10 February 2013

Enduring ideas

There was a time when conservatives had plenty of policy ideas: the late 1960s. From that time came a number of initiatives that have had an enduring impact on public debate. The Labor Party generally, and Whitlam in particular, snaffled all but two of them.

Ask anyone: who brought the troops home from Vietnam? Whitlam (actually, McMahon had done most of that work earlier in 1972). Who set up the Australia Council to foster Australian film, literature, theatre and culture more broadly? Whitlam (Gorton set up the initial, tentative and under-resourced version of this entity). Plenty of big ideas from the Liberals are owned by Labor.

Liberals get no credit for the 1967 referendum on counting Aborigines in the census, nor for the (accidental) career of Neville Bonner, and Malcolm Fraser achieved quite a lot in Aboriginal Affairs (with ministers like Fred Chaney and Ian Viner) - but it is all knocked into a cocked hat with that image of Gough Whitlam's white fist leaking red soil into Vincent Lingiari's outstretched black hand.

That's where big ideas gets the Liberals: nowhere, politically. Proponents of big ideas seeking bipartisan support are wasting their time because there's nothing in it for the Coalition. To understand this is to understand why their only big ideas are warmed-over and inconsistent exercises in frustration and disappointment.

In the 1980s the Liberals organised around ideas, wets and dries, and a fat lot of good that did them. "Incentivation" failed in 1987. Shack's great health plan and the questions needing to be answered failed in 1990. Fightback! failed in 1993. John Howard led the tendency in the Liberal Party to disdain big ideas, and by 1996 Liberals flinched when confronted with ideas. Howard won in 1996 by stirring up apathy to Keating's "big picture" ideas on Aboriginal reconciliation, the arts and the republic. The defeat of the republic confirmed and reinforced it: forget big ideas.

Conservatives don't do big ideas. When in power conservatives see themselves as guarding the Treasury and the common weal generally, forming a gauntlet through which ideas that are costly, faddish, socialistic, or otherwise undesirable are filtered out. Any initiatives that survive such a rigorous process must truly be the Unstoppable March of Progress. Because any initiatives that survive conservative governments are considered inevitable, conservatives get no credit for them. Meteorologists get no credit for good weather nor any blame for bad.

Conservatives are disappointed that major policy initiatives in Australian politics come from outside their ranks. Independence for East Timor was a far-left irrelevance until John Howard seized the opportunity to realise it; apart from Jose Ramos Horta, nobody gives Howard much credit for that. Kevin Donnelly is trying his best in pushing for a return to classical education, but too few Liberals enjoyed such an education themselves and Donnelly has failed at persuasion/doing the numbers; they can't and won't sell it.

Howard's one enduring initiative, the gun buyback, occurred on the fly from within his office and not from the grass roots of the Coalition parties. It is being undone by conservative state governments fostering hunting in national parks and lifting restrictions on ammunition (the current government had a case to answer with lax customs detection of weapons imports, but Jason Clare appears to be limiting scope for criticism and will have made his reputation if he can render it a non-issue by September).

They can't have it both ways, acting as the scourge of new initiatives and wondering why none come from within - but yet they still wish it were otherwise. The central weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a structural shift and a passing fad, which is why structural shifts have to assert themselves politically in a way that passing fads can't. Conservatives were kept out of office until they embraced Medicare, and were not allowed in until they accepted warnings not to dismantle it. Gay marriage still looks like a passing fad to conservatives; but it isn't, and future conservatives will claim to be upset that doubt will be cast on their not-yet-evident support for this initiative.

In his youth, Tony Abbott learned the Big Ideas of Santamaria and the DLP: nuclear families made from wedded straight couples; opposition to abortion and euthanasia; and that the Church is never wrong and owes no compensation to anyone. From Howard he learned to disdain Big Ideas, and he generally does: but he is conflicted. He can't be trusted in his claims to support the NDIS; statements that the Coalition would only support an NDIS at some future time when the land is flowing with milk and honey is far more credible, however disappointing that might be for supporters.

He can't be trusted in his claims to support a comprehensive Asian language/cultural exchange program between Australian and Asian education systems (he calls this a "new Colombo Plan" for those seeking certainty in old ideas, but his proposal is nothing like that limited and outdated program). His dismissal of Big Ideas can be put down to 1 Corinthians 13:11 when it suits him, but when it doesn't his rhetoric keens for Big Ideas and the credit that attaches to them.

