Let's start with the domestic: electric power, the reliability of its supply and the price thereof.
This has been a major issue in Australian politics for at least twenty years. Only people who know nothing about Australian politics, such as members of the Canberra press gallery, would have failed to miss:
- NSW, where the current Foreign Minister was embarrassed by his party for failing to privatise electricity assets, the largesse from which was apparently going to fund anything but actual renewal of electricity assets (or even, heaven forbid, new ways of generating and distributing and consuming electricity);
- Victoria, where the Kennett government succeeded in privatising electricity assets and failed to get re-elected because there was no discernible impact on the state for this political triumph. The state's schools, hospitals, roads and public transport were no better off, there were fewer jobs in the communities that generated electricity - and as for law-and-order, for much of this period a drug-dealer considered himself "The Premier" because all the rhetoric about cracking down on drugs and crime made no difference to him either;
- South Australia - as in so many things, just like Victoria only much less so;
- Western Australia, where the money flowing into the state might mean they would need a better power generation and distribution system than the jerry-rigged one they patched together during their povvo years, only there isn't as much demand from industry in the south-west as had been imagined (and as politicians had promised). This absence of vision and effective policy is another reason why Collier's "cane toad" statement was so silly. We'd better not even think about other ways of generating electricity because it might damage confidence in key commodities markets;
- Queensland, as above but substitute SE for SW; and
- ACT and Tasmania have the hydro, so once again here is a pressing national debate in which they play pretty much no role.
Members of major political parties and professional journalists have no excuse for not seeing this issue coming at them. People who have worked closely on the issues arising from the generation and distribution of electricity and who understand it intimately have largely disappeared into the banks, because if your best efforts are going to be ridiculed, scapegoated and/or ignored you may as well be paid well and have a nice office. The federal bureaucracy, the policy advisory ranks of major parties, and the still-bloated ranks of the press gallery sorely need such people; those who make hiring decisions over such people should have taken more interest in such qualifications and background than they have.
The generation, distribution and pricing of electricity was a major political issue when Tony Abbott was writing Battlelines. It isn't exactly a go-to text on that subject. It falls to blogs like evcricket to pick up the slack of actually informing readers what this issue is about and how it affects you. Journalists would grumble if such a person were invited to contribute for their outlet, fancying themselves capable of all that and more besides. The truth is the most senior of them can only produce guff like this. Compare the two links in this paragraph and weep, those who reflexively defend Australian journalism, and let us have no more risible concessions that a good blog is rare while quality journalism is so commonplace and self-evident that it can and must always be defended.
You can use the facts Benson raised to make a number of different, and much better, stories:
- Gillard is finally rising above NSW ALP politics to introduce economic reform of national importance;
- Gillard is, once again, delivering on a policy that Rudd squibbed. This is a pattern that poll-jockeys cannot see, let alone evaluate, and which largely explains why Rudd-fans are kidding themselves about a restoration;
- Chris Hartcher and Barry O'Farrell have long had a difficult relationship - O'Farrell has put Hartcher into a bastard of a portfolio, which neither man is handling with the aplomb that they brought to bear-pit tactics back in Opposition days; and most importantly
- Abbott has nothing useful to say on this issue.
Lenore Taylor is wrong: there is no split within the Coalition because there is no policy over which to split. There is no excuse for this. Shadow Energy Minister Ian Macfarlane could and should have made life hell for his government counterpart (and his successor in the energy portfolio), Martin Ferguson. Rather than allowing Gillard to take the initiative, a bit of effort from Macfarlane might have made it a running sore for the government and proof-positive of Ferguson's intellectual and policy laziness.
Abbott tries to represent the experience of his frontbench as a positive thing. Macfarlane's inertia in taking it up to the government shows that it isn't. There should be a tangible policy direction on electricity reform - with abatement of carbon emissions as part of it - and the fact that there isn't is the reason why Tony Abbott isn't in the race.
Tony Abbott had been pondering how he could get [carbon tax] back on the agenda. Voila.And in doing so, Simon, he sounded like a plonker, a Johnny one-note who can't change his mind and therefore can't change anyone's nor anything else either. Notice how Abbott disappears from the rest of your article after that, and rightly so. Voila, my arse.
Abbott brings nothing to the table in negotiations on electricity reform. He can't offer the states a stack of cash because, apparently, the economy is stuffed and so is the budget. He can't identify the sticks-and-carrots that he'd use to drove state governments in the direction he wants to go, because he doesn't have a clue what do to and where to go on this issue.
Talking up "the carbon tax" rebounded on him when the sky failed to fall on poor Whyalla and the debate shifted to other factors driving up electricity prices - other factors about which Abbott has nothing to say, nothing to contribute.
