A disastrous opposition


The current Opposition in Canberra is not smiled upon. Its leader is lacklustre and not as impressive as at least one of those behind him. The party seems content just to say no to just about everything, and it has real trouble in formulating alternative policies. Even though the present government is neither trusted nor respected, the Opposition may have trouble getting enough votes to tip the government out, much less implement policies of its own if it ever gets round to formulating them.

If that picture sounds familiar, it is. We are adrift on a sea of back-biting mediocrity, and there is no end in sight.

In a democracy that is run on the basis of two main parties, the party in opposition has a job to do that is just as important as the job of the party in government. That proposition strikes me as being close to self-evident, but it is curious that it is not noticed, and, worse, not practised by those whose job it is to do so.

The three jobs or objectives of the Opposition are: to hold the party in government to its promises, and the proper discharge of government generally; to develop alternative policies that it can put forward to the electors as a better way to run the country; and, then, having developed those policies and persuaded the electors of their merits, try to win enough votes to secure enough seats to win government with the right and power to implement those policies.

You can see why people are disenchanted with the current Opposition, but the Opposition to the previous government, led by Mr Abbott, did none of those three things. They did not come even close to fulfilling one of their objectives.

The Opposition led by Mr Abbott did not adopt a reasoned approach to the endeavours by the government to implement its policies and fulfil its promises. That Opposition just said no, reflexively, and with an iron discipline enforced by personal staff that still gets a warm response from the cheer squad. They covered themselves in mantras and slogans – cut a tax and stop the boats. They thought that that was all that they had to do, and it was so easy! They gave up having to think, and they banned subordinates from even talking.

It is difficult to imagine a worse way for a party to conduct itself in opposition. They refused to deal with each case on its merits. We should have taken a lot more notice of this dangerous signal. They did not want to have to negotiate. It matters not if negotiation was beneath or beyond them – I suspect it was both. The only reason that Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and Mr Abbott was not was that she could and did negotiate to get the job while Mr Abbott could not and did not. Mr Abbott’s supporters forget that this disability of their man locked his side out for three years.

Negotiation is what politics are about, and too few people noticed that Mr Abbott had disqualified himself from being a good politician by his unwillingness or inability to engage in its most basic function. In one of his more fatuous outbursts before the election, Mr Abbott said that he would not negotiate with minor parties if he became PM. Too many people took too little notice of these danger signs – an inability to control his mouth so as not to make a fool of himself; a readiness to make promises which he must have known he could not keep; an ability to look forever as a hand-me-down from a previous era; and a readiness to embrace some simplistic notion that a moment’s mature consideration reveals to be straight bullshit.

Just saying no all the time without putting up a better idea is a total failure of the duty of an opposition party. It now haunts those who did it, because those on the other end can do the same. Here then is another strike gainst the system, another erosion of trust in a system that is abused all the time. We seem to see the same thing in the US, and the people in both countries are sick of watching politicians put their party before the nation. The system is very, very unwell.

The failure to put up new and better policies makes it a little hard to claim a ‘mandate’ whatever that means. The electors were told that the new government would abolish all taxes levied for the environment and would use our armed forces to stop unarmed refugees, but to the extent that they may be taken to have formulated a policy to deal with the real issues, they have produced something that for many Australians, including me, is at best embarrassing. Their attitude to the environment is an intellectual shambles; that on refugees is a moral surrender. In the result, we are now offside on the first with the US and China, and on the second, with the UN. These consequences can no longer just be laughed off by the press cheer squad.

Are there many Australians who have not been embarrassed by the conduct of these people? What about our Sea Scout answer to Baden Powell who stands up in front of our flag with a silly sign about ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and tells the Australian nation that Darth Vader has forbidden him to tell them where and when their chronically depressed sailors are fishing refugees from out of the water because these are ‘operational issues’? How could that wicked and reckless Tory Winston Churchill have got away with being so frank with the English people during a real war? Does anyone outside the demented claque of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones take seriously anything said by this feverish minion of Hillsong?