The two ideas from the late 1960s which Labor have been happy to leave to the conservatives are nuclear energy and northern development.

There was a serious proposal by the Gorton government to develop a nuclear energy industry. Within the current term of Parliament Josh Frydenberg attempted to revive the idea in his intellectually and politically timid way - to "call for a debate" without leading one, to ignore the developments in this area (including environmental knowledge) over the past forty years, and to generally overestimate the importance of Josh in making things happen. In Liberal terms, however, Frydenberg has revived a trusty Liberal issue that has sat in the bottom drawer awaiting its hour and its champion, and the opponents of the issue are almost all lefties so don't underestimate the frisson of political correctness that attaches to even talking about an Australian nuclear industry.

An Australian nuclear industry would be expensive to set up and maintain, and would take a long time to do so even with an unequivocally supportive government. It would, however, make a few people a lot of money. It follows, therefore, that those who stand to reap the rewards can bear the risk involved in getting the idea up. The fact that they have preferred for government to bear this risk leaves proponents looking politically exposed, attracting criticism without any compensating reward.

Northern development is like that, too:
  • If you want to pay less tax, then forget about government building you free dams, rail lines and roads.
  • Landholdings in southeastern and southwestern Australia tend to be small and numerous, so when you build dams there the economic benefit is widely spread through surrounding communities. Landholdings in northern Australia tend to be large and few, so a government that builds them a dam it will basically be donating public money to a small group of people who don't pay tax and aren't even Australian.
  • The Co-Chairman of ANDEV, Gina Rinehart, lives far to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn, in Perth. Dominic Talimanidis, Director of the North Australia Project at the Institute of Public Affairs, also lives far to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn - in Melbourne, as does the Shadow Minister responsible for confusing this with a policy idea, Andrew Robb. All three are incurring vastly inflated labour costs. If these people won't live their own proposals there is no reason why anyone else should.
  • As to 'immigration' magically solving labour-shortage issues in northern Australia, I'd suggest that Gina Rinehart saw the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at an impressionable age and won't be told there's no such place as Oompa-Loompa Land from which sufficient numbers of willing and underpaid workers can be drawn.
  • Forget about setting up some sort of Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine because it already exists and has done for a hundred years. If you were in a position to do so, you'd write them a huge cheque to encourage them to keep up the good work and challenge the government (the incumbents and/or the opp-pose-ition) to match it - this would have far more credibility than sitting around in Perth or Melbourne dreaming up ways of spending taxpayer money by people who would rather avoid contributing, and proposing entities that exist already.
  • Alternative to previous point: set up the Lang Hancock Centre for Tropical Medicine (motto: "Get out of bed and do some bloody work!") and see how you go attracting serious research talent.
  • Speaking of health, if government was serious about this proposal it would be building hospitals, schools and other social infrastructure in northern Australia. It would be costing that infrastructure and preparing detailed assessments about labour needs. In the absence of such planning, with attendant budget estimates and opportunity costs etc.
  • The government has avoided deploying ADF personnel to northwestern WA for very good reasons. ADF personnel are well-trained, fit, work in teams, follow instructions, and are underpaid compared to mining industry norms. If you wanted to cut the Defence budget and our operational readiness, you'd send them to areas where they earn a fraction of their neighbours.
  • If you expect government to build all this infrastructure up north, proposals like this and this and that - and donations to the vehicle industry on which they run - will need to be revised (at the very least, journalists should question them). Think about what we could have done with all that money flushed down the Ord. It's either-or in this budget climate, not all-this-and-more.
  • Where is the Australian FMCG company that could actually ramp up exports to Asia if required (because only then do we even get to the idea of a "northern foodbowl")?
  • Given the shelving of Olympic Dam (south of the Tropic of Capricorn) and Ravensthorpe (likewise), what problem is this 'solution' trying to solve? Engineering types working in mining and construction should have a simple and firm answer to this question: what problem is this 'solution' trying to solve?
  • The Northern Development plan is pretty much limited to farming and mining, as it was in the 1960s. No Karratha Google, no Ayr Apple, nothing that takes away from those who would take more than they contribute.
  • Why aren't Aboriginal communities leading, or at least involved in, this push? Normally voluble people like Noel Pearson, Alison Anderson, and Bess Price seem very, very quiet on this arrangement.
Where the Coalition's push for northern development moves from merely being silly to being fraudulent and hypocritical comes when you look at recent political history in, of all places, South Australia:
  • In the 1970s the SA government proposed to build Monarto to alleviate overpopulation in Adelaide. The Liberal Opposition regarded it as an ill-conceived and expensive extravagance;
  • In the 1980s the SA government proposed to build a Multi-Function Polis to boost hi-tech employment in (not-necessarily overpopulated) Adelaide. The Liberal Opposition regarded it as an ill-conceived and expensive extravagance;
  • In the last decade the SA government sought to facilitate a mine at Olympic Dam that would consume more power than the city of Adelaide. Who knows what the Liberal Opposition thought of that? Do you think such a power-hungry entity, mining uranium amongst other things, would have set up a nuclear power station at its own expense to show how it's done?
The Coalition is basically proposing a dozen Monartos in northern Australia. They'd be dual-function polises (farming and mining). The main argument against the "northern development" proposal is that those proposing it are refusing to face up to the electorate and economic situation that exists and seeking to socially-engineer a society that is more amenable to keeping them in office:
... Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

