What do we do instead?

So it’s over; the Coalition has triumphed in the contest of ideas and will (eventually, one hopes) form a government.

Tony Abott has been described as the most effective opposition leader in a generation. This may or may not be accurate, but it cannot be argued that he has achieved his goals with a combination of balls-to-the-wall confrontation and maintaining a small target on his weakest points. The question now becomes what kind of a Prime Minister he will make, and what his collection of Howard-era ministers will do now they’ve reached power in 21st century.

The first thing we need to understand is that what the Coalition government will do, now it’s in power, is not what they said they would do while they were in opposition.

To some in the electorate, this may come as a surprise. They may actually think the Coalition fully intends to do the things they talked about during the campaign. But things promised during the campaign were not real; they were props, to support Tony Abbott’s approach to the job of opposition. They continued on from the years preceding the election, from the very moment of Abbott’s elevation to the position of Leader of the Opposition.

“The job of an opposition is to oppose”, and that’s what the Coalition did – regardless of whether they agreed with the policies on offer or not. Prior to Tony Abbott, worthy policies had a chance of bipartisan support. Abbott himself in years gone by argued for the imposition of a carbon tax; Malcolm Turnbull was ready to sign on to support Labor’s policy in this area. It was on this very matter that Abbott was able to replace Turnbull as leader, and he never looked back. Even in those areas where there is “bipartisan support”, it is conditional; according to Tony Abbott, the Coalition wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t find aspects to criticise in even the best policy.

The Coalition’s stated intention since 2010 has been to oppose the government on any and all fronts. Opposing requires you to have an alternative solution to point to. It doesn’t have to be fully fleshed, or even achievable; nobody will look at it too closely whilst it’s just an alternative. But you can’t oppose a successful or important piece of policy or legislation without pointing people to an alternative; it shows that the thing you’re opposing is not inevitable.

So the Coalition threw its weight behind a bunch of pointless, useless or impractical ideas – not as real policies, but as props for its position of opposition. NBN-lite, Direct Action, the easy bits of Gonski; these helped it to point to Labor’s NBN, the carbon price, and the full package of Gonski and say “we don’t agree with these, and we don’t need them.” Despite the fact that experts universally panned the alternatives on offer, showed that they were impractical and expensive and simply couldn’t do what the Coalition was claiming, the opposition stuck to its guns knowing that the electorate didn’t care about details and didn’t care about feasibility. Pandering to a voter’s fears is eighty percent of the job, but the other twenty percent is to quiet that little part of their subconscious that says “what do we do instead”?

But now the time of opposition is over, and Tony Abbott and the Coalition have made a rod for their own back. They’ve sworn not to do deals. They’ve sworn to stick to their guns and get their promises delivered. They’ve sworn to be a no-nonsense government that says what it means and does what it says. And now it’s achieved government saying all of these impractical and counterproductive things that it is going to be required to do.

There are always get-out-of-jail clauses; every incoming Coalition government goes down the same path. The “budget position is so much worse than we knew that we can’t do the things we promised” route. Will the Australian people stand for it this time? For the first time, there was a PEFO, as thorough a retelling of the budget standing as possible, to ensure there are no surprises for an incoming government. Despite this, the amazing invisible Joe Hockey has been reported as saying that the Coalition would need an independent, external audit of the finances before they knew the true budget standing, so it seems obvious that they’re going to try this well-travelled road again.

And if the “not enough money” issue isn’t going to serve – for instance, in repealing taxes that you’ve sworn black and blue are losing money, or replacing a nation-building effort with something cheaper and nastier – then you can delay. Thus, the NBN will undergo “three separate reviews and a forensic audit” before the Coalition will even know what to do with it. Who wants to bet that these won’t take up most of the Coalition’s first term of government and be ready with propositions by the time the next election comes around? (Labor took a very similar approach to a series of policy areas in 2007, so it’s certainly not without precedent).

But eventually a government has to be judged on what it did, not what it said it would do. Sometimes, the promises that a government has made to get elected can come back to bite them. Thus Labor’s rounds of tax cuts, promised at the 2007 election in answer to the Coalition’s same promises, had to be delivered in subsequent years as the budget situation worsened and they became progressively more unaffordable. Those tax cuts may even have contributed to Labor’s more recent budget woes and its need to find new sources of revenue. Kevin Rudd, in those days, was desperate to keep all of his promises, just as Tony Abbott is now. Julia Gillard found out the hard way the results of being publically excoriated over reneging on a promise (even though Gillard’s was a matter of semantics rather than intent). So will Tony Abbott back off his promises on NBN, on direct action, on PPL, on returning to budget surplus?

Those with memories of past conservative governments fear what this one might do when the promising is over and the sharp teeth of conservative policy are revealed. In any number of areas, in the last days of the election campaign Tony Abbott and his senior staff were careful to put caveats on their promises. Undertakings which had previously been unequivocal – promises in blood, you might say – became subject to conditions. If the Direct Action plan on climate change fails to reach agreed emissions targets, the Coalition will renege rather than spend more money. The boats will be turned around – presuming it is safe to do so, which it never will be. (And incidentally, we won’t hear about it one way or another, because boats arriving is a politically damaging sight.) The NBN will be killed, with the exception of contracts already signed, because you can’t break contracts.

The big test for the Coalition is still to come. Will it stick to its guns? Will it attempt to implement damaging and ineffective policies that it doesn’t believe in itself? Will it revert on policy to ideas that are more useful, that might actually work, at the expense of going back on their word? And if so, what tricks will they pull to prove that what they said before the election was not a lie, but simply a position that had to be changed as circumstances changed?

And will the Australian people remember how well that particular approach worked for Julia Gillard?

(Originally published on The Australian Independent Media Network, 14/9/2013)

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