The Abbott government has had the rockiest start of any newly-elected government I can recall. Opinion polls are already showing the government trailing Labor, even before the election of a new opposition leader.
The failure has two main elements. The first is the consequence of gaining office on the basis of slogans and personality politics rather than any coherent set of policy proposals. ‘Stop the boats’ was a great vote-winner for the LNP in opposition, but in office it’s a hostage given to fortune. Maybe the boats will stop and maybe not, but bombastic rhetoric will have no effect one way or the other.
The implication for Labor is not to respond in kind with wrecking and cheap slogans. Rather, it’s to make the point that, however dysfunctional the previous government may have been terms of leadership, and whatever the problems of implementation, it was in the right (or at least better than the LNP) on all the major policy issues.
The implied political strategy is to defend and extend the key policies of the Rudd-Gillard government, with the exception of the mistakes driven by short-run political exigencies (the archetypal example being the withdrawal of benefits from single parents, and the associated failure to do anything to improve the treatment of unemployed people in general).
That means treating the Abbott government as a temporary interruption a program of reform that includes carbon pricing, the NBN, NDIS and Gonski reforms. The only big gap in Labor’s program is the absence of a credible plan to finance these policies in the long run, while allowing state governments sufficient revenue to do their work. Labor needs to use the time in opposition to break with the low-tax rhetoric of the past, and work out a coherent plan to increase revenue. In practice, there’s no real chance of increasing the rate or coverage of GST, so the options will have to come on the income tax side. More on this soon, I hope.
The second factor in Abbott’s poor start is the ‘born to rule’ mentality that we’ve already seen in Queensland. Newman and his ministers have been shameless in grabbing more and better perks, giving jobs to their mates and so on. Abbott has started in the same vein, with examples such as the sacking of Steve Bracks, and his rumored replacement with a mate such as Nick Minchin. The contrast with Rudd, who left Liberal appointees in place, and gave plum appointments to well qualified Libs, is striking. Although the travel expense scandals now coming to light date from the past, they fit into a pattern that is already evident.
Of course, Labor is hardly innocent in this. But the isolated examples that have come to light, and the near-total absence of ministerial scandals in the Rudd-Gillard government suggest that this is not a case of ‘everybody does it’. Labor should join the Greens in pushing reform of the entire system.
fn1. The arguable exception is the Labor minority government that emerged from the 2010 election. But this wasn’t a new government or a new PM: Labor had a couple of years on top after 2007 and Gillard had already had her honeymoon period in the immediate aftermath of the deposition of Rudd.
fn2. ‘Better than Abbott’ was a pretty low bar when it came to refugee policies. But Labor did at least increase the refugee intake, while Abbott has cut it.