- Bertolt Brecht The Solution
There is something to Craig Emerson's quip that Abbott can't even be positive about own policies. Suspicion immediately falls upon Peta Credlin, who loathes Robb and probably thought such a leak would not rebound upon the leader to the extent that it has. Why does anyone think there's a scrap of electoral kudos in a 40-year-old idea that is so obviously doomed? What's the alternative?

With education and health - always big issues in Australian elections no matter what pollsters say - there are signs that the old ways won't do and that people are more open than some might imagine to trying new ways of doing things. Chris Pyne's insistence that the status quo of school funding is ridiculous. Peter Dutton's pronouncements would be just as silly if there were any. Neither man can maintain the assertion that local boards will fix more problems than they cause, or make worse. They simply aren't offering solutions to actual problems facing this country.

With his backdown on supporting people and communities with alcohol problems, and a couple of leaks, we would describe him and his team as in disarray if only these events had happened to the government. Abbott's problems run far deeper than that. This is the last election when the Liberals can dig their heels in and demand a return to all things Howard (well, except Howard himself, and Costello, and the heady pre-GFC economy ...).

Abbott suppressed initiative and centralised policy development in his own office, which he stuffed full of control-freak message numpties. Journalists should not be forming mutually-beneficial relationships with such people but going around them. Moderates of old would have bucked centralisation in the leader's office, but the hollow shells that remain have happily gone along with Abbott because they see no other alternative.

In order to cement his own position, Abbott has leached the Liberal Party of its capacity to articulate how the country could be governed differently and what it might look like if it so chose. That capacity will not return soon, either. Warmed-over ideas from the 1960s accrue no interest in the vault and get overtaken by new ideas, the development of which the Coalition play no part. They need to expire, and be seen to expire, publicly and unavoidably. New, big ideas from the Liberals will need a track record of success that they currently lack before they can take their forfeited place among those who help this country grow and prosper.


  1. ernmalleyscat10/2/13 11:30 am

    The Liberal party seems to be happy to reduce themselves to being the stalking horse of business, to get into government and dismantle as many areas of revenue ("toxic taxes") and expenditure ("wasteful spending") as possible so that business can carry on unimpeded.

    The 'small government' mantra of conservative think tanks and press has become the guiding philosophy of a party that wants to govern so it won't have to actually govern.

    Obviously if that's the aim they won't need plans or policies other than how to win. And with a largely compliant media that feeds on the conflict and drama of portraying government action as something to fear, they can't switch to ideas even if they wanted to.

    So consequently we have a party seriously preparing for an election on the platform of promising to do as little as possible when they are in. And not even just status quo, but repeal taxes, dismantle programs, renege on treaties etc.

    Makes you wonder why they are even in the business of politics. Why not just put up a shingle as a think tank and snipe from the sidelines and go on panel shows.

    1. The Liberal Party and the IPA were founded at about the same time. The founder of the IPA, CD Kemp, offered his organisation to the Liberal Party as some sort of philosophical and intellectual outsourcing arrangement. Menzies rejected that but the Liberal Party has declined to the point where the IPA have taken that role by default.

      When the Liberal Party gets sick of hearing about ideas that can only come to fruition with big government spending, and start demanding proponents pay for it themselves, will they have woken up to the silly position into which they have wedged themselves. Workplace relations is another example of this, which is worth a whole thread in itself.

