Are political labels useless?

Learned dissertations on politics use classical terminology to identify particular political positions. Terms like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, small ‘l’ liberal, ‘economic liberalism’, ‘economic conservatism’, ‘political liberalism’, ‘social liberalism’, ‘social conservatism’, ‘socialism’, social democracy’, ‘liberal democracy’, or more colloquially, ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ are but some of the terms that are used to describe people’s positions and attitudes, and to point to their preferred policies.

There has been talk since the 2010 election about the orientation of the main political parties. Labor, long seen as centre-left, is now seen by the Coalition as lurching violently to the left after its post-election ‘alliance’ with the Greens, who are portrayed as extreme left. But on refugee policy it is seen as moving to the right. There is also talk in Coalition circles about whether it has lurched too far to the conservative right. Will Hodgman, Liberal leader in Tasmania certainly thinks so, as does Malcolm Fraser.

But how much do these labels help us in understanding what individual politicians think and feel, what parties believe, what they ‘stand for’? In my view not much, serving as they do to confuse more often than clarify.

It was as I read Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines that the confusion such labels evoke became starkly apparent. In an attempt to describe what the Liberal Party was and stood for, he went back to R G Menzies’ 1985 assertion: “What the Liberal Party needed to do...was to rededicate itself to ‘patriotism...the family...the small unit in agriculture, industry and commerce...political obligation...intellectual rigour’.” After the party’s loss to Gough Whitlam, Menzies lamented that "the party of everything" had become "the party of nothing". This lament highlights the dilemma defeated parties face, and points to the need for introspection, refining of principles, review of policies and redefining the party’s very essence. Values and direction have to be rediscovered and renewed.

Clearly Abbott was soul searching when he wrote his book. He cautions that “Romanticizing the achievements of the previous government [the Howard Government] and demanding that the electorate repent of its mistake is a recipe for a very long stint in opposition.” Ironically, that stands in stark contrast to Abbott’s actual behaviour since the 2007 election when he has repeatedly lamented the rejection of ‘such a good government’ by a ‘sleep-walking electorate’. He goes on to quote George Brandis as saying the party had ‘moved too far to the right’, and ‘should return to the small ‘l’ liberal tradition’ of Robert Menzies or Alfred Deakin. I wonder what Abbott thinks after the recent election?

Highlighting the difficulty in articulating the principles and the philosophies that party members have in common, Abbott bemoans the fact that such an exercise often evokes a row and a flurry of motherhood statements. He concedes political liberalism cannot be reduced to a simple prescription and that John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of liberalism, had different political positions at different times.

Menzies created the term ‘Liberal’ to mean a ‘progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise’. He stressed the ‘creative genius of the individual’ but that the individual needed to be ‘assisted and sometimes controlled by the government in the general social interest’. He believed in and encouraged ‘free private enterprise’ but not ‘irresponsible enterprise’. He spoke of the ‘real freedoms to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to acquire skill, to seek reward...for these are of the essence, of the nature of man’.

After thirty pages in which Abbott valiantly attempts to explain conservative values, he goes onto list descriptive terms additional to those mentioned at the beginning of this piece: ‘left wing’, ‘right wing’, ‘interventionist’, ‘deregulatory’, ‘capitalist’, ‘socialist’, ‘centralist’ and ‘federalist’, but emphasises that these terms “...don’t matter much compared with whether they might plausibly solve a problem in ways that would be in the national interest”, and that “the ‘ideological’ tag...rarely strikes a chord with voters”. I agree with Abbott.

Abbott rebuts Robert Manne’s contention that the Coalition’s policies were the conscious application of neo-liberal or neo-conservative ideology to economic and national-security problems. Abbott insists that: “not a single Howard cabinet member ever had any ‘neo-ism’ in mind when actually making a decision”.

For his part, Kevin Rudd did not seek to follow the ideological path, but rather took the pragmatic approach to issues, much as has the Liberal Party as described by Abbott. Julia Gillard is believed by many to be more ideologically driven, but has yet to reveal how she formulates her approach to political matters. The Australian Greens is said to be the most ideologically driven party.

This piece argues that the traditional ideological terms so often used are of little help to voters trying to understand the orientation and political positions of the politicians that they are required to select for office. Different people often attach very different meanings to the same term. The 2010 election illustrated how poorly the electorate grasped the essential differences in ideology, policy and approach of the major parties. Many insisted that the campaign was ‘policy-free’.

This piece contends that voters, expecting to know what candidates stand for, deserve to have better ways of assessing them than simply the name of their party or the superficial ideological tags so often attached to that party. Now is the time to reflect on how we can do it better when next we go to the polls.

