The federal Coalition Opposition is the pits. Has there ever been a time when the partners in a long marriage of convenience have been so lacking in substance or in values?
The Liberal front bench has nothing to redeem it, save for Malcolm Turnbull whose light is dimmed under his NBN-trashing punishment for being a bright boy. There is no intelligence, no courage, no character, no integrity. Ex-Liberal MPs like Edward St John, Ian Macphee, Peter Baume, Judi Moylan or Petro Georgiou wouldn’t even get near pre-selection. Instead the shadow ministry is replete with airheads, headkickers, crackpots and malevolent (readers can fill in the boxes). Some shadow ministers are competent but are either invisible or content to function as party hacks. Joe Hockey, in the key Treasury portfolio, appears reluctant to acquire the responsibilities associated with his brief. There are capable backbenchers but they are seemingly without a voice.
Tony Abbott remains an enigma. Smart, but bull-headed. After bouts in the ring with the Catholic Church, he retains a "strong Catholic faith" (Wikipedia) but an elusive morality. His period as Opposition leader has been uniformly unprincipled and incompetent.
Abbott’s reference to "forgotten families" in his May Budget response was not only farcical — the childcare rebate was to be means-tested for affluent families — but flippant regarding the allusion to Menzies’ 1942 "forgotten people" speech. Were Abbott’s minders asleep during their lessons on party history?
When Menzies was elected in 1949, he handed a few sops to the Party’s hard line ideologues in the form of some token privatisations but marginalised them henceforth and proceeded to perpetuate the Labor inheritance. Menzies was of course aided by post-war global reflation, but also pushed along by Country Party developmentalism.
Menzies was a Conservative. Not merely have small-l liberals been cast into the outer darkness, but genuine conservatives appear to be an extinct species as well.
As for the National Party, it is a rabble.
The Country Party changed its name and gradually changed its spots — hence the election of Independents in previously safe rural seats. The Howard government (following a cue from Keating-era Labor) decided that non-urban populations could sink or swim, and the Nats remained silent. Barnaby Joyce, who has a keen instinct for small business problems, chooses to lose himself in loopy causes. The fact that John Anderson, previously National Party leader, is now chairman of Eastern Star Gas, a company lusting after prime farm land, sums up the shift of focus.
On 16 June, Warren Entsch, Member for Leichhardt, made a short speech to Parliament claiming bank predation against small business and farmers in his electorate, with cynical borrower asset devaluations, demands for greater security and imposition of criminal penalty rates.
"We as a community would all prosper if [the banks laid off a little bit], but instead they continue to bankrupt businesses that have been great clients of theirs. Quite frankly, I think it is totally inappropriate that they continue to gouge in this way."
NSW Nationals Senator John Williams, himself a bank victim, has been the recipient of multiple cries for help from rural casualties. It’s a systemic problem. To date, there’s been only tinkering at the edges — a foreclosure here or there delayed but not prevented — but no attempt to meet the problem head on. Why? Because the party bosses won’t have it.
What is the Coalition plank on economic policy? Apart from feeding the ravenous resources sector beast, it boils down to budget surpluses. And tax cuts or concessions to the privileged. That’s it. Return the federal budget to surplus — after giving tax cuts? — and the economy will spring to life. Admittedly, this nostrum is standard fare among the economics cognoscenti. When the Productivity Commission opines that airport parking fees are not excessive, what else can one expect from harried politicians who follow their nose?
On the budget surplus bandwagon, the Coalition is thinking big. It’s looking for $70 billion in spending cuts and holding up Peter Costello’s 1996 budget as a promising precedent. Well indeed might the Coalition heavies examine the 1996 horror budget in fine detail.
The first step would be an exhumation of Bob Officer’s Commission of Audit that provided philosophical legitimisation for the slashing. It is a document other-worldly at best, dishonest at worst — an exemplar of New Public Management principles to be applied a priori. Representative of the report’s idiocy was instructions for the dismantling of the federal regional policy bureaucracy.
Thus Costello’s first budget dismantled the regional policy bureaucracy. The budget unthinkingly slashed various industry support programs. The budget also dismantled Keating’s painfully constructed Working Nation programs for the long term unemployed — essentially out of spite. More, the budget initiated the first tranche in the ultimate full privatisation of Telstra.
And what happened? Howard had to re-establish the regional policy bureaucracy. After major lobbying from Howard’s own business constituency, Howard had to come up with a swathe of replacement industry support programs (under a package labeled Investing for Growth). As for the long term unemployed, they were sentenced to trudge the corridors of Howard’s privatised Jobs Network, condemned to the too-hard basket. The privatised vertically integrated Telstra spelled disaster for a functioning telecommunications system, still in limbo. Ah yes, Costello’s 1996 budget — a work of genius; and a model for a clueless Coalition intent on bravado.
If all else fails, there’s always WorkChoices revisited.
Here is the crudest of right-wing politics for simpletons: national economic problems are of necessity due to selfish workers. Now that the retail sector is hurting, time to abolish all penalty rates and hours restrictions. Labour market "reform" to the rescue! The retail sector was an important force in the 1980s Business Council-led push for labour market "deregulation", but the complete counter-revolution was not accomplished.
After the tight election in August 2010, Tony Abbott claimed that Labor lacked legitimacy and was unfit to govern. Truly, if ever there was a grouping deserving of this judgment it is the Coalition Opposition led by this accuser. The question is, why are Australians apparently so keen to vote for him?