    2. ernmalleyscat10/2/13 3:37 pm

      I didn't know that about the IPA's founding. It explains a lot.

    3. The heritage foundation have strong links with them as well now Andrew...



      Corporate shrills more like it now

      Nice historical background

    4. At a recent uni debate, one of the I.p.a guys said something interesting...

      The party attracts rich,white inner city kids that adopt a white australia policy mentality with their groupings...

      Still a 1950"s racist mindset

      Andrew,youre right!!


    5. The million dollar question is....

      Who bloody funds them???

      Theyre on the a.b.c every week and people notice it.

      Narcissism anyone??

      Some of their ideas are intetesting and fun!!

    6. They are corrupt and very shady...

      They use various environmental fronts to prop up the coal and fuel industry....

      Roskam et al used to work for these dirty inustries and whatever the original intentions were,,they have completely gone away from those...

      Dont believe their media persona

      Very nasty to deal with .....funny anectodes especially Wilson

      Thats another story .......

  2. 5 years of policy development for a re-heated Whitlam initiative from the 60s. I suppose that's just our Tony™!

  3. I just want to correct one statement in an otherwise great post.

    "Independence for East Timor was a far-left irrelevance until John Howard seized the opportunity to realise it ... nobody gives Howard much credit for that."

    Howard doesn't deserve any credit. He didn't seize an opportunity but rather was forced into action despite his best efforts to avoid it.

    For a brief overview of the sequence of events see:

    1. Fair enough, thanks for that. I knew Howard was reluctant but Ramos Horta pointed out that no Australian PM had done as much for Timor Leste as John Howard.

    2. Yeah, strictly speaking Ramos Horta is correct. Successive Labour and Liberal governments were both actively apposed to East Timor Independence. I don't think that a Labour Government at the time would have acted in a materially different way.

      There seams to be a kind of "group think" within the Department of Foreign Affairs with respect to Indonesia. They are convinced that stability in Indonesia, at any cost, is in Australia's national interest - even if it means betraying our own national morals and ideals.

      Credit for the action that was eventually taken by Australia should go to the Australian people and the ADF personnel for the job that they did. The two major political parties should both be ashamed of the role they played and Howard's attempt at revisionism is disgusting.

    3. Howard wanted to dump refugees there as soon as independence had been declared and it was Downer who like in 1999 about who was doing the killing.

      It was also Fraser and Peacock who first recognised the invasion and occupation yet Whitlam is always blamed for it.

      Let's get this clear - Whitlam was booted out by Fraser on 11/11/75, the invasion was 7/12/75 when Fraser was PM.

      It was also Downer who screwed the East Timorese over their oil and gas even more than Gareth Gareth did.

      In fact and reality Australia has been disgusting towards the East Timorese for as long as I can remember as we lick the boots of whoever is the latest corrupt Indonesian government.

  4. Another great post, thank you. Only point of contention is that Howard only 'seized the opportunity' with East Timor because the pay-off was access to enormous gas fields and the revenue that comes with it. Really, he short-changed them big-time.

  5. Isnt there a tension between the first part of this post (- Libs dont get political credit for big ideas and post-Howard, are better off being the populist anti-Big ideas party) and the final paragraph (Libs need to get rid of the Tony Numbys to be able - eventually with work - to re-establish Big Ideas. I.E. to go back to the 60s? Get more ideas appropriated and non-credited?). They can be an ineffectual, carpy "natural" opposition, while the ALP/Greens can be the "natural" (for a while) Government of Ideas. Kind of a filter - from Left-ALP/Green to centre ALP, to legislation, and then consensus extracted from the Libs after the fact (as happening on NDIS and did for Medicare). In exchange the Libs have to be granted some symbolic 'red meat' - currently the 'Stop the Boats' nastiness-auction between the ALP and LIBS.

    On the early part of the post's reasoning, whats wrong in electoral-politics terms for the Libs to play the stupid/talkback card? Indeed, might not the function of the Libs in the body politic might just to be the (farting) bottom and (bad) breath of the Aussie body politic - repulsive, but you'd soon notice if you had no bottom or mouth; something would be direly wrong. They stop electoral and class-disgruntlements turning from stupid to very very anaerobically-toxic. This allows serious policy structural change to emerge from the ALP/GReens outward, in alliance with our sensible and basically decent public service. (I.e. basically the people in the country who have Arts or Law degrees and arent dickheads).

