Were our politicians always this bad, I wonder. I’ve always suspected it’s the warm glow of nostalgia and watching it from a distance that makes me compare our current leaders poorly with previous generations. And yet, as I watched Julia Gillard zone out momentarily as Chris Bowen spoke at their joint press conference yesterday, then refocus and turn and nod quickly at nothing in particular, it was hard to avoid the impression that the craft of politics is these days performed rather more poorly than even a few years ago.

Sometimes there are signs of progress. Bowen has made a good start in a difficult portfolio. They were announcing the shift toward community detention for minors and “at-risk families” — along with the “commissioning” of two new detention facilities. If you didn’t count any reform that wasn’t driven by the purist of motives, nothing would ever get done in politics, and so it is with Labor’s shift to community detention. It’s a policy motivated at least partly by the realisation — which has been far too long in coming — that a constant shift to the Right on asylum seekers was never going to work for Labor, that it amounted to an endless chase for voters they would never catch, while leaving progressive ALP folk to throw in their lot with the Greens. The electoral maths — as the result on August 21 showed — simply never added up.

The removal of children and families from detention, Gillard pre-emptively declared, had been arrived at without any consultation with the Greens. Like Kevin Rudd before her, the prime minister seems convinced Tony Abbott possesses supernatural powers of framing, enabling him to conjure an effective scare campaign (in this case, about an unholy alliance between the Greens and Labor) against the government from thin air. Then again, given Labor’s utter inability to convincingly offer a narrative of what they’re doing for the next five minutes let alone a parliamentary term, Abbott’s remorseless negativity and basic understanding of politics must seem like the stuff of fairytales.

This was demonstrated in parliament an hour later. Tony Burke tried to neuter opposition criticism of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan process by calling for bipartisanship, and by talking about “getting the balance right” between social, economic and environmental goals.

Wrong, oh so very wrong, on both counts.

Asking for bipartisanship from Abbott is like asking a Rottweiler to play nice with a three-year-old. Bipartisanship just isn’t in the man’s DNA. And “getting the balance right” — which was Penny Wong’s favourite phrase to describe the CPRS — plays directly into the hands of those opposed to ending the over-allocation of water in the MDB.

One of the most successful myths peddled by opponents of environmental action of any kind is the false dichotomy between the environment and the economy. It’s a potent myth that frames any environment-related policy — whether on climate change, or forestry, or water — as a simple choice between jobs and the environment. The conservative side of politics is brilliant at deploying it against progressives.

In fact there is no choice, in the long run. Climate change, for example, is already costing jobs and will inflict massive economic damage in the future. And it is not a product of a well-functioning market, but is caused by a massive subsidy to polluters, who do not pay the costs of their carbon emissions. And you don’t even need a long run when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin. Communities in the Basin are being harmed now by over-allocation. NSW irrigators and farmers pay a price now for Queensland’s misuse of overland flows. South Australian communities are paying a high cost for the decisions of the NSW and Victorian governments. Just because the cost is hidden doesn’t make it less real.

Instead of getting on the front foot and challenging the opposition over whether it will do the right thing by South Australians, instead of pointing out the cost of an over-allocated system being paid right now by communities, Burke promises to “get the balance right”, which simply locates the debate right where opponents want it: in the purported trade-off between the environment and the economy.

It’s a lot like Labor’s handling of the debt’n’deficits debate, where it has simply allowed the Coalition to frame the issue as one of Labor profligacy by rubbish like Rudd and Swan’s ducking and weaving around the Budget deficit in 2009 and its failure to effectively defend its stimulus programs. The same thing is happening with the NBN.

Fortunately it is up against an opposition that, for all its ferocity, still hasn’t worked out some of the basics after nearly three years on the left of the chamber. The current session of Estimates is one of two week-long sessions (the other, Budget Estimates in May, is two weeks). A week isn’t long enough to properly grill officials — not, at least, if you know what you’re doing. A lot of good questions that should be asked in session end up being placed on notice, allowing officials and ministerial advisers to craft the answers. But in the Environment Committee yesterday, a good 40 minutes was wasted by Coalition senators berating officials and Wong over the failure of the Climate Change Department to provide answers to questions placed on notice back in May until last week.

Wong was the reason why they hadn’t been provided — her office had held onto the answers or sent them back to the Department to be drafted to be less helpful, like the offices of all ministers of both sides of politics have done for years. And then the election intervened. From a transparency and accountability point of view it was ordinary stuff. Still, the likes of Eric Abetz and Ian Macdonald insisted on dwelling at length on the issue. Wong, still attending but in her new guise as Minister for Finance, happily played along and goaded them and ran interference, knowing full well the more time wasted on such trivia the less time for discussion of issues like the clean-up of the insulation program.

That was before Ron Boswell came in and, apparently enraged that one of Australia’s best climate scienists ANU’s Will Steffen was attending the hearing as an adviser to the Department, proceeded to ask a series of truly witless questions denying the existence of climate change. Boswell also repeated questions that had been asked earlier.

After three years, the Coalition still haven’t worked out how to coordinate their Estimates attacks, or even make sure they don’t repeat themselves.

Peter Fray

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