“You want the real thing, the hard stuff,” a spruiker in Tokyo once asked of me. We were speaking of course of kabuki theatre, a lite version of which does a roaring trade among Japanese tourists. Forty-five minutes in which a nobleman kills a man who has dishonoured his daughter in the hope of winning back her regard, only to find out it was his son-in-law, whom she had secretly married.

Slow and predictable for Western tastes, but a video clip by Eastern ones. Real kabuki takes three hours to tell half that tale, and includes whole 45-minute sections of two men crossing a mountain road. Nothing that happens in kabuki should be surprising, so that the audience can admire how it is done, the endless microvariation.

Which long crossing of a mountain road leads us to the Abbott government in its third week. Tony Abbott had announced that this would be a government of “no surprises”, and in that he is correct — none of us are surprised at the surprises, enacted kabuki style, we are simply admiring the new methods employed to convey them.

Thus, after a few days of stuff for which Abbott had an executive mandate — scrapping the Climate Commission, sacking the National Broadband Network board — we got down to the real kabuki: Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announcing that the most basic release of information on boat arrivals amounted to “operational” intelligence, which would be grouped into a weekly bulletin. I must say I can’t find much outrage in me about that. It seems typical of Labor, in its residual attachment to some due process, that it would send out a press release EVERY TIME a boat was intercepted, each of which may as well have been headed “please smack me”. But the 45-minute kabuki in which Morrison-san mimed — dodging starwheels from the journos as they questioned him about what “operational” meant, and who decided what was a newsworthy, maritime event — was amusing to watch.

However, the kabuki served to hide the real dark matter: that we might never know the truth of boat turnarounds. It seems entirely possible that the navy could turn around a boat they wrongly assess as seaworthy, only to have it sink half an hour later, and we will never know about it. We may never know, through official sources, if the 48-hour turnaround, by plane, from Christmas Island is resulting in illness or death for ill, dehydrated people scooped off sinking vessels. And so on.

The second kabuki has been a double act between Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann over the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, a process drawing in the strong dollar, Labor’s non-financing of programs (some of which is true), and sundry other matters discussed by m’colleague Bernard Keane. The Hockey-Cormann scene — a sort of father-son mourning act beside a scared stream that has ceased to flow — is into its second week, with no sign that we are even at interval.

“Capping places is what matters. It gets closer to the heartland of policy where the Coalition conceded ground to Labor in order to win …”

But a lot of that can be got away with. Many people won’t care that they won’t be told about the boats and that the complaint press — despite some kabukiesque expression of mild concern by the likes of the Bolter et al — won’t make any fuss about it, and so many will believe the problem to be solved. That’s even if the boats increase in number, as Indonesia winds back full co-operation, miffed at our colonialist incursions on their sovereignty. Ditto with climate, and even with the NBN, which for all Labor’s spruiking as a grand progressive project passes way over the heads of people not habitually involved with online work. All can be got away with kabuki-style.

And then yesterday, we got the first announcement that Labor might be able to gain some real traction over, with Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s announcement that the Abbott government may once again cap university places, a reversal of the demand-driven creation of tertiary places which is essential to tackling unequal access to higher ed. Capping would simply further shift the ratio of private to state students in favour of the latter. Pyne explicitly ruled out a return to capping in August last year, in writing.

There was a bit of kabuki surrounding it — the expected attack on any form of amenities fee, as some sort of pseudo-student-union charge — and a ritual dance with “red tape” and cutting it. And of course libertarians such as Andrew Norton working for the publicly funded Grattan Institute — your taxes at work — will focus on the student union stuff. But so what? Labor will just reverse it, once in power. Student unionism is a political fetish object, the silk handkerchief that any kabuki master can turn into a whole evening’s “entertainment”.

Capping places is what matters. It gets closer to the heartland of policy where the Coalition conceded ground to Labor in order to win — that the country will be a social market/social democratic system, oriented towards addressing inequality — and undermines it. Tertiary education is still a little distant from that, as most people’s kids aren’t going to go to uni, per se. But about a third to half will or will want to, and the chance for such really, really matters to a lot of people.

Pyne’s announcement then marks the first real breach of the “Abbott compact”; the explicit and implicit deal he made with the Australian people to get elected. The deal was that they would chuck out Labor, if Abbott promised to leave their core social programs — and the progressive impetus behind them — in place.

This announcement breaks that compact, utterly. It’s a gift for Labor, and they should focus on it to the exclusion of all else for a while — because everything else Abbott is doing, he pretty much said he’d do. Flannery will run the climate resistance, Change.org has started a grassroots campaign around the NBN — from day one, the Abbott government is facing a broader social resistance than the Howard government knew, because of the changed media and social environment.

Labor should leave that to them, and go for uni places, uni places, uni places. Broken promises, and a broken compact. Forget the kabuki, and go straight for the flinging raw meat, the political bhuttoh, the hard stuff.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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