The listlessness that pervaded question time this week belied considerable activity on other fronts. The government was vigorously “time managing” in the Senate, eager to get at least some of the scores of bills still inside the legislative sausage machine passed; the constant division bells and the flashing red light on the Parliament House clocks were enough to induce headaches, but Labor was steadily adding to the lengthy list of legislation that it has passed through an allegedly unworkable hung Parliament.
And the Prime Minister, as always, threw herself into question time; after a poor performance on Monday, Julia Gillard and the government lifted their game for the rest of the week. The PM took great delight in mocking opposition questions about carbon prices offshore, noting that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and co had spent most of the last three years insisting Australia was going it alone on carbon pricing and that countries like China would never adopt it. This week, of course, the first of seven Chinese emissions trading schemes kicked off.
But the week was better summed up by a Dixer (and, they’re getting worse and worse; an Abbott commitment to significantly lift the standard of Dixers — questions from one’s own party to spruik an initiative — in government would surely be welcomed by all) to Craig Emerson on Tuesday while most of the chamber, including most of his colleagues, were engaged in private conversations as Emerson railed at the dispatch box (i.e. he was railing while located at the dispatch box, but he might as well have been directing his railery specifically at the box itself, for all that it mattered). Everyone’s thoughts were elsewhere, and in particular on whether and how Labor could overcome the crippling dysfunctionality that grips it on the leadership issue. This is now a party that can’t even debate reforms to caucus processes without it becoming a leadership flashpoint, a party one step short of seriously considering consulting John Curtin via Ouija Board about how to resolve the Rudd-Gillard tension. It’s a party frozen in fear, terrified that any move it makes will be a mistake but painfully aware that doing nothing means a wipeout. The Liberals went through it in 2007, but Labor, as if to demonstrate that anything Tories can do, they can do better, are taking it to new levels.
Still, at least the Prime Minister has the the crucial Russell Crowe endorsement to add to Hugh Jackman’s support; with a visiting Arnie, the PMO could boast she had Gladiator, Wolverine and the Terminator. Then again, Tony Abbott doubtless has Dad and Dave and the cast of Division 4.
Abbott commendably finished the week with another policy announcement. So far, there are two kinds of Abbott policies: those that mimic Labor, and those that look terrible. His Direct Action climate change policy is an open, albeit expensive, joke; his paid parental leave scheme is loathed by many within his own party and in the Nationals. His industrial relations policy is essentially a commitment to keep Labor’s Fair Work Act until the Productivity Commission gives him political permissions to go to voters with reforms; his broadband policy is, courtesy of Malcolm Turnbull, NBN lite, although at least 30% and probably more of Australian households will get the full-cream version.
“… there’s a utopian tone to the whole thing, not dissimilar to the early, funny socialist visions that were untainted by the nasty experience of the real world.”
Today the visionary North Australia/Asia’s Foodbowl/Turn The Rivers Inland policy vision made a visionary reappearance in newspapers; like many an Abbott policy, there’ll be a white paper about it once in government — Abbott will, in Brendan Nelson’s words about Kevin Rudd, “hit the ground reviewing”, but that’s no bad thing. The unconstitutional tax bits have been dumped but the door left open to visionary tax incentives to relocate to sections of the country where there aren’t any people or infrastructure, along with a vague but visionary commitment to move some public service departments north; the Long March of Bureaucrats from Canberra to Karratha envisaged in the visionary original, leaked version of this scheme early in the year has been replaced with a less ambitious but still somewhat visionary proposal to investigate whether there’s bits of the APS that could shift.
Hopefully Abbott’s white paper process will investigate the less visionary option of doing nothing, on the basis that we won’t need to shift Australia to the top end when, courtesy of climate change, the top end is coming toward us at a rate of knots. In fact, you’d just settle for the white paper addressing implications of climate change for the original top end. The Abbott vision is that northern Australia becomes a cornucopia of tourism, agriculture and mining, apparently unaware it’s tricky to have even two of those together let alone all three, and climate change is hardly conducive to any. Just ask tourism operators on the Great Barrier Reef.
In fact, this deep north stuff is downright weird. It’s not just Tony Abbott’s own big government DLP mindset emerging — it’s shared by Coalition MPs with functioning brains like Andrew Robb, the small government types at the IPA and far-Right miners like Gina Rinehart. It’s straightforward, Whitlamesque regional development, complete with Whitlam government policies like moving public servants around. It’s social and economic engineering on a huge scale; there’s not a market mechanism in sight. Indeed, there’s a utopian tone to the whole thing, not dissimilar to the early, funny socialist visions that were untainted by the nasty experience of the real world. It’s as if the Right wants to create a new Australia, one free of all the bad things about the current one like pesky unions, well-paid workers and restrictive environmental regulation, a place where entrepreneurs, with just a little help from taxpayer handouts, some government spending on infrastructure where no one currently lives and a few indentured public servants, can breathe the (admittedly, rather humid) air of freedom and create a more efficient economy.
Still, it’s only Abbott’s policies that are dysfunctional. They can always be changed — a famous and unfairly criticised habit of Abbott’s. Labor’s problems run far, far deeper than silly policies.