Tony Abbott

Back before the financial crisis really hit, in 2008, one of the favourite games of the press gallery was to stroke its collective chin about the Rudd government’s “lack of narrative”. Crikey wasn’t immune from such behaviour. “Rudd needs a narrative,” I pompously intoned in August that year. “Otherwise the media will create one for him.” Hmmm. Serious stuff. Although, it was, in reality, nostalgia for the Hawke-Keating era, which was an adventure story of (pace Paul Keating) thrills’n’spills, and quite a few bellyaches as well, as that government undertook a huge economic reform program.

Since 1996, narratives have been thinner on the ground. John Howard won office promising a complete lack of adventures, claiming he’d keep everyone “comfortable and relaxed” after the tumult of the Labor years (he broke his promise on that with the GST, and came within a handful of votes of being a one-termer because of it).

Later, a Howard narrative emerged that combined privatisation with middle-class welfare: Australians were to become aspirational consumers and small business producers in a shareholder democracy, helped by the government to buy shares, send their kids to private school, have private health insurance, own big homes — in short to acquire all the markers of middle-class success, the whole of Australian transformed into Sydney’s upper North Shore. It was a twist on “consume, be silent, die,” with the consumption being of an all-you-can-eat buffet of tax cuts, family payments, superannuation concessions, tax expenditures and private school funding — as long as you were wealthy enough to use them.

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Kevin Rudd never really got his narrative act together, partly because of his own profound control freakery that made him sweat the subatomic stuff rather than keep an eye on the big picture. But Rudd’s lack of narrative was also partly because Labor had spent the years since Keating running hither and thither, first away from its reform legacy, then away from Howard, desperate to avoid being beaten by him yet again. In Rudd they found a leader who could defeat Howard, but the party itself remained profoundly traumatised by what Howard had done to them time and again in wedging them, outflanking them, undermining their confidence in their own ideas. It was only when the financial crisis backed Rudd into a corner that Labor showed what direction it wanted to go in — to protect jobs, to keep Australia out of recession, to avoid the brutal social and economic impacts of high unemployment that Australia had witnessed in the early 1990s.

Julia Gillard had a similar problem, having been thrust too early into the prime ministership and leading a party visibly at a loss as to what it really stood for beyond the vague goal of managing the economy for working people. Her early months, both before and after the 2010 election, were given over to a rather sad search for a personal narrative of leadership, in which she toyed with an Iron Lady style where she lauded manual labour as an almost holy vocation and celebrated those who “set their alarm clocks early”.

By early this year, however, Gillard had acquired a decent narrative for herself, centring on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Gonski education funding reforms and managing the economy for working people in the face of a strong dollar by refocusing manufacturing assistance toward more innovation. Australia’s educational performance has been declining relative to other countries, and a key problem is the underperformance of disadvantaged students. David Gonski and his panel — not exactly bomb-throwing anarchists — had recommended a needs-based funding formula be adopted nationally. The policy’s ultimate objective was both greater equity and greater economic growth. The NDIS was less about economic growth — although the potential for long-term savings for earlier interventions for disabled people appears underexplored — and more about remedying a profound flaw in one of the world’s richest societies, its failure to give the disabled both dignity and the most effective care services.

“There is no democracy in a society with mass surveillance.”

Gillard and her treasurer Wayne Swan had to manage an economy and a budget with a currency that was above US dollar parity and at trade-weighted highs for much of 2013 (Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are now lamenting about the dollar being $US0.90) but they sensibly rejected the dumb policy options many on both the Left and the Right urged on them — intervene against the dollar, do more to protect trade-exposed industries, slash spending to chase revenue downward. Instead, they copped on the chin the constant revenue writedowns and they tried to establish an industry policy with greater focus on innovation, to deal with a higher dollar.

The experience of the Gillard government shows how political narratives are made, not born. They don’t emerge immediately, issued by fiat from a government; in fact they only become clear afterwards. The Hawke government didn’t enter office in early 1983 proposing to revolutionise the Australian economy; rather, it felt its way, with an at-times hesitant treasurer not always in the vanguard at first, before he took the lead later. External events play a key role in whatever narratives emerge — which is not to say governments are helpless before them. Good politicians will exploit external events to prosecute the case for reform. That’s what Keating became so good at, the skill that lay at the core of that “banana republic” moment, and what Gillard was trying to do earlier this year by repeatedly invoking the strength of the dollar as the basis for greater innovation and pursuing our role in the Asian century.

Thus, having won office, Tony Abbott might insist he had an agenda and a vision, albeit one couched almost entirely in negatives, but he has been beset by problems both external and self-made ever since. If a narrative of this government emerges, it will do so primarily as a reaction to the circumstances in which it governed, like the Hawke government, and it will do so because someone — most likely Hockey — will exploit them to impose his own reform vision on the government.

What fills in the democratic space while narratives develop is trust. Gillard, Rudd and Abbott all spoke a lot about trust during the year. All three, however, had problems with it. Gillard had the worst: the sense of betrayal on the part of voters about her change of mind on the carbon price, effectively exploited by Abbott, haunted her for most of her prime ministership. Rudd returned too late to rebuild trust with voters. And Tony Abbott has managed to wreck whatever trust voters had decided to place in him at the election with his backflips on Gonski.