    Thanks for this superb and analytical post, AE - it is why I read your stuff, and much better than your recent rather too-invested micro-fisking of Tony and select silly journos.

    1. I don't believe that Libs have to go back to the 1960s in order to develop the capacity to develop, promote and execute big ideas. I don't believe they want to go into politics in order to spend their entire careers in Opposition.

  6. Don't you think that IR policy is probably the only policy that the Libs have consistently 'owned'?

    True it is currently a love that dare not speak its name under the risible no target strategy.

    Bunch of con artists all whispering sweet nothings. Australia's a fool if she falls for it.

  7. The difference between a bad policy and a policy disaster is that when voters look at a bad policy they debate why it is a bad idea. When they look at a policy disaster, they consider the person putting forward the idea as being off with the pixies.

    The Abbott/ Rhineland (lebensraum) policy proposal is in the second category.

  8. The problem for conservatism at the moment is that the times we live in aren't the age-old, living by the basics that conservatives want to keep on living in. Since 1960 the world has been in ecological debt, only a vast downscaling of economic activity and a fall in global population can get us back to a world where it's possible to be conservative, which has a the kind of lifespan in which can hark back to the past. Of course, no one, not even the Greens, have yet managed to articulate this to the public at large, so perhaps Conservatism's hour has come, perhaps the conservative mantra of 'living within one's means' can now be deployed with a new meaning....

    Perhaps not.

  9. I think it's interesting that the "problem" with big ideas is that your opponents can steal them and take credit for them.

    If you think government and politics is about implementing ideas in order to improve society or the economy it shouldn't matter whether your opponents coopt them - your ideas are getting up in the end, just because your name isn't on the package shouldn't matter should it?

    But of course, now, it apparently does. Better to have no ideas influencing public debate because then no one can "steal" them or find fault with them. What a shallow perspective (and it's not just the Libs of course). The ALP will fall into this trap too given the chance - the NSW ALP government had so run out of ideas that it was recycling previously discarded ideas in order to be seen to discard them again, particularly in relation to public transport.

    And surely if the media were doing their job, the fact that an idea came from the conservative side but was implemented by the ALP should be on the record and credit/criticism given where due. Silly me. Context, history; mere lowly details in the journalistic goal of reducing everything to a symbolic meaningless power struggle.

  10. I believe it was Menzies who stated "we are liberals, we don't do things".

  11. You have articulated and encapsulated a lot of thoughts and reasoning as to why The Abbott opposition will never win government, and as a political observer you develop a feel or instinct that you have trouble defining, that one side can't win, and this piece clearly sets out why.... Thank you, IMB

  12. Going home in the car the other night i chanced on a Radio National rebroadcast of Fred Chaney's Geoffrey Bolton oration from last year. That man was a Liberal in the true sense of the word. i suspect that if any of the current crop heard what he said they would probably vomit.

  13. The Liberal Party has a Big Idea, Andrew: not letting Abbott speak.

    The fact that they think he can still be viewed as a Prime Minister without speaking is the Biggest Idea the Liberal Party has had yet.

  14. Howard was no guardian of the Treasury! Nor was Costello, it is Costello’s unsustainable tax cuts that sees us with debt and deficits.

    1. We should all remember that it was Costello the so called Treasurer of the century, that sold all of our gold reserves

  15. This is the last election when the Liberals can dig their heels in and demand a return to all things Howard

    The extent to which Abbott looks backwards to Howard is truly astounding, all the moreso because one of the least remarked-on facets of his time as Opposition Leader.

    Abbott spouts all the negative wrecking-ball rhetoric he likes, but every time every time he is asked to substantiate even a scrap of detail about how or why he'd do something and his singular refuge is 'What Would Howard Do?'

    I'm surprised the ALP doesn't make more hay out of this too. They should provoke a conversation with the electorate that asks whether people really want to go back in time 5-6 years and just stay there perpetually.

  16. Permit an historical quibble. Sure the Libs initiated the Vietnam withdrawal - but only after prosecuting the war for the better part of a decade! Since it was Labor (much to Calwell's cost in 66) that opposed the war openly, it's wrong to say Whitlam Labor somehow 'snaffled' or followed what was a belated liberal policy.

    But otherwise, point well made - liberalism was visibly more vibrant in Liberal Party in the 60s and even 70s than since.