17 February 2014

Not Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott is not widely trusted, except by Liberals and press gallery journalists. Given the extent and frequency of promises broken it's a mistake for him to frame all his messages around trust and keeping promises. People are looking for an alternative to Tony Abbott but, as wasn't the case with Rudd or Gillard, there isn't one.

Joe Hockey isn't an alternative to Abbott. He is the lynchpin of this government. He needs to get across both the ideas that a) the economy really is in crisis and b) he's the Treasurer to address said crisis with such tools as are available to the Treasurer. Any credit for consistency and good government that will become due to this government will accrue to Hockey, not Abbott. If he fails at either or both, both men and their government will go down. Even if he succeeds it may put him in a position where he takes on Abbott and shunts him out, but that won't happen soon if at all.

Malcolm Turnbull isn't an alternative to Abbott. The Liberals know how to play him and he hasn't learnt any new tricks.

In the republic debate in the late '90s, Howard and Abbott backed Turnbull into a republican model that was unpopular, limited in scope, and focused on changing as little as possible about the way our political architecture works. Turnbull could have worked with those who supported a republic but not the model that was excreted from the convention - many in number but relatively powerless - but he chose to pooh-pooh them all. With a broader base he might have won one or two states in the 1999 referendum and maintained momentum for an eventual republic which would now be realised.

As Opposition Leader in 2008 Turnbull was unpopular, limited in scope, and focused on changing as little as possible about the way the Liberal Party worked. He was played for a fool by Eric Abetz over Godwin Grech, and Howard legatees like Nick Minchin nibbled away from the sidelines at any attempt to move the Liberal Party on from the reasons why it lost in 2007, even given the gift of Howard being removed from Parliament. Turnbull could have worked with those who supported anyone but Abbott (especially the Victorians; Turnbull would have won more seats in that state than Abbott has or can) - they were many in number but relatively powerless - but he pooh-poohed the idea that Abbott would beat him. He could have been the beneficiary of the Rudd meltdown and Gillard's fumbles. Even though he lost by a single vote in 2009, he may as well have lost by fifty.

As Communications Minister today, Murdoch and Abbott have backed Turnbull into a telecommunications model that is unpopular, limited in scope (both in terms of Labor's NBN and those operating in other countries), and focused on changing as little as possible about the way our media and ICT architectures work. Turnbull could reach out to those who are interested in ICT as a facilitator of growth - many in number but relatively powerless - but again, he chose to pooh-pooh them all.

There's a pattern here. Malcolm Turnbull is not about greatness and the leadership to get us to a bright new future. Those of us who thought he might have been were wrong about that, too. He can't build and maintain fractious coalitions, more a marquee man than a big tent guy. He tosses babies out with bathwater. His one tangible political legacy, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, should be coming into its own now with the drought but it is as one with Nineveh and Tyre. Turnbull will puddle along in Communications and may well take on another portfolio, but like Kevin Andrews or David Johnston his past is more substantial than his future.

A government is not obliged to be fractious and divided.

Paul Fletcher is Turnbull's parliamentary secretary. When Fletcher talks about the private sector, not the federal government, determining the future economic benefits Australia can draw from digital technologies, he isn't interested in hearing from some apps developer who lives with his parents. By 'the private sector', Fletcher means Telstra, Optus, and Foxtel. They will determine what we shall have and what we shall not have in line with their pre-existing plans.
Several countries around the world have determined specific goals for their digital sector.

In 2011, Brazil set its sights on raising its ranking from seventh to fifth world's largest economy by 2022 largely on the back of its exploitation of digital technologies enabled by fibre broadband ... South Korea and Sweden are constantly hailed for their digital vision
That's nice.

