If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?Events come and go, and all newly-elected governments have teething problems. It's tempting to confuse (or, in wishful terms, conflate) teething problems with crippling deficiencies that will ultimately do for this government. Yet, there are deficiencies among the Coalition that were detectable before they entered government. They are well and truly on display right now. There is no evidence of bureaucratic envelopment or wise counsel or other measures that might help this government grow the brains and capabilities that it so copiously lacks, and has always lacked.
- George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
Apart from Abbott himself, nobody in the Cabinet is more media-savvy than Scott Morrison. Morrison underestimated his skill in being all over the media before the election, and then engaging in blocking tactics afterwards (e.g. refusing to confirm his own statements, refusing to confirm that he talks to the PM, using a staff officer to lend him the authority that he lacks). The dissonance in Morrison being present yet absent for the media, and the fact that the Indonesian government (and the Indonesian media) is being as sensitive to Australia's internal politics as Abbott (and the Australian media) was to its, all makes for something of a gap between the responsible adult government we were promised and the shambles we were delivered.
That promise came not only from the Coalition, but from the press gallery. The press gallery cannot credibly maintain its hastily-constructed claim that this government's shortcomings have come about suddenly (and thus unforeseeably).
Soon after he became Treasurer, Peter Costello went to Washington and had a private conversation with then-Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. Costello breached protocol and related Greenspan's words to the waiting media, and US stock markets and exchange rates juddered and lurched as a result. Costello learnt his lesson, but it is unclear what lessons Julie Bishop is learning about statecraft. If she is learning anything, she's doing it the hard way and expensively - but hey, maybe that's just Julie's style.
Having brought on rebukes from both Indonesia and China should be enough to get anyone sacked from the position she occupies, surely; a loyal deputy for six years under three leaders, she is letting the side down. She is certainly no Percy Spender, who put in place the entire architecture of postwar foreign policy in 19 months. She even offers less than the cross-continental dithering we saw in the last government from Smith, Rudd, and Carr. She has no excuse for being so unprepared.
There is no hinterland of considered thought, writing and speaking on which to build a hope for more and better in this vital area of federal government policy: only the partisans, with faces painted and screeching encouragement, can truly believe this pivotal moment in our foreign relations is best handled by someone so out of her depth even with basic political and diplomatic niceties.
It's possible that the last of the foreign policy wonks will take in hand these wayward ministers and lead them through to the fallow but safe-seeming ground of foreign policy conventional wisdom (much of which remains from Spender's time early in the Cold War). Being involved in this country's political class pretty much precludes long periods overseas during adult life, learning languages and other ways of operating; it's the one area of policy that smart-arse politicos seem happy to leave to the professionals, where gimps with focus-groups and standard deviations on internal polling simply have no impact. They airily claim that WesternSydneyTM has no interest in foreign policy, but in an interconnected world (and given the ethnic diversity of that area) how sustainable do you reckon that is?
An adult government need not come to office with a complete manifesto; Menzies didn't in 1949 and neither did Hawke to any real extent in 1983. It needs to hit the ground running though, or at the very least emerge from post-swearing-in hibernation looking co-ordinated. The whole promise of "no surprises", of government run entirely from the PM's office, leaves no excuses for the disjointed effort we've seen from this government in its establishment phase. The sheer absence of a clue means that someone like Mark Textor, wrongly regarded highly for his tactical acumen, screams and postures in the backrooms about Strategy but can only fluff and bumble when the limelight falls on him.
The floundering of Chris Pyne in education, however, shows just how far the rot in this government descends.
Like Morrison, Pyne is one of the government's more savvy operators. He is not some junior woodchuck acting above his pay grade, he has been in parliament for twenty years and was a minister in the last Coalition government. He cannot be said to be good at anything if not at managing the media: for many years he kept up the narrative that Peter Costello was thiiiiis close to knocking off John Howard, the model for Rudd's more successful guerrilla sulk, and has been a "senior Liberal source" ever since. Many members of the press gallery know Pyne more closely than do members of his family. His witterings about media misunderstandings are laughable.
Here is Pyne's political calculus: the largesse given to private schools will reinforce private school communities to strongly support the government, while public school communities are weak and will not rally against the government. That's it, really.
It seemed to be effective under Howard, although he had the advantage of Labor leaders who were ineffectual (Beazley, Crean) or unbalanced (Latham). Shorten appears to be neither of those things, but like Bill Hayden be could end up as nothing else either. Coalition state governments have not trashed the public school system to the extent necessary for Pyne's calculus to take hold.
