The Coalition had a clear idea of what it wanted to be — in power — but absolutely no idea what it wanted to do when it got there. The dysfunctional, muddled, sophomoric mess that is this government is the result.
Your correspondent hasn’t read Catallaxy (“Australia’s leading libertarian and centre-right blog”) for a while, but he remembers one posting from it, from a decade or so ago. The site’s founder, Jason Soon, had posted a piece of nonsense from an Australian Democrat, defending Third World misogyny as culturally specific or something. Soon remarked: “I’ll leave the sledging to others — for the moment I just want to try and understand this.” Not long after, both the Australian Democrats and Soon departed polemical politics.
In that spirit, one turns to the performance of the Abbott government and their defenders in the lickspittle press. The sledging would be easy enough, but for the moment something else is required: not merely to understand how a government has performed badly, but how it has managed to become the very essence of incompetence. It entered power with less support than most new governments, promising to behave like “adults”, and thereby presumably bolster its ratings. After a series of sophomoric disasters, its support has collapsed in spectacular form. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, having projected an image of old-fashioned steely authority, now looks hapless, at the mercy of both wider circumstances, ructions within his own party, and not least of his own distinctive obsessions.
All new governments falter. There is nothing like government, so no way to fully prepare for it. Giddy high spirits take over — Treasurer Joe Hockey taunting Labor with “you’ve just had your best day in opposition”, something with a pretty obvious retort. But amid the debt ceiling madness, the Indonesian disaster, the tertiary funding stuff-up, the Gonski fiasco, something does not add up.
There was a near-wilful rush to squander political capital. The sense of giddy abandonment appears to have affected the Coalition’s camp followers as well, with the Bolter returning to his narcissistic self-obsession about his 18c penalties (and complaining, most oddly, about the lack of support from “Jewish-owned media”) and Piers Akerman’s fulminations at deep-cover feminista Peppa Pig.
Supporters of the Coalition have consoled themselves with the argument that none of this will matter in three years’ time. But that ignores the tenuous situation the Abbott government faced even on election: this government was unquestionably elected to maintain much of Labor’s program — Gonski, NDIS, Fair Work, and all that such thing symbolised — because the public had decided that Labor was unable to do it competently.
Abbott’s government has never had a full mandate from the public, in the way that Margaret Thatcher or Barack Obama had a mandate. These MPs have a contract with the people, and casual discussion of breaching it has brought them furious opposition. This sudden collapse of legitimacy is an early imprint, establishing path-dependency. The Coalition will have to spend most of its first term catching up for the losses that have occurred in these first weeks.
Why has the Coalition fallen apart so quickly? The short answer is that it was never together. The Coalition did not go to the people with a program of unequivocally tackling the debt/deficit — because it couldn’t. The consensus in favour of a centre-Leftist state was set in the Bob Hawke/Paul Keating era, and nothing has changed it greatly. Those years accustomed Australians to a degree of state development and involvement. John Howard’s government purported to maintain that and gave people the impression that it could be done with a surplus budget. The Rudd government tried to address the resulting backwardness with a series of haphazard programs, ballooned the deficit, and was thus sacked.
The result of this historical 1-2 act is that people now expect attention to national decline and a balanced budget.
“The depth of these political difficulties suggests there will be no easy way for the Abbott government to establish itself.”
A truly courageous Coalition would have gone to the people, arguing that national development had to be done largely by the private sector, that stateism had choked productivity, etc, and that it wanted a mandate to substantially change the approach the country was taking. It didn’t do this, not only because of the political risk but because the Coalition doesn’t really believe this. So much of the neoliberalisation of a once highly statist society has come from Labor, that it has left the Coalition without much space to develop a program it would really believe in.
Labor’s centrist/centre-Right position leaves the Coalition with only two places to go, in programmatic terms: as a national-security government, subsuming the economy to its demands, or a libertarian Right government, attacking state institutions root and branch. The Howard government got to use the national security thing; that isn’t available now. The libertarian Right option is not only politically unpalatable, it is also something the Libs don’t want to adopt as a policy option. They would love to cut wages and union power, but disturbing the interlocking oligopolies that run Australian life is something else indeed.
So the Coalition has arrived in power with nothing it really wants to do. The government is led by a man whose passion to be prime minister was there simply because he had been told from childhood that he would be prime minister — and at some stage he had accepted the ambition as his own. The cultural battles that had got him into politics were now dead letters. There is no Cold War, and the projection of Western power and identity that drove the Iraq and Afghan wars are now being wound to a close. Behind him is a group of second-raters, to such a degree that Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Attorney-General George Brandis have become its leading lights.
Thus for years, in place of a policy agenda, the Coalition has had politics — scrappy, oppositional, unthemed. The Libs’ assault on Rudd/Gillard/Rudd was nothing like Howard’s sustained battering of the Keating government throughout 1995 and ‘96, which linked “political correctness” and deficit spending, and combined them as an expression of the government’s profligacy, both economic and moral. Howard’s assault was careful to underplay the assault on Keating — Howard painted a return of the Coalition in 1996 as an opportunity for the Australian people to be more “comfortable and relaxed”.
Team Abbott threw the kitchen sink and stove into the fight, charging that Labor was the “worst government in history”, while offering no real alternative. By thus depoliticising the political sphere, they put the onus right back on performance and execution. When that falls short, they have no positive programme to point to — “mistakes/early days/eyes on the prize”, etc — and so the government effectively implodes. Abbott’s absence from the media and the headlines for the first few weeks was not because his team were away on a retreat, furiously hammering out a new program for Australian government. It was because they had nothing to be going on with.
With that collapse, their media phalanx has collapsed, too. The initial Pravda-style commitment to a rah-rah strategy also had to be abandoned, when it was clear the “government by adults” boast was the embarrassing opposite of the truth. Having only oppositional politics, the Right focused on the major countervailing power, the ABC. But even this has a haphazard air, since its major focus has been the ABC’s use of Edward Snowden/National Security Agency material in conjunction with The Guardian — a random event, a messy political issue that Abbott himself had not handled with any finesse. The strategy quickly took on a life of its own and gained a level of hysteria, like those fainting epidemics that sometimes run through girls’ schools. Inevitably it was Piers who gave that campaign its Orwellian absurdity (“they looked from columnist to cartoon pig and from pig to cartoon columnist, and could not tell the difference”).
The depth of these political difficulties suggests there will be no easy way for the Abbott government to establish itself. It’s tough to pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you have nothing to hand, including hands. But there is no guarantee that Labor will be able to benefit from this. The impasse is part of the wider crisis of Left/Right politics in our era, and there is no sign that Labor is any less complacent about it than the Libs have been. But who would deny that a single-term government is now a real possibility, and a repeat of ‘98 — with better luck in demographics — should Labor be able to offer a real alternative? Most likely though, it will stick to the sledging.