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Oct 19, 2010

Neither side get the Murray Darling basics right

On the Murray-Darling, Labor is doing what it always does -- allow its opponents to frame the debate. Luckily, the Coalition still hasn't learnt the basics either.

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.

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28 thoughts on “Neither side get the Murray Darling basics right

  1. David Sanderson

    I am disappointed thus far that Gillard has not clearly delineated a policy direction and a resonant overarching purpose for her government. Sure, the fragile majority makes it more difficult but that does not reduce the need for it.

    Gillard has impressed me in the past with her ability to clearly put out a message and make an argument. I’m not seeing that much lately and it is needed now more than ever.

  2. twobob

    “Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible.”
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract” (1762), book 3, chapter 4

  3. Jimmy

    The Gillard Govt can not control the narrative because the media don’t tell their story simple as that. Yes they could do better but when a report on the BER showing it was largely a success get reported as it clearly showing it to be a failure and Possums analysis of the report into the Home insulation shows virtually no link between it and house fires but the media continue to push this claim you know that no matter what narrative the govt try the media will still go with Abbott’s version of the truth while simultaneously decrying the negative style of substance of todays politicians.

    I mean look at all Abbott’s stumblings and bumblings since the election and yet the media have largley let him off and then look at today’s herald sun front page headline.

  4. zut alors

    Yes Bernard, it’s not merely your imagination, former generations of politicians were better.

    For starters, prime ministers used to have guts – not much evidence of that now, they are afraid of getting anybody offside. Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation was one of the few gutsy initiatives in recent years, he didn’t give a toss who might be offended (John Howard in particular).

    Also, these days they’ve all received some coaching in media presentation so tend to speak more like monotone public servants rather than off the cuff with some genuine personality and colour (Bob Katter and former MP Wilson Tuckey being standout exceptions).

  5. godotcab

    Bernard Keane has related a lot of what makes Federal Governance much more difficult now than it has been before.

    The government is doing very well, but the game is much harder than it was.

    Proposals around water use in the Murray Darling basin are an example. The govt is damned for not being firm and setting concrete policy that businesses can plan on. They are also being lambasted for not consulting. Affected groups are prompted into outrage on both counts, although they contradict.

    I cannot see how such an issue could be approached better.

    I cannot see how rural groups and environmental concerns can all be met.

    There will be losers, and in this political climate, there will be trouble.

  6. klewso

    Of course bipartisanship’s in Abbott’s DNA (“Diaphanous Narcissistic ‘Abits”) – “As things change I change my mind, what do you do?” – imagine if the bovva-boot was on the other foot, the election had gone the other way, and he was on the other side of this knife edge, “playing with his politics”! He and the A(bbott)-Team (parties and their media PR management circus) would be dripping “bipartisanship”!

  7. Jimmy

    Godotcab – exactly, Abbott was able to run an “all talk and no action” line on the govt while claiming they didn’t consult enough in the lead up to last election.

    I think governement are like music from the recent decades, it’s not until you put a bit of time between them & you that all the crap get’s filtered away and you are left with the few gems that they are remembered for.

  8. freecountry

    [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.]
    Yes, they were always this bad. Almost always. Either indolently lazy, or bulls in a china shop, or both at the same time — still unable to manage Defence or solve an essentially trivial problem of a few thousand boat people a year, but at the same time ready to blow apart many years of tertiary education development for the sake of a few export dollars or some flavour-of-the-month education white paper.

    The prevailing level of esteem for politicians has not had any sustained change through the 19th and 20th centuries. However there was an interlude in the 80s and early 90s when giants took to the federal stage, most notably Hawke, Keating and Hewson, though there were others.

    Expectations have been raised ever since, and I believe both Howard and Rudd gained a great deal of power from those high expectations. They both would have faced much tougher audiences in the years before Bob Hawke entered parliament. I seem to hear more people deifying their favourite Labor or Liberal leaders than I’ve ever heard before–at a time when the quality of politicians has not so much declined, as returned to its long term level of mediocrity.

    What has declined is the quality of the media. Journalists once played a crucial part in the political process by helping explain policy debates to the public, and by shaming politicians into returning to policy debate (after exploiting a bit of personality drama to sell a few issues of their papers). For example the education and secularism reforms at the end of the 19th century came at a time when the whole country–schoolteachers, barbers, shopkeepers, doctors, everyone–was talking about ways to build a long term future for their descendants. It was the largely the newspapers that led this debate, builing incrementally, week by week, on the sophistication of readers as they read about the heroes of the Reformation or the history of the Boeotian Federation of ancient Thebes.

    The French news media still work much the same way today, as our media did back then.

    Horse race journalism, in which political strategy rather than the merits of policies becomes the main event, is a more recent phenomenon. In the English speaking world it seems to date from about the 1970s. The language, the metaphors, and the hero-worship, have become almost indistinguishable from the sports pages. I don’t know if this has had any material effect on the calibre of politicians. But it has had a profound effect on the collective intellect of the general public, discussing and voting on political questions. It has dumbed down public debate in a way that no political party ever could have achieved.

  9. Jimmy

    Great stuff on the quality of Journalism Free Country, but you forgot to metnion how they manage to complain about this while they feed it.

  10. Gos

    Tony Abbott has an excellent understandng of modern Australian journalism. Feed a soundbite to radio, animated vision to TV and a slogan that fits a headline count to print media and they are happy.

    An ABC apparently now populated almost entirely by sub-editors and not journalists guarantees that this basic sound grab/media release gets cut and pasted and used straight away.

    Hence just about every bulletin and web story begins thus: “The opposition says…..”

    Labor still think sound argument and logic will win the media over and result in a new age of reason. They are wrong.

    Until their own media unit starts to put usable, short releases and soundbites they will continue to lose the news battle. The PM says she is not interested in it. She should be, not to extremes, but in a balanced way that ensures Labor cuts through on key issues.