26 June 2011

Advertise your own irrelevance 2: Tony Smith, ideas man

Can Tony Abbott find a way out of his policy-free zone? If so, it's a bit silly to expect Tony Smith might be of any help.

Sean Carney is usually one of this country's best political journalists, but he's botched this one. All but the last five paragraphs are fair enough - Tony Abbott needs to get a vision for the country and something like concrete policies to fulfil such a vision (or at least make them plausible enough so that people will vote for them), and only Dennis Shanahan believes he can do it.

When it comes to industrial relations, the Liberal Party takes its cue from business. In the 1980s it was wrong of the Labor government to expect Australian business to adapt to a new world of deregulation and lower tariff barriers while keeping in place the archaic industrial relations system. The Liberals campaigned for individual agreements and an end to demarcation because that was what business was calling for. Business leaders continued calling for industrial relations reform into the Howard government, but when the union movement fought back during the waterfront dispute of the late '90s and with WorkChoices, the Libs were pretty much left to their own devices. It's fair to say that business has been sending mixed signals about what it wants in response to the Fair Work Act. Nobody in the business community is standing up to Labor over it so why should the Liberals stick their necks out?

The Coalition is still so in thrall to the idea of media management that they seriously believe there is a way where a Liberal leader can dodge the idea of industrial relations reform. They might need a minimalist policy, but they need a policy that is defensible. They need to admit that WorkChoices was a dud and that they've learned their lesson. That is what is necessary to stop incessant questioning of that policy and the Liberal agenda generally. The lesson of 2010 is that no amount of casuistry can disguise any purported intention to "bring back WorkChoices" - only a full, non-weaselly apology can and will sink it for all time.

Into this context of real policy debate comes Tony Smith, a dogpaddler in an Olympic 1500m final.
Liberal backbencher Tony Smith has found himself with time on his hands lately.
Why? He's Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Tax Reform and Deputy Chairman, Coalition Policy Development Committee. He should be the busiest man in Canberra, which isn't saying much [damn these libertarian hackers!]. Every time Abbott dumps on the carbon tax and the mining tax, or witters on about government waste, and pledges to undo those measures - he should have something fresh from the desk of Tony Smith or Joe Hockey, ready to go.

This week, the Coalition had to pass a measure they had bitterly opposed because they "couldn't find equivalent savings measures" - in other words, "because Tony and Joe hadn't done their homework". It is Smith's fault that Abbott is utterly vulnerable to attack when delivering guff like this.

As Deputy Chairman, Coalition Policy Development Committee, he should not just be reviewing the train-wreck of Coalition policies at the last election, but have a clear understanding which parts of it compelled the independents to go against the Coalition rather than with them. Here is a man who should be ready to tweak in order to pull Wilkie, Oakeshott, Windsor and Crook over to the Coalition side - with sufficient deniability from Abbott's office if it all goes horribly wrong. Bet he has no idea at all what those guys think.

If Tony Smith's job is the Federal Coalition's equivalent of a banana lounge, Abbott and the gang are in more trouble than I thought. At the very least, Smith should be consulting widely with tax experts around the country.
Smith was on the frontbench during Labor's first term. It fell to him, in the lead-up to last year's election, to cobble together the Coalition's communications policy - or more accurately, its anti-NBN policy - which did not go well.
To rephrase this slightly: Smith was responsible for the one area that truly engaged with blue-sky possibilities for the nation's future. He could've sketched out an alternative vision to the NBN, or shot Conroy's proposal so full of holes that it would rank alongside pink batts as a political punchline. He did neither. As I said at the time, to call that policy half-arsed would be flattering.
Smith has dusted himself off and has set out to persuade his party to take up the "ownership society" as one of its key objectives. As an adviser to Peter Costello in the late '90s, Smith was at the heart of the GST-formulation process. He knows that it takes years to put together deep reform.
It's clear, from last year's telecommunication policy and now with the void where a tax policy should be, that Tony Smith is way out of his depth. It's like putting a connoisseur of fine dining in charge of a top restaurant ("well, he's got the experience") who has never cooked anything more complicated than toast. Smith might have been present in Costello's office but this was a guy who started out as a gofer. He might have been present when long and complex advice was wheeled in from Treasury but he wasn't witness to the hard slog of impressive minds with vast information hammering out a brief worthy of presentation to the Treasurer.
In a speech to Liberal Party members in April, which has gone unreported but has received a strong response from sections of the business community, Smith urged his colleagues to take the longer view on policy.