One of Abbott’s difficulties seems to have been that one of his defining traits as opposition leader, a refusal to in any way be encumbered by facts, consistency or logic, is now serving him poorly as Prime Minister. As opposition leader, he could readily declare that things “just are” with no evidence, he could assert that there had been no economic growth under Labor, he could insist the carbon price had failed because it had not reduced temperatures — Abbott was leader of the assertion-based community, capable of holding all positions and none on any issue, each one justified by whatever that day’s political interests demanded.

But the transition to being our first post-modern prime minister has been less successful. Merely asserting that the government had “overdelivered” on Gonski failed to convince voters it was true; insisting that the Indonesians would cooperate with his plans for turning back asylum seeker boats wasn’t enough to bring it about; regretting the embarrassment caused by revelations of Australian spying on the Indonesian political elite wasn’t sufficient to assuage their concerns; declaring the country was “open for business” while rejecting foreign investment in Graincorp was impossible. Reality stubbornly resisted the commands issued from the Prime Minister’s Office. It is significant that Abbott, having after the election briefly achieved a net positive personal rating with voters for the first time since becoming Liberal leader, has slipped back into negative territory again of late, as if voters have decided that they were right the first time.Breaching voters’ trust isn’t necessarily fatal. Voters knew that John Howard was capable of breaking his commitments. But until WorkChoices, which wasn’t a promise-breaker but came entirely out of the blue, voters tended to give him the benefit of the doubt because they suspected he was breaking promises with good reason. That is, a higher form of trust applied, trust that Howard was governing in the interests of Australians, rather than his own interests.

That was in contrast to Gillard, for example, whose justification for breaching her carbon price commitment was that she did it to retain power, or Kevin Rudd, who abandoned his CPRS scheme because it became politically difficult after being the great moral and economic challenge of our time. Rudd later admitted his error on that issue; one wonders whether Coalition ministers will in the future admit their profound error in sabotaging effective action on climate change as the planet races ever more quickly toward significant warming.

Governing without trust — either trust to do simple things like keep promises, or trust to ultimately govern in the national interest — is difficult. Bob Hawke was trusted by Australians to govern in the national interest even if they were uneasy about the big economic reforms being prosecuted by his treasurer, and that was an important reason for that government’s success. But trust was hard to find anywhere in Australia in 2013. Overall trust in the media declined, particularly for outlets like The Daily Telegraph, which abandoned whatever faint pretence of actual journalism it had previously maintained in order to prosecute Rupert’s War on Labor, but even for Fairfax’s papers, commercial TV and radio and the ABC, key institutions all of them in holding governments to account.

Trust and holding government to account were also central to the most important act of whistleblowing in history, that of Edward Snowden, who chose in June to reveal the shocking extent to which the US National Security Agency had engaged in global internet surveillance, in cooperation with its “5 eyes” partners, including Australian intelligence agencies.

Snowden was smeared as a traitor by national security advocates (many masquerading as journalists), who also savaged the outlets and journalists responsible for revealing the truth about the NSA. But such was the weight of his revelations that as the year draws to an end, the Obama administration is under pressure to implement the recommendations of its own review panel to rein in mass surveillance and break up the NSA. Meanwhile a judge has found the NSA’s behaviour likely to be unconstitutional and the world’s biggest IT firms demand action that will enable them to restore users’ trust — without which their business models are broken. All products or services from US IT or communications companies must now be assumed to enable US government surveillance on users. Caveat emptor.

Secrecy and surveillance is also corrosive of trust more generally, between citizens, between banks, between corporations, between governments and their leaders, for anyone who may have information deemed useful by someone, somewhere within an intelligence bureaucracy. Mass surveillance also corrodes citizens’ trust in their governments. It also applies in reverse: that the NSA, as shown in one of the many Snowden revelations, regards users of encryption products – that is, all of us – as “adversaries” says much about the logic of the surveillance state: once everyone is under surveillance, everyone is a suspect.

There was mixed news on that front for Australians in 2013. We learnt this year from the Australian Federal Police that journalists and even politicians have their metadata scooped up by the AFP in pursuit of whistleblowers and leakers. But in a big defeat for intelligence agencies and the Attorney-General’s Department, in June Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security declined to recommend that the government establish a data retention regime, which agencies and the department had been pushing since the former Labor government was elected in 2007. Almost certainly, however, we’ve not seen the last of that debate. Intelligence agencies and their henchmen in the AGD will try again.

What intelligence agencies, their media cheerleaders and national security obsessives don’t understand, or don’t care about if they do, is that mass surveillance — including data retention — is incompatible with a functioning democracy.

In a surveillance state, the press cannot play any sort of watchdog role, because journalists and editors can’t provide governmental sources or whistleblowers with anonymity or protection from discovery. And there can be no rule of law when the state can access all communications, as legal privilege becomes a fiction; nor can corporations or organisations be confident of protecting their intellectual property or confidential information when not merely their own government, but foreign governments as well, can access their communications.

There is no democracy without a watchdog press, without the rule of law, without protections for privacy for individuals and confidentiality for organisations. There is thus no democracy in a society with mass surveillance.

National security advocates reject such concerns because they insist security institutions can be — that word again — trusted. These are the institutions that led us into the Iraq war based on false assertions, the institutions that eavesdropped on the government of a developing country for the commercial advantage of an Australian resources company, the institutions that tried to hide that fact years later, the institutions that leak to friendly journalists when it is in their interests to do so. Their record shows they cannot be trusted.

If governments want voters to trust them, they need to earn that trust. That’s something they plainly failed to do in 2013.