It’s superfluous to note that federal politics has reached a nadir in recent months. It’s not that it keeps plumbing new depths; it’s more like just scraping along the bottom of a particularly filth-encrusted barrel.
The only grace note of proceedings yesterday — indeed of the entire week — was Julia Gillard rising to upbraid Joel Fitzgibbon for his disgraceful, s-xist and staggeringly stupid catcall of Julie Bishop, and Tony Abbott rising in turn to accept it in good faith. The rest was an economically irrational, and occasionally simply lunatic, Opposition slugging it out with a staggeringly inept Government.
This is not to suggest any sort of moral equivalence. Labor may be inept, but it has not altogether abandoned good policy. We’ll wait and see on Sunday whether the carbon pricing scheme is better than the execrable CPRS — that will depend mostly on how long the compensation to industry lasts and how quickly the price goes up. And the long-delayed mining tax is about one-third of a good policy. But in other areas it hacks away, none more so than on the economy, where for all the polls showing it is regarded poorly as an economic manager, it keeps making the right calls. Notice how many people are still complaining about the need to cut spending faster? None — and certainly none at the Reserve Bank.
But for all its reform intentions, Labor looks like it is systematically working its way across a minefield, and making a point of stepping on every single one. It’s almost comic how unerringly the Government opts for the wrong decision.
Take live cattle exports, for example. The Government could have chosen to suspend the trade until there was a guarantee there’d be no repeat of the nauseating scenes from 4 Corners. The ban would have lasted for several months and inflicted considerable pain on Labor, but it would have been the right thing to do in animal welfare terms. Or it could have cynically minimised the political pain by resisting calls for a ban, knowing the media cycle would move on and people would forget about 4 Corners — until next time.
Now of course there most certainly will be a next time, for instead of doing either of those things, it carefully identified the worst option of all, and did both — putting a ban in place, then revoking it under political pressure without any sort of concrete guarantee that things would improve. The issue is now back in the hands of the industry that sat and pretended the whole issue was a marketing problem for the last decade.
Voters are surprisingly tolerant of political cynicism, but cynicism coupled with weakness is never a winning combination. The Howard Government exemplified cynicism and a determination to retain power no matter what the cost, but voters forgave that because of its impression of authority and competence. Labor lacks both. The Prime Minister, once so feared in Parliament and so well-regarded by the electorate, fails to project authority. Wayne Swan, whatever his successes as an economic manager, has never projected authority as Treasurer. But the problem goes further back — Labor in power has never shaken off the perception that it still thinks it is in opposition, and that lurking round the next corner will be John Howard, ready to leap out and wedge them off the political map again.
In short, Labor gives the impression it is not quite sure it is entitled to be running the country, that its hold on power is fragile. And lo, that’s what came to pass.
The Coalition, on the other hand, plainly feels the world simply isn’t right if it isn’t governing, and under Tony Abbott will say and do anything to reverse that unnatural condition. There’s a plain parallel here between the Liberals and the Republicans, whose reaction to the Obama presidency - in historical terms, one of the more conservative administrations of the post-war era — has been the adoption of batsh-t insane economic policies, culminating in a stand-off over the US debt ceiling that has conjured the hitherto-unthinkable serious discussion of US debt default.
Likewise, under Tony Abbott, the Liberals have turned their backs on market mechanisms, invented entirely spurious savings and promised to both increase spending and restore the Howard Government’s disastrous cycle of pumping up demand with tax cuts to ease the burden of higher prices caused by pumping up demand.
But there’s no shame for many (though not all) Liberals in this because it’s all in aid of overturning the outrage of a Labor Government.
The problem is, too many in Labor appear to agree with them and act accordingly.