The third failure of the Coalition is in part linked to the first two. The Coalition in real terms had to win the election; it could hardly have lost a contest that a drover’s dog could have won. But they could net get enough votes to be able to govern as they wanted or to implement what passed for their program. Rather, they and their opponents left the electorate so cold that they proceeded to vote in a gaggle of people that the incumbents cannot help looking down upon. Their embarrassment at what they have done is a kind of cold comfort to the electors, but it is not helping to restore any faith or trust in a palpably sick system.

And the presence of these fringe members means we will be looking government by coalition after the European model. And that means some things will have to change. You will not be able to have absolute inflexible slogans or mantras for the simple reason that you do not have the numbers to ram them through as they are. You will have to be able to give and take, and to negotiate. You will not get by looking down on people outside your own uncomely backyard, but you will have to accept that if these people are as objectionable as you think, your public thinks that they are not as objectionable as you are. Above all, you can no longer get by saying that although you may be on the nose, the other side is worse – in the new world there is no one other side, and the people at large now are revolted at a bunch of inbred whackers looking at each other in the mirror and arguing the difficult point of who is the most uncomely one of them all.

They are the three main grounds on which the Opposition led by Mr Abbott was such disaster for the country. Two others are now becoming painfully apparent. The coldly disciplined attack dog approach to opposition was run out of one office, and this is an impossible model for cabinet government; it led one state premier to say that Mr Abbott never made the transition from opposition to government, a refrain that is now being taken up in his own cheer squad. The final mistake that Mr Abbott made was a bad mistake of character. Although he could hardly lose, and the other side sacked the PM to stem their own bleeding, Mr Abbott’s lack of nerve led him to make promises that were as unnecessary as they were unkeepable. And then he cannot accept that he is breaking those promises.

With all those faults and failures, it is not surprising that we are now looking at a moral and intellectual train wreck. What is a little surprising is that more people did not see this coming. Indeed, large parts of the press, including all of the cheer squad, still say that Mr Abbott was a great Opposition leader. He is failing as a PM not in spite of his success in Opposition, but for precisely all the reasons that he was such a bad Opposition leader.

The worst part of it is that the flaws that got Mr Abbott into the mess that he is in will not go away. They are part of the man and they are there to stay. The key to the size of the problem was revealed in a story on the press on the weekend. Before his unhappy party, the PM defended the role of his office which he and the cheer squad thought did so well in opposition but which everyone thinks is a dead weight in government. He told his party that the person in charge of that office, who is of course not elected and is not part of the civil service, is ‘the fiercest political warrior I have ever worked with.’ The world view of Mr Abbott is all there. He thinks that the ideal leader of this nation is a warrior, who must be intensely political, and utterly fierce. The people of Australia are sick of all three of those attitudes, and they are rejecting them at the ballot box.

May I close with a prediction? I think Jacqui Lambie could be one of the very few members of this parliament who will be well regarded in different parts of the community. First, she has had a real job and knows how real people live – she is almost alone in that parliament in either capacity. Secondly, she speaks her mind. With time, the circumambient deceit will get to her, but people can enjoy some candour while they can. She even shows signs of standing for principles. Thirdly, she was not educated at Oxford or any other imperial proving ground for colonial ineptitude and irrelevance. Fourthly, she is the target of some quite hilarious snobbery from people who have nothing to be snobbish about – how on earth could anyone as unlovely and unloved as Christopher Pyne or Scott Morrison purport to look down on anyone? The same goes for the entire Canberra Press Gallery. Fifthly, she does have some sense on matters that count – what sane woman of her age would want to take up with a bloke who did not have a cracker but who did have an inadequate equipage? Sixthly, the Liberal Party and Labor Party deserted all principle and decency in unison on refugees. In voting against an immigration bill last week, this member said: ‘These kids have been sitting there for 15 months, and you want a pat on the back? You’ve got to be kidding yourselves.’ How often do you hear an MP stand up to the Establishment on a matter of principle in those terms?