Countries that don't want to change their global position leave it to the private sector. The US is the biggest economy in the world, it leaves its ICT infrastructure to the private sector (it does have a significant military capacity, whose innovations - including the internet itself - occasionally spill over into the private sector). Countries that want to improve their economic position require government intervention: Brazil, South Korea, and Sweden are examples of this, as are China and India. Australia's economic position relative to other countries is one of stagnation or decline in most metrics, so by default the Abbott government has committed us to a low-growth future that it does not fully understand. The government is deaf to rallying cries like this; companies that don't exist yet have no clout.
Google Australia managing director Mailie Carnegie told Fairfax Media in October, the company wanted the change the tune of the public discussion ... "I look at the energy around the NBN. At the moment it's focused around cost. I'd love to talk about the benefits and how we can change the rhetoric, from cost to disruption," she said at the time.
Neither Fletcher, nor Turnbull, nor anyone in this government will have any truck with this communist notion of 'disruption', thank you very much. Australia being 'open for business' means that unions and asylum seekers are up for disruption, not large and somnolent businesses. There was never any indication that any other outcome would apply.

This brings us to the man who should be more not-Abbott than anyone else: Bill Shorten.
Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man.

- Iain Duncan Smith, UK Conservative Opposition Leader 2001-03
Nobody wants to hear from a party that has just been defeated. Even though Rudd and Gillard have since departed Parliament, there were good reasons why the previous government was re-elected. Shorten was right not to come out too hard too early.

A successful opposition needs a few points of difference and With education funding (including childcare) and environmental issues (fracturing the water table for the sake of gas, dumping the Barrier Reef), are plenty in themselves. Simple statements of principle - that education is important, in itself and economically, and likewise for the environment - could sharply limit this government and help voters work out what post-Rudd/Gillard Labor stand for.

This government wants to act on behalf of stratified education and of those who casually pollute as a by-product of other gains, but it wants to be seen to act on behalf of all Australians. An opposition that is about maximising educational opportunity, and which points out there are more jobs with a burgeoning reef (e.g. in tourism) than there are in a depleted one (e.g. in mining), leaves the government exposed as facilitators of those who would constrict the country for their own purposes.

Communications is another potential issue: the government's "reviews" and "consultations" will leave it too long to develop a strong and coherent policy; Labor will be able to offer more and better than whatever we might get from Abbott | Turnbull | Fletcher | Partners (limited liability). This is a good start.

Shorten has given Abbott enough rope. He is in a strong position to say: I've had enough of this government, and make some declarative statements that ring true with people, and which help define him and what a potential Labor government might offer.

As to unions: targeting dodgy unions and unionists should help them, and Shorten by extention, more than it hurts them/him. It's just what Coalition governments do. What they tend not to realise is that it relies upon unemployment going lower than it is and staying that way. You can't get stuck into unions when unemployment is high or rising, unless you have carefully made the case that they (rather than global economic conditions) are directly responsible for it. If the economy turns down and unemployment rises, there will almost certainly be high-profile corporate failures that will make union malfeasance look small-scale. That's why I disagree with this paywalled article by Laura Tingle: the idea that Abbott looks purposeful while talking workplace relations is not that significant, a matter of parliamentary theatre rather than wider analysis.

Workchoices failed because it had plenty of detractors and few die-in-a-ditch supporters. The Heydon Royal Commission will come under pressure to be wrapped up early if it turns on employers as the Costigan Royal Commission did. Labor has 120 years of dealing with unions. Shorten should be able to draw on that.

As it stands, Shorten has made few such declarative statements. He's surrounded by sand, and the few lines drawn in it have genrally been put there by others. This might have been designed to bipartisanly protect both Burke and Hunt, but it looks like the government has bent Labor to its will and blunts its criticism of Hunt. If he won't come out swinging in favour of the national disability scheme or education or the Great Barrier Reef, and if he won't be goaded over having been a union official, will he stand up for anything?

