From today’s Fin:
“He [Tony Abbott] has undermined and potentially destroyed a first-term Labor government.” This eulogy to Abbott from former prime minister, John Howard, captures all that is bad about the coalition’s approach to opposition. Oppositions do not have to be destructive, but Abbott prefers denigrating political opponents, mostly with outrageous exaggerations which even he doesn’t believe.
The opposition aimed at voters who believe that the Commonwealth should have no net debt because government finances need to be managed like household budgets. It was directed at electorates obsessed by boat arrivals, not knowing (because there are only press releases for boat arrivals) that thousands of asylum seekers come each year by aeroplane. Voters were even told to worry about the “constitutional coup” when Kevin Rudd resigned in favour of Julia Gillard. The opposition ignored 2007 when Liberal ministers (unsuccessfully) asked Howard to stand down in favour of Peter Costello.
What Abbott exposed, like uncovering a sore, was the fragility of a government which could not – and seemingly cannot – defend itself or for that matter explain itself. If Abbott’s discovery means that all future governments have to learn how to take the community with them, so much the better. But if Abbott has detected that the best way to win voter support is bellicosity, smear, innuendo and exaggeration, we will all be diminished. Politics is not a game where what happens stays on the field: the contract between citizens and government is also undermined by constant opposition denigration.
Another election failure was the confusion of state and federal responsibilities. Because the Commonwealth is financially stronger than all state governments combined, the Gillard government and the opposition could seduce voters by promising a marina here, a road there, a stadium, more law and order, whatever it takes to gain the electorate’s attention. In spite of the constitution and legal accountabilities, state governments are being reduced to symbols – and even symbolism is threatened when federal parties promise to bypass state structures to deal directly with individual schools and hospitals. Federal politicians are creating a burden for the Commonwealth as they raise expectations that they can be held responsible for all government functions.
But not all about this election was disconcerting. It seems voters in Western Australia have finally decided to dismiss Wilson Tuckey – that’s a step forward. And the emergence of independent members of parliament is a boon. As we have seen in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and NSW in the last two decades, there is nothing to fear from minority governments. The three independents who supported the Greiner and Fahey minority governments in NSW in the 1990’s improved parliamentary practice and democracy without impeding good government. The overwhelming majority of government legislation passed: all government had to do was persuade the independents of the virtue of government policy.
There are many who believe that the Commonwealth government’s inability to control the Senate has meant that good policies have been sacrificed. Others think that all will be lost unless a government can control the lower house. Economists point to weaknesses in the Goods and Service Tax which arose because senators holding the balance of power insisted on exempting unprocessed food from that tax. While economists were offended by the exclusion, if governments cannot persuade the public or legislators, they should not be able to impose their will. When governments control the upper or lower houses, all democratic niceties are forsaken because they are not needed.
The independents will have ideas which advance their electorates. But they can make more progress in reforming parliamentary and governmental processes. There should be an independent speaker; ministers should be banned from offering irrelevant answers in question time; ministers should be required to make statements rather than issuing press releases so there can be proper parliamentary examination and scrutiny of government policies. Key appointments should not just be in the gift of the government. The public service should be protected so that it can disentangle itself from political process. Advances were made by NSW independents, but they were not enshrined and were later reversed by the Carr government. Don’t believe that governments happily support democracy.