Why not describe political orientations and positions with brief descriptors, as did Menzies – a ‘What I believe in’ manifesto?

Here’s a first attempt to create such a conceptual checklist. It is of necessity incomplete, as a complete list would be as encyclopedic as the issues facing political parties. You are invited to add items that you would like to see on a checklist that you would wish candidates in your electorate to answer before you cast your vote. I will add them in seriatim.

The first set is somewhat ‘motherhood’ in nature, such that one would expect most politicians to answer in the affirmative. The second list is more testing, requiring as it does the candidate to select from countervailing alternatives. Imagine a check box associated with each choice. If you find the lists tedious, just skim them to get the idea presented here.

I believe in:

Values and beliefs

Freedom for all to worship, to think, to express views

Freedom of choice of religion, work, political affiliation and associates

Freedom from oppression

Equity, equality of opportunity and fairness for all

Love of country and patriotism

Respect for the original inhabitants of this country

Respect for our ancestors and the origins of our nation

Recognition of, and respect for the sovereign and her representatives

Respect for Australian military traditions and feats in times of conflict

Preservation of traditional Australian values: mate-ship, a fair go, mutual respect 

Respect for the rule of law, the nation’s legal system and justice for all

Respect for the nation’s political system, the democratic process and the rights and responsibilities of elected governments 

Opportunities for all to engage freely in political discourse

Preparedness to innovate and experiment in public policy

Care for the natural environment

Family values

The family as the basic unit of society

An emphasis on family values and family well-being

Acceptance of the several variants of ‘family’: traditional two parent, single parent, gay and lesbian relationships
Fostering family saving, self-sufficiency, self reliance and prudence in the use of resources

Freedoms and opportunities

Freedom to acquire knowledge, skills, a satisfying occupation and appropriate rewards, and to be ambitious

Educational opportunities for all to the extent of their capacity

Freedom to be enterprising and innovative in business

Creating opportunities for advancement

Small business as a crucial element of commercial and industrial endeavour

Small agricultural endeavour

A fair and equitable industrial relations system
Health and social support

Equitable, accessible, affordable, comprehensive and dignified health care from birth through old age at a cost the individual and society can afford

Accessible and affordable facilities for the prevention of illness and management of physical, mental and social illness

Support for the disabled and their carers appropriate to their needs 

Respect for life and how it ends

Social support for those unable sufficiently to support themselves

Support for those unable to find work

Support for the homeless, and public housing for them
Proper living and employment conditions for indigenous people
Health care for indigenous people that closes the health gap
Training programmes for those seeking employment

Occupational health and safety arrangements that protects all workers

Economy, trade, markets, regulation and resources

An open economy that engages in global markets and free trade
Freedom for individuals and businesses to engage in free enterprise
Tax systems that encourage commercial activity, but reap fair returns from productive industries
A sound, well-regulated and capitalized commercial banking system that supports commerce and industry
A central Reserve Bank that keeps inflation under control with interest rate adjustments
A system of support for industries that become threatened, especially the farm sector during times of drought, flood and tempest
Encouragement for manufacturing within the bounds of economic commonsense
Government support for all forms of productive economic activity
Improving productivity, sustainable growth and participation in the workforce
Fast broadband that enables the most efficient conduct of commerce, education, health and communications
Population growth that is consistent with sustainability and economic growth
Prudent use of resources consistent with environmental sustainability
Action on climate change that curtails its adverse effects

National security

Protection of the territorial integrity of Australia

A strong defence capability

Willingness to provide for regional security

Willingness to contribute to global security

The above are mostly motherhood statements to which I expect most politicians would answer positively.

A more revealing test would be a set of largely mutually exclusive alternative propositions from which politicians could select. Again, imagine a check box with each item.

I believe in the selected option:

The Australian way of life

The existing way of life should be maintained as it has served us well

We should attempt to continually improve our way of life

A traditional family of a married man and wife with children is the preferred mode of family life

Other family arrangements (childless couples, single parents, surrogate parents, homosexual couples) should be encouraged

Same sex marriage should be permitted

Choice of contraception is a right for all sexually active people

Women have the right to decide on the continuance of a pregnancy

Abortion should be outlawed

Late term abortion should be outlawed
Euthanasia should be available with suitable safeguards


Education is the lifeblood of the nation

All who are capable are entitled to as much education as would benefit them

Education should be reserved for those capable of benefiting from it

Education should be free throughout

Education should be free through secondary education but tertiary education should be paid for by the consumer

