I wish that I could push a buttonInsofar as the Coalition was honest at all before the last election, it is fair to say that the Abbott government is pretty much doing what it indicated it would do - and what the IPA said it should do.
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this hurtin' feeling
Disappear like it was common sense
It was a fine idea at the time
Now it's a brilliant mistake
- Elvis Costello Brilliant mistake
It just hasn't done this very well. The Abbott government basically outsourced its capacity to generate ideas, and in doing so it has lost the capacity to advance and defend and modify ideas, and to keep to a basic set of beliefs through the tempests of politics and compromise without selling out.
When Chris Berg frets for the government, he is being disingenuous. Chris Berg is Policy Director at the IPA, yet he has given up directing policy and opted instead for the disguise of a passive, disinterested observer. He rattles through recent history and illustrates that policy ignorance, far from making you more politically flexible (as Abbott clearly believes) actually makes you much, much less so. Then there's this:
The Medicare co-payment is going to have to be restructured and revised if it is going to pass the Senate. (Even that may not be enough. Clive Palmer yesterday announced he would vote against any co-payment, no matter how small.)With the possible exception of PPL, not one of those measures is inconsistent with the urgings that the IPA have put to this government. He mounts no defence of them at all, merely cataloguing them as political roadkill as though he were part of the press gallery.
The mining tax will have to be decoupled from the measures it was supposed to fund - the schoolkids bonus, for instance.
The changes to welfare are unlikely to pass in their current form, so it'll be back to the drawing board with those as well.
The Government hasn't even begun the university fee deregulation debate, but when it starts it will be bruising.
And then there's the paid parental leave scheme - not formally part of the 2014 budget but its generosity casts a shadow over every austerity measure. PPL is meant to be up and running next year.
What makes the Government's problem even worse is that it's trapped by both legislative forces and public opinion.Not to mention a third force, at its back, ready to squeal that the government has sold out and stands for nothing were it to depart from any of those policies - the IPA and commentators like Andrew Bolt comprise that Praetorian Guard, fully supportive so long as the government sticks to the agenda they have written for it.
The Abbott government is in a similar position to the Lyons government of the 1930s. A Roman Catholic Labor voter found himself hoisted atop a government of conservatives, whose agenda was driven by a business cabal (including Keith Murdoch) with the politicians responsible for providing the PR necessary to secure community acceptance. Rupert Murdoch, Tony Shepherd, and others who run the IPA and BCA are the business cabal of today, fizzing with ideas but unable/unwilling to execute them; Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey et al are perfectly willing, but far less able than Lyons or his largely inept ministry to execute the deal, within Parliament or in the country beyond.
Tony Abbott's prime ministerial predecessors have only had to deal with one ["legislative forces and public opinion"], rather than both ... Howard didn't have an obstructive senate. In fact, he had the opposite problem - a compliant upper house that offered no check on his government's longstanding urge to centralise labour market regulation.From 1996 to 2005 - nine of the Howard government's eleven-year tenure - the Coalition lacked a majority in the Senate. It was not as legislatively paralysed as the Abbott government is now. Its contrast with the previous government, which almost passed one legislative instrument for every day it spent in office, is stark. When you consider that a majority of the Abbott ministry were in Parliament over that 1996-2005 period, their deficiency in managing the default state of the Senate (where no party or formal coalition has a majority) is absurd.
Perhaps this is the wrong metric for Berg, of all people, to apply. In my day libertarians cheered governments that legislated as little as possible. From the US we saw pictures of President Reagan riding a horse, or Bush I playing golf, or Bush II clearing scrub - they were demonstrating to their supporters that they were not jacking up taxes or clamping down on freedoms, which are the only two things that libertarians believe governments do. Berg and his fellow-travellers should be pleased at Abbott's lack of success at a process they tend to disdain.
The bottom line for Abbott is this, and it's dire: the Government is unable to legislate policies that voters don't want anyway.Yep, it coasted into office with a compliant media that didn't test its ideas or its ability to get them through, lest the then opposition go the way of the Labor Opposition in 2004. The Abbott government has failed its side of the bargain: it has failed to sell the ideas handed to them by Berg and others.
Berg does not resile from or re-examine those ideas, for their applicability to the position facing Australia today (the Lyons government did not set Australia up well for World War II or its aftermath, either). Abbott rightly bears the responsibility for failing to get his agenda through. Unlike previous Liberal leaders, he also bears responsibility for not using the Liberal Party (and for lacking the sense and wit himself) to challenge the half-baked agenda of the IPA and other rentseekers. Berg must be disappointed in Abbott and his gang. It would be one thing for Berg to castigate Abbott for departing from IPA ideas, and to suffer in the polls as a result; it is quite another not to admit his own agency here.
