a clear majority is uncertain at least on both issues.
This, however, made me laugh:
... the media has to be alert to the danger that Abbott and his ministers wind back media engagements primarily to avoid scrutiny and accountability.If you seriously still assume that the media are in the accountability business, take these two of so, so many examples where that is simply not the case.
On 20 June, Leigh Sales interviewed Dr Craig Emerson on ABC's 7.30. At the time, Emerson was Minister for Trade and Competitiveness; Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research; and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy. None of his portfolio responsibilities were covered by Sales - no executive actions, no expenditures of taxpayer money, across such a wide area. Sales put to him Canberra chatter about polls, polls, and polls:
LEIGH SALES: I'm not talking about polls.In this case, it was the government minister who held the
CRAIG EMERSON: You are. You're talking about a pollster and talking about Julia Gillard standing in polls. There are polls out now - not every week, Leigh, but every day ...
Consider the recent controversy over the gender make-up of the Abbott Cabinet, and consider that this exchange took place just three months ago:
LEIGH SALES: Speaking of Tony Abbott, in a speech last week the Prime Minister said that under an Abbott Government, women voices would be banished from political life. Why did she over-state and exaggerate her case like that?This week 7.30 had the good grace to note the paucity of women in the Abbott Cabinet, and to avoid having Sales lead that. She banished the issue to Heather Ewart, who cited only Liberal critics of the Prime Minister; clearly, non-Liberal critics of the Prime Minister are not to be considered on such a matter.
CRAIG EMERSON: Well I think it's pretty clear that Tony Abbott, in the way he talks about women or certainly has talked about women in the past, has created anxiety amongst women as to whether they really would be part of the mainstream under an Abbott-led Government.
LEIGH SALES: How exactly would women's voices be banished?
CRAIG EMERSON: There's two women, for example, in the shadow Cabinet, just two.
LEIGH SALES: Well therefore that's not banished.
CRAIG EMERSON: It's a greatly diminished and this is the point the Prime Minister's making.
LEIGH SALES: I'm asking about the Prime Minister's credibility and her accuracy and why she exaggerated.
I haven't just picked on some junior journalist making a rookie error for an obscure outlet. Sales and Ewart are among the country's most experienced reporters on politics. Should they be banished when it comes to 'holding the government to account'? They certainly do a crap job of it and are unlikely to get any better.
One who should be banished from slow-media journalism if it is to rebuild any sort of credibility is Mark Baker. If Paddy Manning can be sacked for his measured piece for Crikey then Baker should have been for his silly, swingeing attack:
The Slater & Gordon complaint was vigorously rejected by The Age ...Well they would, wouldn't they.
... and this finding [the Press Council adjudication] is flawed and illogical - like so much of the work of the Press Council.Now if a blogger had written that, Baker would be the first to vault onto his high horse and declaim about journalistic standards and unfounded allegations. He has now shown us that he has no standards indistinguishable from the assertion of his ego. He was caught fabricating a story, and now he's blaming the ref for collaring him. Alan Austin has more credibility than Baker, as do we all. The idea that Baker is going to hold anyone to account (or help his subordinates to do so) is absurd, given his diatribe worthy of a drunken derelict arguing with a tree.
Why should I accept that Mark Baker and The Age are laws unto themselves? I don't accept that's the case about the Prime Minister.
Find me a countervailing example of holding the government to account by a slow-media journalist, go on.
The media didn't hold the last government to account and it will do less for this one. Because press gallery journalists' investigative skills have atrophied (or are substituted with fabrications in the case of The Age) the simple act of stopping press conferences will cause the press gallery to create more and more noise about less and less.
Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of my country, and yours if you're an Australian. That means you have to, if you haven't already, get an appreciation of what is and isn't in Australia's best interests; and then judge the policies and decisions of the Abbott government against that. Whether a decision is made on day one, day one hundred or day one thousand of a government's tenure, it is a decision that deserves examination and evaluation. Those who insist that this government must be the first in our history, and unique in the world, to operate without any examination or criticism whatsoever (as happens within the councils of the governing parties) are to be ignored.
You should acknowledge where (if?) the government does a good job, and where it does a bad one consider how it might do better. By doing so, you are helping the incumbents avoid the sort of overreach that saw them bundled out in 2007, and you give an alternative government a clear path forward. My country, and yours, needs this level of scrutiny if it is to live up to its potential. To hell with everyone whose sole contribution to public debate is to call for the deadness of a bit of shoosh.