Scholarships should be readily available to talented people

The HECS scheme is sound and should be retained

The HECS scheme is punitive and should be abolished

Private schools should not receive government subsidies

Private schools are entitled to subsidies as parents who pay taxes are entitled to some benefit

Health and welfare

Governments have an obligation to prove excellence in health care at minimal cost

Consumers of health care should pay an equitable amount for care

Individuals are obliged to take care of their health and avoid overburdening the health care system

Governments have the right to penalize those who disregard their health

Higher excise should be levied on tobacco, alcohol and junk food

More emphasis should be given to community care to take the pressure off hospitals

More emphasis should be given to aged and palliative care facilities
More emphasis should be given to mental health care, especially for the young

Hospital beds should be reduced and more community and aged beds built

More hospital beds are needed to relieve emergency department congestion

Markets, regulation and international trade

Unfettered free markets with minimal government regulation or control are preferred

Free markets but with firm government regulation are desirable

Free markets strongly controlled by government regulation are essential

Globalization, global markets and free trade are now the norm

A neo-liberal approach to markets is best

A Hayekian approach to markets is best

A Keynesian approach to markets is best

Tariff protection is needed to protect local industry

Government support is essential for local manufacturing
Companies mining our irreplaceable minerals should pay a fairer share of their profits in tax
Mining companies are already paying enough tax
Higher taxes on mining would cripple the industry and send it offshore
Fast broadband is essential for business, education and health care
The broadband we have is satisfactory and does not need vastly higher speeds

GFC, stimulus, debt and deficit, interest rates

The Government should not have instituted a stimulus programme during the GFC

The incurring of the debt resulting from the stimulus programme is fully justified

It is more important to avoid debt than it is to avoid recession and unemployment

Once the recession was receding all stimulus should have been stopped

The stimulus should be continued until obligations have been met 

The stimulus should be continued until the threat of recession is over

Interest rate rises are a direct result of the Government stimulus

Interest rate rises are a result of improvement in the economy

National security, border control, asylum seekers

Australia should be prepared to contribute defence personnel to war zones where Australia’s national interest is threatened

Australia must maintain its territorial integrity again all comers

It is more important to prevent unauthorized arrivals than to accept genuine asylum seekers arriving in small boats

Small boat arrivals should be turned away

Asylum seekers arriving by small boats should be accepted willingly as our humanitarian responsibility

Asylum seekers should be processed offshore

Asylum seekers should be allowed onto Australian soil for processing

Temporary protection visas should be reintroduced

The Pacific Solution should be reinstated

Climate change

Global warming is a myth

Global warming is a reality and a threat to the planet and humankind

Global warming is the greatest moral and economic threat of our time

If global warming is occurring, urgent steps should be taken to counter it

An emissions trading scheme that puts a price on carbon would be the most effective ameliorating mechanism

A carbon tax would be the most effective ameliorating mechanism

A ‘direct action plan’ that involved no tax would be the best approach

The environment

Care for the environment is more important than economic considerations

It is more important to retain jobs and support business than to attend to environmental concerns

Polluting industries should be phased out rapidly

Renewable energy generation must soon replace coal generation

Australia should generate all of its energy requirements from renewable sources

There are as many jobs in ‘renewables’ industries as would be lost in discontinued polluting industries 

Nuclear-powered generation should be introduced here as soon as feasible

Use of motor transport and the building of freeways should be scaled down
Fast rail is to be preferred over roads

Mills such as the proposed Gunn’s Mill in Tasmania should not be built.

Population issues

Australia should allow population to grow at the previous rate without restriction

A desirable population for Australia by 5050 would be the projected 36 million

Australia should restrict its population through birth control

Australia should restrict its population through restricted immigration

Immigration should be limited to those who are needed to cover skills shortages

Immigration has been the lifeblood of Australia’s prosperity and should be continued at the same rate

A study should be made of this country’s carrying capacity now and until century end so that population growth and distribution can be regulated to match needs and capacity

The list could go on and on, and is already somewhat unwieldy. It is offered here simply as an example of the many issues that politicians must manage, and as a way we might approach assessing the relative worth of the attitudes and policy positions of our political parties and local candidates, in a way not possible simply through their party names or the place they are said to occupy on the conceptual political spectrum we talk about so much, but may understand in very different ways.

If you feel an important area has been omitted, please describe it and the options that accompany it, and I will add it to the list.

Finally let’s have your views about the relative merits of the established terminology we have used since time immemorial and the approach suggested above for selecting parties and politicians.