The decision to go light on policy development has hurt Abbott. He should be shuttling between state capitals to bring about the solution that Gillard can't deliver and making the case the he should be in the job she occupies today.
Renowned by journalists for his verbal skills, Abbott isn't capable of making the sort of substantial speech Gillard made earlier in the week - not on that issue, nor any other really. Because she's in there trying and he isn't, she's in front on an issue she has neglected and on which her long-serving minister is no help at all.
Gillard's success in getting bills through parliament and other deals done is negated by a perception that she's a cold technocrat with no vision for the nation. The absence of a policy direction means that Abbott cannot contrast that vacuum with any vision of his own. This, combined with the pervasive and arrogant Coalition attitude that Labor is as good as defeated, means that the next election is shaping up as one of the great tortoise-and-hare contests.
Let us have no nonsense that the Coalition will have a policy all in good time, as and when blah blah. You can get an idea of policy direction without a formal policy document, which is just vapid dot-points these days anyway and hardly telling electorally. It's a year until the election is due: by this point before the 1996 election, Keating government ministers were on the back foot with thoughtful pieces emanating from the opposition which steadily built a perception that it deserved a chance at governing, at dealing with issues that had long been put on the back-burner or junked altogether.
In his second term as Opposition Leader, Howard showed that powder is not always best deployed when simply kept dry. Sometimes you've got to detonate a bit of it from time to time, to blow a minister out of their job and show the government that it might be in office but not necessarily in power. Rudd in 2007 was similar to Howard, but better at running the government ragged and daring people to imagine it as an alternative government. Abbott's popularity falls when people seriously contemplate the prospect that he might be Prime Minister, and that their vote may be implicated in getting him there. All this journo-talk that Abbott is the best-ever Opposition Leader overlooks Rudd's more considerable success, vindicated by an election victory that has eluded Abbott before and which will elude him again.
Abbott's sweep through Washington and Beijing was meant to be a triumph, but it was a fizzer. Conservative foreign policy commentators like Tom Switzer or Greg Sheridan have no case to make that Abbott, or his shadow foreign minister, would be competent at administering this country's foreign policy. The idea that they might be better than the incumbents is demonstrably false, whatever may be said of the government's policies and performance.
Rather than atone for this disaster, he made it worse. The newly elected Queensland government wasted its goodwill and momentum with a series of culture-war spats that have nothing to do with the problems they were elected to address, and which made Queenslanders question whether they were right to elect an LNP government. What does Abbott do but wade into a culture war of his own, winning no support from swinging voters but reinforcing their doubts.
Abbott is proposing to change the law of the land to favour one of his mates: all of Andrew Bolt's avid readers are Coalition voters anyway. Abbott explicitly stood with conservative churchmen at a time when Australians are ambivalent at best about the leadership of churches, and about their relationship to government policy. The conservative base are wrong to seek reassurance at a time when people are not yet won over to what Abbott is offering.
Far more substantial than any policy achievements as Opposition Leader have been Abbott's dirty-tricks campaigns against the admittedly flawed Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson. Bloggers, not MSM journalists, led the campaigns to expose Ashby and Jackson-Lawler, which means that neither the sleaze nor the perception of Coalition distance from them are assets for Abbott.
Now Abbott should be on a winner with electricity, and he isn't. No amount of PR glitter-rolling, no amount of parliamentary theatrics can give him the credibility and the gravitas he has frittered away.
It was understandable that they should give him the benefit of the doubt but now the press gallery embarrass themselves when they simply take him at face value. I talk a lot about the politico-media complex but increasingly, if nobody listens to Abbott on the big issues at the crucial moments, eventually journalists have to stop taking him seriously.
Abbott hasn't paid the price for power, the consideration about what it means to govern this country well and what you might offer toward that end. The humility of the great responsibility of office is being diminished by conceited prats like Chris Pyne who take victory at the next election as given. Oh, yes, Battlelines; more honoured in the breach than the observance in terms of actual Liberal policy directions today. Isn't electricity pricing (and associated issues such as generation and distribution) such a signal issue for Australian families today? Isn't it as important to Abbott as "the greatest moral challenge of our time" was to Rudd (and if not, what is)?
Abbott is committing the worst offence possible against the modern media - providing dull copy - without the gravitas and seriousness of considering the future of the nation and preparing for government. Ironically, any shift by the Liberal Party away from his leadership is made harder, not easier, by the absence of any thought about what a Coalition government might mean (other than winding back anything and everything Rudd and Gillard ever did and pretending the future is 2005). Abbott is to blame for this, and so are those who sold their party out to him so comprehensively, and so cheaply.