Greg Jericho pointed out that this government was elected despite popular support for Labor policies. If Shorten can establish that Labor is able to fulfill those policies it is a long way toward returning to government - especially as it becomes clear that Coalition promises of bipartisan support for school funding, disability care, and telecommunications were never real, and that those who were taken in by the 'Seinfeld politics' idea were mugs. As Hawke and Keating did with Whitlam, it is possible to retrieve legacy issues from a government that has been emphatically dispatched.

Shorten is only the third federal leader in ALP history to have spent more of his parliamentary career in government rather than opposition: the other two were H V Evatt and Kim Beazley. Evatt was a champion of human rights but couldn't carry that through to a coherent narrative of government. Faced with multifaceted challenges to national security and human rights in 2001, Beazley couldn't establish a coherent narrative for government. Shorten might be able to establish a coherent narrative for government, or he might not. His union background is much benefit to him as it was for Frank Tudor or Simon Crean, if not more so.

Now is the time for Shorten to start drawing lines in the sand, to start defining himself that he might govern others. Rudd and Gillard have gone. This government has stuffed up and isn't great at explaining itself, or explaining away its shortcomings. Soon it will go to ground to put together the Budget. Shorten should fill that vacuum so that his criticisms of the Budget have a framework, or he will end up like Iain Duncan Smith - in office but not in power.

Tony Abbott is in power, and without meaningful opposition he is cementing himself there. Last September I thought it was better to perpetuate the fiasco rather than submit to this darkening ecliptic, but others voted differently and, well, here it is.


  1. Watcyed Lateline tonight with Tim Wilson as Human Rights Commissioner ...

    Weird interview with an Orwellian agenda towards Human Rights.

    Extreme ideologue.

    Thoughts of a possible leader here??

  2. Andrew, thank you for your excellent blog and links.

    It remains a mystery to me, however, why a person as distrusted as Abbott is Prime Minister.

    Imam equally puzzled why the majority voted for the Coalition even though they preferred Labor's policies.

    The natural order has been disturbed.

    Is it all the media's fault? Undoubtedly a large section are either apologists or supporters of the government. The others, with a few exceptions, are not rigorous in their investigations or else make accusations which cannot be backed up with cold, hard evidence.

    I don't know about anyone else but it seems from personal experience that people are polarized in their views. Conversations can become very hostile.

    Certain topics, climate change being the obvious example, make eyes bulge and lips foam. To accept the reality of man-made climate change is to be a despised red--ragger. To have concerns about gay marriage immediately puts others in the ranks of right wing zealotry.

    There does not seem to be any ground for reasoned debate.

    I cannot remember such a time and it disturbs me.

  3. Oh but, when the Senate changes in July the carbon and mining taxes will be repealed and that will fix everything - won't it?
    It is very dispiriting that no matter how bad you think a conservative government will be, it always turns out to be worse.

  4. I dont think Bill Shorten will be able to get up on any other issue until Abbott's boat policy falls apart, or once people start feeling bad again about how we treat these people and can have a grown up discussion about what happens under different policies and which of those voters are willing to accept. I dont think this policy has much further to run until either one of those happens.

    That, I think, is the reason people overlook this Government's steady-as-she-goes daily failures. They solved an apparently intractable long standing problem people were sick of. So they get the benefit of the doubt on everything else.

    Only then will Shorten will be in a position to tackle a back to the future platform at the next election.

    1. With no boat people arriving successfully for 9 weeks now, I'm perplexed why you feel Abbott's boat policy is about to "fall apart".

    2. If you insist that the government's policy can only be taken on its own lights, that the current minister is telling the truth, and that the death of a detainee means nothing, then no wonder you're perplexed.

  5. "Australia being 'open for business' means that unions and asylum seekers are up for disruption, not large and somnolent businesses."

    As always - great stuff Andrew. I am reminded of a line from Philip Adams about Brit PM John Major. "He shank the role to match his (limited) abilities." Likewise the LNP team/rabble is taking on old irrelevant causes rather than tackling the real C21 issues.