In my view political labels are not just useless; they are confusing and misleading.

What do you think?

The Coalition bouncing like a dead cat

It's not something that anyone with a beating heart and a love of politics in the 21st century does voluntarily, but when it is forced upon you, boy is it instructive.

What am I talking about?

Being abruptly disconnected from the Internet, and being flung back into the 'old paradigm' of the 20th century, when all you had was the TV, newspapers and the radio. No Internet means that you are unable to exchange views with others, you are unable to read other blogs, unable to read Twitter, etc. So, basically you are left to form your day-to-day opinions in 'splendid isolation'. Which has led me to make some pertinent conclusions.

Firstly, having my landline die, and not being able to get a technician out for almost a week to fix the problem, is the surest way to motivate you to do the most boring household chores.

Secondly, instead of your senses working overtime filtering the barrage of information that comes through the 'net’, you find, or at least I have found, that the doors of perception have been flung wide open. I now perceive things that I believe I would normally miss in my efforts to keep up with the madding crowd on the Internet. I have had time to reflect.

So, let me give you the benefit of my downtime observations.

As we start to settle into the early days of the Gillard government, I have detected an air of legitimacy descending over Ms Gillard. She is being transformed from contender to title-holder. She is beginning to assume the mantle of Prime Minister.

In fact, and I don't know if this is a result of the journos heeding Annabel Crabb's words to make the 'new paradigm' manifest, but the Press Conferences since the government became settled have become more thoughtful, considered and respectful affairs, in the main. In deference to her position, when journalists ask questions now, they are prefacing them with,'Prime Minister'...

That ‘pack of hyenas’ mentality, that was so pervasive during the election campaign, is abating. Or is it because the prime instigator of the journalistic insouciance, Latika Bourke, has been on holidays? Only time will tell there, upon her return.

Also, it seems to me that since The Australian has openly declared war on the government's legitimacy, and their Alliance with 'The Greens', their over-the-top hysteria has quickly caused embarrassment on their behalf amongst the rest of the Press Gallery. So instead of maintaining solidarity with their brethren from News Ltd by closing ranks around The Oz journos and editors and thus helping to reinforce The Oz's blatant barracking for anything the Coalition does and says, the rest of the Press Gallery have, for the most part, refused to join in the attack. Their questions to the PM have been focused on policy. Though, when they are not, they are getting short shrift from Julia Gillard.

On the other hand, as appears to be fast becoming par for the course, the ABC is still trying to find cause to sneer at the Gillard government, as if relentless negativity equates with in-depth analysis in some spurious way. Also they repeat the Opposition's Talking Points verbatim as news, often beginning news bulletins with, “The Opposition said today...”, thus allowing the Abbott Opposition free rein to say whatever is their latest daily confection, built from half-truths, speculation and supposition, as 'gospel'. Such that you'd never think, going by Chris Uhlmann's constant search for the denigrating angle, that his wife had just been elected to parliament for the ALP. I am guessing that it is an ingrained habit of his to do this that he is finding hard to break. Nevertheless, I do detect a glacial rate of change in attitude and perspective, mainly from the political commentators who do the regular ABC News.

Mix it all together, however, and, even considering the fact that they are aided and abetted by News Ltd Media, I can't help but feel that the Coalition are a dead cat bouncing at the moment.

Tony Abbott has his well-formulated daily diatribe, which he can usually be found delivering via a sympathetic media outlet like 2GB or MTR. However, somehow I am getting the impression that instead of the metaphorical prize fighter landing knockout blows on the government, he is seeming instead to be like a punch-drunk sailor, all incoherent, rheumy abuse-induced by brain damage, as a result of one too many blows to his head.

Which is not to say that Tony Abbott is suffering from some sort of functional deficit, far from it; I mean I imagine that he is the one who comes up with most of his lines each day. Also, they are not without their impact. No, rather than that, it is just seeming as though they are having the impact of a dead cat bouncing. Almost a case of: “Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?” As it is starting to seem as though Tony Abbott, and the Coalition that mirrors him, only know one path to power - deconstruct and denigrate. Whatever the government does is bad because... And nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in Tony Abbott's response to Marius Kloppers offering the Carbon peace pipe to Julia Gillard. He just seemed functionally unable to alter his oft-stated position in order to take account of the 'new paradigm' that had just manifest itself there, instead launching his now familiar attack on the prospect of a Carbon Tax, whilst ignoring the fact that the majority, and even Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest, are saying that now is the time to price Carbon. Tony Abbott is also not explaining that there will be compensation for the electorate, all in order to prosecute his spurious argument about the impact of such a tax on the community. That word, 'compensation' has not passed his lips once.