With the fading of the resources boom, and the passing of the idea of almost effortless upward mobility that Howard sought to cultivate, people came to realise that education was all we could count on as a reasonable prospect for the future. That's why Gillard pinned everything on education. That's also why Pyne and Abbott pledged a "unity ticket", which they've since torn up; it was the difference between what they have now and much, much less, if not oblivion.
When Pyne mouthed off against Gonski earlier this year, Barry O'Farrell hauled him up to Sydney to show him what actual government and its needs are really like. The fact that neither man spoke about their encounter after the fact indicates that O'Farrell tried to knock some sense into Pyne, which he has clearly since lost. Nobody in NSW would choose Abbott over O'Farrell. Nobody in the Liberal Party wants the two to come to blows, but if they have to sacrifice the twerp from Adelaide to make peace do not doubt that he shall be sacrificed. Abbott is in the stronger position constitutionally but O'Farrell is the superior politician; if he has to run against Canberra then that's what he'll do, he will play grassroots populism better than Abbott will or can.
Education has retained both a depth of community feeling and of community organisation that the political parties have lost (they even used to be the same people in a more community-minded, less busy-busy age). Your average Parents and Citizens/Friends will have far greater tactical nous and organisational ability than your local branch of any political party. Any backroom operator, any Cabinet minister or inner circle denizen, who thinks the Abbott government is going to embrace that third rail and survive is kidding him/her/itself. Nobody who remembers the popular revolts in NSW against the Greiner government's education policy in the late 1980s/early '90s will ever forget it. O'Farrell doesn't. The sheer force of it propels Greiner's wife Kathryn onto the Gonski committee more than two decades later. Those who forget the lessons of history, at the very least, have no business mucking about with the curriculum.
If not Gonski, what? Under an adult government there should be an orderly transition to another funding model, not some dusted-off effort that led to longterm decline in school performance, and which was wrongly romanticised by Liberals (if Textor's advice was worth anything, he should have advised the Coalition to cut the nostalgia act as it impressed nobody who wasn't rusted on). Under an adult government the Education Minister would not be flinching and mincing at his own discomfort, but instead offering clear guidelines within which professionals can conduct careful planning. Bronwyn Hinz and I were completely wrong in April to assume that Pyne was doing any education policy work worth the name. At least he's had the good sense not to wheel out culture warrior Kevin Donnelly, when no other Coalition government is having anything to do with him.
There are a number of newly-elected Coalition MPs who won't make it past the next election because Pyne blundered into a political minefield. Pyne himself, having taken a safe seat to a margin under 5%, might well join them. He's sticking to his guns, but they're badly calibrated and pointing the wrong bloody way, and guess which fool placed them there? When constituents come to them and say that Marginal Vale Primary is losing this, or St Preference's is losing that, how will Pyne help them? He'll brush it off, and in doing that a lot of the respect that he earned by decades of hard slog that seemed to have paid off (for him at least) will be brushed off too.
Joe Hockey cut his political teeth under Greiner too, and has no excuse for gibbering about infrastructure in the hope that it will lift this government above the fray (let me guess: another second Sydney airport study), with all that crap about taking "tough decisions" instead of smart ones.
Much of the big important stuff that defines any government happens early in its term. Well, here we are early in the Abbott government's term. What's to show for it? No going to war as part of the new United Nations, no floating of the dollar, no gun buyback - no responding to Events in an adult-government way at all.
There is a school of thought that says a government should get its bad news out early. The trouble with this government is that it can't be sure its run of bad news is over, or that they have the power to decide when it is. Pyne's troubles over education do not detract from Morrison's problems with Indonesia, they compound the sense that this government is a bunch of stumblebums. This failure should be sheeted home to Abbott, and to strategists like Credlin and Textor. There is no suite of well-thought-out policies ready to go to stabilise early jitters, and thus nothing to bear fruit into 2014-15 to be harvested at the next election. Their only options are knee-jerk stuff, and that's when you get dopey policy outcomes like the ones that the Coalition try to hang on the previous government.
The idea that the press gallery is surprised at this government performing under expectations shows only that they haven't been paying attention, and have therefore rendered themselves redundant well ahead of the inevitable decisions of their current employers.
A government that wastes time eradicating any trace of the previous government incurs two big opportunity costs. First, you can't blame a government for all your woes and constraints if nobody remembers them. Second, and more tellingly, a lot of the big scope for action gets frittered away as momentum and goodwill dissipate - as they do, and nobody in the backroom or at the top table knows how to stop it. Labor, the Greens and other parties aren't exactly cringing before the threat of a double dissolution election. Looks like blocking the carbon tax is all this lot really have; anything else they do will be an accident, for good or ill.