So it's hard to see any alternative. The Government has to affect a policy reset - a mini budget. The budget needs to be redone and relaunched.A newly elected government resets the agenda with a mini-budget after it gets elected. If the Abbott government was going to do that it would've had one before last Christmas, fitting with that 'budget emergency' stuff. As it stands, any 'budget emergency' is well and truly down to this government rather than its predecessor.
I can't think of a single instance where a government has successfully "reset" itself after a poor start; governments that stumble as badly as this one has. Toward the end Kristina Keneally was resetting her NSW government several times a week, pushing an overworn button that was disconnected from any source of power. Governments in this dire position tend to rely on outside help, such as the opposition splitting and/or choosing a poor leader.
The budget needs to be redone and relaunched. Contentious policies have to be revised, and, critically, argued for on their own terms. If the Government wants to reform Medicare, then great: let's hear the case for reform. We haven't yet.That whole paragraph is oddly passive. Peter Dutton was the Liberals' spokesman on health for six years; his predecessor in the role is the current Prime Minister. There is no evidence that they have done any thinking on health policy at all, except to entertain IPA disparaging the very idea of public universal coverage, and to dishonestly deny Labor accusations that they would "cut, cut, cut".
The longer the Government delays that reset, the more trouble the festering budget is likely to cause."Festering"? It is full of the purest essence of IPA policy. Surely the IPA would regard the budget as "misunderstood" or "underappreciated". If I was a member of this government I'd be livid at Berg's gutless attempts to distance himself and the IPA from it (maybe even to the point of briefing Peter Hartcher, see below). Berg is trying to tiptoe away from a disaster he helped create.
This blog invalidated Chris Berg's very first gobbet in The Age and has found him a rich source of both a-musement and be-musement ever since. It is one thing to float silly ideas but the actual enactment of them should be taken up with those in more responsible positions than Berg's, and those who ought to know better. Berg, however, it rightly a target when he veers into hypocrisy.
There has been an uptick in anti-PPL sentiment over the last few weeks. Madonna King's Joe Hockey biography - which revealed that Rupert Murdoch knew more details of the scheme than Abbott's treasurer before it was launched - didn't help.So now he's a poll jockey?
The idea of that was that Murdoch would promote the government's PPL policy while Coalition candidates got themselves photographed, with government as content-provider to the supposedly free enterprise NewsCorp. It didn't happen - NewsCorp turns on hysterical pro-Abbott pieces when the government falters but otherwise won't stick its neck out for particular policies. Or when it does, it's confused - it supported the axing of subsidies to the car industry, with mawkish pieces on despairing workers as a sop to their readership. It agreed with having naval vessels built overseas without looking at the exorbitant cost of the foreign-built F35 (or the aforesaid despairing workers looking for future employment). If only there were some way to test the utility of having Murdoch on side.
Paid parental leave has, perhaps, been an exception for which disloyalty is excused. It was the subject of internal grumblings from the moment it was announced by Abbott.Who is being disloyal to whom here? Was Abbott disloyal to the party he led by failing to consult them and expecting their unstinting, unthinking support? Would Abbott's leadership survive having him or Credlin demanding full support from all quarters of the Coalition?
Yet we discovered yesterday that the culture of dissent around PPL is spreading to other issues. Coalition backbenchers are now freely floating ideas about how to adjust the co-payment to make it more equitable and popular.This is called politics, Chris. It's been going on for years. Basically, ideas get thrown around until there's a decision, and then that decision (which often can't be foreseen exactly at the start, even by the smarter pundits) is implemented. The idea that all ideas are handed down from the leader's office and are implemented in full with a tokenistic endorsement is a recent development, and one that appears unsustainable.
And more concerning still is the infighting revealed in this piece by Peter Hartcher - backbenchers and ministers lining up to apportion blame for the budget's unpopularity. It is apparently easy to find Government members willing to anonymously rag on their colleagues.That, too, is part of politics - both the anonymous backgrounding, and the fact that Peter Hartcher (and his editor) regard this as the very essence of his job.
Something needs to change. Some commentators have called for a reshuffle. There are, after all, a large number of young and talented politicians in the outer ministry and backbench, and a few too many Howard-era holdouts in the cabinet.Again, the passivity: something, someone, just not this.