Recalling the Hawke government's tax reforms of the mid-'80s and the Howard government's GST package at the end of the '90s, Smith observed that ''in each case, the changes and reforms were argued, contested, attacked and massaged for a long period of time, but they were ultimately successful … In the end, the necessity for change became clearer after what I like to describe as the long slow policy pressure-cooker effect. This, in my view, is the only way taxation reform will occur in the future."

Any reforms should be able to be sustained for 15 to 20 years, he said. Pooh-poohing Treasurer Wayne Swan's proposed tax conference set for October, Smith said it was up to the Liberals to hash out over many months a new set of priorities for tax reform.
So, he likes the idea of having ideas. His contemporaries Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and Peter Dutton do something similar when they try to sound all visionary. What they don't do is actually advance ideas, make a case for them and reveal their thinking backed by a bit of data, so that after it gets knocked around by the political process you can recognise what it was trying to do rather than some strange artefact of unknown provenance in a jumble of policies, like most Coalition efforts are (Abbott fans call this process "dynamic"). Hash indeed.
"Owning a share of a company has been the new wave of the past two decades. What about spreading the opportunity to own part of a business employees work in - to encourage Australians to have a stake in the business they work at, for, and in? Deep and widespread employee share ownership is … the next great opportunity in the Australian ownership enterprise project," he said.
At a time when employee loyalty to employers has never been more fluid, this just doesn't make sense. Can you imagine Gina Rinehart or Rupert Murdoch, to name two leading employers of Australians (and people of influence over the Liberal Party) giving employees shares? Imagine downsizings complicated by shareholder revolts: if you think Jack Tilburn disrupts corporate AGMs, wait until Ged Kearney gets in on the act. In the UK it's the emptiest of slogans. This idea sounds like an off-the-cuff comment from Costello in about 1991 that hasn't been fully thought out. It is not a breath of fresh air, not even if you accept the low standards of contemporary politics.

Yes, the Liberal Party needs new ideas. What it does not need is ideas about ideas. It needs people who can do research, make a case and advocate it in the public debate.
Tony Abbott has tactics but no strategy. At least one of his MPs is trying to help him out with that.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king - but we deserve better vision than is possible from a one-eyed man, particularly someone who is palpably not his own man. Carney should not be so desperate for relief from Abbott that he is taken in by the vacuousness of Tony Smith.


  1. Good post, as always.

    People from the US and UK must look at this language and see it as evidence of how far behind the times Australia is. Both countries had debates around the "ownership society" under Bush and the Tories, and it all fell in a heap during the GFC. Bush was encouraging Americans to get low-doc and 100% home loans, under the same premise that owning a home in a community was A Good Thing. Then the market crashed, lots of people lost the homes the Gov't had encouraged them to buy.

    I can understand why having shares in and working for (fr'instance) Rio Tinto will give you a nice warm feeling when those shares are appreciating, but what happens when Chinese demand collapses, or a massive legal liability emerges from something that happened in PNG? You lose your saving and feel pretty fucked off. You specifically feel fucked off with the Gov't, because they're the ones who subsidised the shares, because that's what ultimately we're talking about. And you'd probably want the Gov't to bail you out, and let's face it, they probably would.

    To summarise, letting the gov't pick a winner for you and tell you which asset class to invest in is, always has been, and always will be, a shit idea.

  2. On top of all that, Tony Smith looks stupid. So, in fact, does that other offcut from Costello's office, Kelly O'Dwyer.

    Knowing Costello's lack of ticker, being assured he coasted as Treasurer on advice he barely understood but could smarm his way through, it becomes ever clearer that his staff were only there to assure the Emperor-in-waiting that he truly was dressed for the part.

    And they have, certainly in the persons of Smith and O'Dwyer, never looked like they got out of that salaaming habit.

  3. Jonathan, I can understand a cutting-edge idea not being fully explored, but something dug up from the early '90s and warmed over simply won't do. No evidence that he's put the idea to any audience less receptive than desperate Libs looking for hope.

    Anon, it's time to write Smith off but unfair to lump O'Dwyer in. She's undergoing trial-by-muppetry but has a better chance of becoming her own person than lazy Smith.

  4. Let us assume for a moment, that the polls are correct and the next election will result in an A-Bot government. Just how will they pick the winning economic ideas from Treasury vs the DUDs - like the original mining profit tax?
    They clearly have no show in generating ideas - like tax cuts - give me a break.
    The current mob can't do it (and there are at least some smarts there)- how do we expect the next?

  5. God help us all. I think that we'll see a collapse of support before it comes to that, people know we need solutions and the capacity for complex thought. I think the Libs have done themselves a disservice in preselecting plausible but shallow people, and will explore this further.

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