13 December 2009

Madness in any direction not an attractive proposition

The Abbott-Minchin-Joyce Coalition are sending mixed signals, which is why they can't and won't win. What follows here is inspired by this post and this quote:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

- Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

That quote seems to sum up the feeling being projected by the Abbott-Minchin-Joyce Coalition at the moment. The road ahead is clear, and those who can tell them what (not) to do are few. The problem is that in framing the political debate, it's in the Opposition's interests to not carry on like they are.

The idea of a loyal Opposition in Australian politics is to say with credibility that the incumbent government is taking Australia in the wrong direction; it's going too fast on issues that are toxic or trivial, and not far enough on issues that are important. Having done that, it has to make the case that it would take Australia in the right direction, going fast and far on the good stuff and putting an end to all that rot.

I think the Rudd government is moving too slowly on a lot of issues I think are important: infrastructure; healthcare; the redevelopment of Aboriginal social systems; better and more extensive relations with Asian, African and Latin American countries; a proper broadband network; education; and yes carbon reduction strategies that will boost the economy - lots of things really. In none of those areas can you be confident that the Coalition would do a better job than Labor, however well they might highlight this or that example of inadequacy.

More to the point, a boisterous and bumptious Opposition is appropriate for a time when opportunities are going begging and a tired government has no real idea what to do. Queensland needs an Opposition like that, so do South Australia and Tasmania; but Australia doesn't. Australia is going through significant challenges economically and environmentally, and the Rudd government's policies are hit-and-miss in meeting these challenges.

The Opposition should represent more hits than misses; articulating new and better ways forward through a thicket of challenges that must, without a clear narrative, seem overwhelming. God help it if they adopt the wrong narrative: maybe this will be the get-out clause for those who believe Howard's policies didn't get a fair run.

A boisterous and bumptious Opposition is not appropriate for the complex argument that the CPRS is not an adequate response to the threat carbon pollution poses to our environment, but that something has to be done and that thing is yet to be determined. The difference between the 1999 republic and the 2009 CPRS is that simply negating the positive case does not leave a stable status quo. The idea that no action on carbon emissions (other than open-ended no-obligation grants to carbon producers, and vague musings on nuclear power) is a stable status quo is rubbish. The fact that business groups are not united in calling for any and all carbon abatement measures to be kyboshed, nor calling for "removing business uncertainty associated with the climate change debate" should worry the Liberals more than it apparently does.

Turnbull could have represented the Liberals as a safe pair of hands: economic responsibility with less debt, environmental change that doesn't derail the economy for some oblique culture-war purpose. Hockey might have too, had be become leader (his challenge is to come out of the Abbott Experiment unscathed, without looking like either a ratbag or a doormat). Oh well. It is Rudd who now looks like the safe pair of hands, doing his best under difficult circumstances.

Nobody is going to represent Tony Abbott as a safe pair of hands: he's the boy who hasn't/ won't/ can't grow up. Besides:

  • He's not going to promote economic responsibility, because having squibbed the great economic debates of the past three decades he doesn't know where to start (let alone on issues like house prices, mortgages and families). You'd think he would, with an Economics degree from Sydney Uni and having worked at close quarters with Hewson, Howard and Costello - but no.

  • He can't promote low debt because the Nationals will want (and get) too much pork for economic responsibility.

  • He can't just outsource foreign policy to the Americans and the Poms because they seem tentative about Afghanistan, and other issues like Israel-Palestine are less clear-cut than they were.

  • On top of all that, Abbott won't do anything that changes the environment because he genuinely thinks things are fine as they are, or that it's all too hard.

In 2007, the Liberals could not get used to the idea that Howard was leading them into perdition. In 2009, the Abbott Experiment is all about the idea that Howard-style conservatism is an idea that has not been properly tried, let alone exhausted. It's an idea held by nobody who doesn't vote Liberal/National/CEC already.


  1. Simply passing and making an non-issue of the CPRS, as Turnbull sought, was in my opinion an absolute no brainer for the Liberals. They are deluded if they think they can win on this issue. They are in danger of simply being left behind by events.

    I am not sure if it is altogether fair to say the Rudd Government is moving too slowly. The Whitlamite crash through approach still looms large in Labors collective memory.
    Hopefully they are methodical rather than excessively cautious.

  2. Agree with you on the first paragraph, the CPRS is flawed but it's somewhere to start. It is definitely moving too slowly in a range of areas, such as the Northern Territory Intervention.

    If the ALP is skittish about facets of its own history, that's a point of weakness for ALP people (and an opportunity for its opponents) rather than something we are obliged to put up with.

  3. I don't know if it is true that Howard drew up the NT intervention on a back of an envelope to gain traction in the 2007 election, whatever, Labor adopted it, put in an ineffectual figure to lead it, done a few tweaks, so they own it.
    Given the scope of the aspirations for this project, a very poor performance in my view.
    I am not expecting the opposition to make inroads against Macklin under Abbott. Which is not as it should be.

  4. Abbott himself was such a poor shadow minister he should have put Macklin away. Now he's put the even less effective Kevin Andrews in the job.