For example, take the government's self-inflicted wounds over the notion - urged on them by the IPA - that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act be repealed or significantly amended. Berg wrote a very silly book about this, titled something like There Were No Aborigines In Ancient Greece But Plenty Of Racists, Why Can't Melbourne Be Like That Today?. If you want to understand why there's so much hoo-ha within the government over that issue, I'm sorry but you'll have to read it.
Brandis may well be a dead Attorney General walking on that issue. Would the issue be significantly advanced were he replaced by, say, Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull? What about Steve Ciobo, or Berg's erstwhile IPA colleague Alan Tudge?
A reshuffle is a drastic thing, especially so early in a first term of government. Yet it wouldn't fix the budget gridlock, or make the individual items in the budget more popular.Trying to survive for six months with no income support, or fielding thousands of applications from people in that position - that's drastic in a way that a reshuffle really isn't.
The problem, in the end, is that budget. And the only way to resolve it is to reset it.
The problem is the ideas behind what came out in the budget - the idea that taxes and subsidies to companies and higher-income earners, the false economy of cutting aid while over-egging Defence, the social vandalism of cutting support to low-income families while issuing marriage counselling vouchers, to name but a few. Those ideas came from, and are sustained by, Chris Berg and those who maintain him in the style to which he has become accustomed. When those ideas go back to the drawing board - as they will, before the next election or afterwards - Berg will be waiting there with pencil in hand, as he was when those ideas were drafted.
He believed that Abbott, Hockey, and others in the Coalition could negotiate both the public and the parliament better than they have. He was wrong to do so. When Abbott was a minister under Howard he frequently had to invoke Howard's authority rather than stand or fall on his own. His failure to negotiate government in the hung parliament of 2010 was telling. It was not an unlucky flip of the coin, nor was he dudded by a capricious Gillard as the press gallery had it at the time. He did not become PM in 2010 because he was crap at negotiating ("sell my arse" indeed). The PPL was the only policy development they did in opposition, and it was rubbish. Nobody has any right to expect that such people would be competent, let alone capable of driving far-reaching but sustainable reform across multiple policy areas - not the press gallery, not Chris Berg, not anyone.
That said, and though he doesn't let on in this article, Berg watching the current Coalition government botch his agenda must be a bit like watching that Monty Python skit where The Gumbys do The Cherry Orchard.
Let us look to what is possibly his most strident and comprehensive piece of policy advocacy, along with "Third Preference" John Roskam, and its reflux. By my count, the Abbott government has gone a long way toward fulfilling these Hundred Theses:
- Already enacted or well advanced: 1, 2, 10 (effectively if not ceremonially), 11, 19, 29, 30, 69 and 71. I would not be surprised if IPA people spent budget night playing bingo with those numbers, with economic incentives of course.
- If it was possible to "quietly shelve" 4 without Andrew Bolt turning on the government, it would have done so. This is what happens when a political party outsources its capacity to generate and advance ideas.
- Bit late for 5, and somewhat overtaken by events.
- 15 is honoured more in the breach than the observance.
- Let us be fair to IPA alumnus Tim Wilson and assume that he is fulfilling 82 by example
But back to Elvis Costello:
She said that she was working for the ABC NewsThe IPA will miss the ABC. Lenin said that the capitalists would sell the rope with which the socialists hanged them, but I have no idea who paid for the ropes that in the 1990s pulled statues of Lenin from their plinths. In that spirit, Berg has once again used ABC resources to advance an agenda that is hostile to it. Thank goodness for that gibbering dupe Chip Rolley, who only engages brand-name writers for ABC's The Drum without really considering what barrow they're trying to push. I'll do what I can to boost his web traffic, enhancing his position and Berg's; it's the least I can do.
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use ...
There is a Chinese saying that says having your wishes fulfilled can be as tragic as not having them fulfilled, but I doubt Chris Berg sees it that way. He has gone the full dingo on Abbott and Hockey, who relied on him and his ideas more than they dared admit. Berg has done so in such a charming way that you can see why he will survive the fall of a government that is dedicated solely to advancing his ideas, and will be part of the future of the Liberal Party in ways today's senior members won't. Hardworking and dedicated local MPs will lose their jobs, prominent pollies will become taxeating retirees who get bored easily, staffers will be chucked into the Canberra cold - but Chris Berg, like death and taxes, just rolls on.