    1. Lachlan Ridge19/2/14 12:47 pm

      As with everything else he did, Adams lifted that line.

      Adams was a wit, and we know exactly what sort of a wit he was.

  6. Seinfeld Politics

    Love that phrase!!

    All the bogan bourgeois love to think they're a smart and sophisticated bunch by engaging in a self induced coma of complete apathy and self interest.


    Our reputation has been damaged signifantly

    In Spain a lawyer friend was repulsed by his assessment of our treatment of those seeking Asylym.

    He was very ambivalent towards having younger Australians in his bar because of our drinking problem.

    Nice one Austrayalian polity.

    So sick of seeing our p.m in the media.

    Worse than Ms Gillard...lifeless and dull with no charisma.

  7. Beazley and Shorten is an interesting comparison. Despite the growing discontent about the government, Beazley failed repeatedly to unseat John Howard. Shorten seems to me like me might go down that unsuccessful path- reserved in comparison to his opponent, seemingly nice (although his role in the demises of Rudd and Gillard would suggest otherwise) and strongly linked to the previous government.

    Having said that, I hope Abbott lacks his mentor's ability to burrow himself in like a tick whilst sucking blood and resisting all attempts at removal. The way this government has imitated the 'mean, tricky and out of touch' legacy of the Howard years utterly dismays me.

    1. Richard M - I agree.
      Shorten is a disappointment thus far and I did not expect very much at all. He is lifeless and, of course, the ALP must share blame for the Manus Island tragedy.
      Once again the press gallery have shown themselves to be devoid of any sense of inquiry. The press conference with Scott Morrison was a disgrace. When was courage required for a journalist to ask a question?
      I am so dispirited. We have a supine Tweedledee Opposition and the most craven bunch of journalists ever to present themselves as the Fourth Estate. Estate? More like a back lot full of tumbleweeds.

  8. VoterBentleigh21/2/14 11:45 pm

    Turnbull engages in incoherent babble and has no NBN plan. If Hockey has a plan, then perhaps he could enunciate it. Abbott's disinterest in knowing or even caring what is going on in his Government, let alone having any consistent plan for any aspect of national polity, will drag Hockey (and everyone else) down with him. Hockey is only a lynch-pin of nuts, like himself. No matter how bad Shorten appears in the media (where he is squeezed out), he couldn't be worse than the Conservative Coalition's ship of callous fools who use the term “moral blackmail” as an excuse to disregard people's suffering. When Hockey blathered on about Otto von Bismarck, it only reminded me of a later Chancellor of Germany.

    Giving the Minister for the Cost of Living (never mentions environment) legal immunity is a case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. It wins no votes, but makes the COL Minister's task to undermine anything environmental a lot easier.

    The only plan Abbott has is to wreck, repeal, dissolve, abolish and destroy. The only benefit to come from his “small government” is that he will do away with the reason for his own existence as PM. Now there's a promise worth keeping.

  9. Being offline for a couple of weeks, it was refreshing to read your latest post and agree wholeheartedly with your suggested strategy.

    Interestingly an attempt to bag Shorten over Conroy's criticism of Campbell led at last to Shorten drawing a line in the sand, and taking on the government over their attempt to hide behind the military and secrecy. It was the best he'd performed by a long way.

    As you have pointed out, there is a wealth of material to work on from education, the environment, the NBN and public health to jobs and industrial relations. It does offer a golden opportunity for Labor to present as a values party. It is hard to find what the coalition stands for, as distinct from what it is against.

    Labor does need to ensure that the Hockey blather does not become accepted economic mantra. Giving more prominence to Andrew Leigh should ensure that.

    I agree that coming from a 'more in government than opposition' history does not augur well. Perhaps you need to be hungrier from being frustrated.

  10. There was a time when I could not understand "politically homeless". I can now, and am in that place. I got to here in the opposite way to you Andrew, as a long time ALP member.....bloody awful place to be, but I can't see it changing any time soon..