However, what I did notice was that this time Tony Abbott's scare tactics bounced like the proverbial dead cat, whereas before the election the issue bounced in his favour like a cat on a hot tin roof. Could it be that we are starting to see from the electorate and the media a less frenetic and more sober assessment of the issues?

In fact, another instance of Tony Abbott's previous deft political touch escaping him occurred with his refusal to let any Coalition MP onto the parliamentary Climate Change Consultative Committee, unless that person could be a Climate Change Sceptic. Not only has he not been able to make that decision bounce his way, it has gone down like a kite with no wind beneath its wings, nose-diving straight into the ground. His actions, to objective observers, are being seen as petulant and overly-focused on political gamesmanship at the expense of the 'kinder, gentler polity' that he himself was touting only a couple of weeks ago.

Also the rest of the Shadow Ministry has not been faring much better. Greg Hunt was sounding frankly delusional on radio the other day when he stated, “That only the Coalition has a Direct Action Plan for Climate Change that will start on July 1, 2011.” Now, either the Coalition heroically believes that they will not be in Opposition for very long and in government very, very soon such that they will be able to get their 'Direct Action' legislation passed by the hung parliament and enacted in time for it to come into effect by that date. Or Greg Hunt has lost touch with reality. Or he is deliberately misrepresenting reality to create what he sees as a brick in the wall that the Opposition is building in order to give the electorate the impression of a government-in-exile. Which is mischievous to say the least.

Also, could it be that there are some amongst the number of the Coalition who are just mouthing the talking points given to them by an 'unhinged' leadership, that needs must compel them to say in order to keep their position on the Shadow Front Bench of an Abbott Opposition? An Opposition leadership unfamiliar with the concept of a post-election climb down, instead attempting to forge ahead with their new election campaign, which obviously has been identified by them as their new modus operandi. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it has become Tony Abbott's modus vivendi; it appears he knows no other way to practise the art of politics but living and breathing competition.

However, the 'new paradigm' of 21st century politics, as being exhibited by many countries' 'blended' governments, where consensus and co-operation across the gamut of political interests, represented by a disparate collection of parties, is how electorates are telling their representatives that they want things to be now, is something that appears to have escaped the comprehension abilities of the Abbott-led Opposition. To my mind they are stuck in the 20th century of John Howard-era politics, where domination of the political discourse was the de facto position to adopt and impose on the political conversation. The Coalition are mouthing the words of the new political paradigm every day, so it's not as if they don't realise that how the political game is played has changed, it's just that their actions betray a predilection to go back to the successful, in their eyes, ways of Howard.

Take, for example, Tony Abbott's proclamation today that the Coalition is, “the party of new ideas” (we'll let go the fact that a Coalition is not 'a' party). More like the 'party' of No Idea.

In this way what we have seen put on the table is a commitment to bring legislation to the House, via a Private Members Bill, which will repeal the Queensland 'Wild Rivers' legislation. Superficially it is to facilitate the ability of the land to be handed back to its Indigenous owners.

Tony Abbott wants to take back the land from the people of Queensland generally, via their government, who wish to preserve the natural environment in Far North Queensland in perpetuity. Instead, Abbott is using the cover of the darkness of the claimant's skin as a blind to hide his real intentions behind. Which is that, in a very 20th century fashion, he sees the environment purely as an exploitable commodity, and the handmaiden of the economy. Also, what is never mentioned, in his championing of the cause of Indigenous Leader, Noel Pearson, is that Abbott is playing the 'new paradigm' splits in the Indigenous Australian community of the 21st century between Progressives and Conservatives, such as Pearson, off against one another. In a completely disingenuous act of seeming concern for the 'rights' of Indigenous Australians, Tony Abbott is instead continuing to advance his old-style, anti-environment thinking into the parliament.

So we see the Opposition, in a very 'old political paradigm' fashion getting out the wrecking ball as they scratch around in search of a new killer wedge and attack by which they hope to bring the new Green-Independent-Labor Coalition government down as soon as possible, and in order to have themselves installed as the 'natural party of government'. Which idea, thankfully, as with so many others of theirs at the moment, appears to have all the momentum of a dead cat bouncing around.

Instead of this, if the Coalition were smart, it would admit to itself that the political caravan has moved on, and there are now more votes to be harvested in forging a new Conservatism, as opposed to seeking to resurrect the now thoroughly discredited neo-conservatism.

As has been suggested elsewhere, would it not be better for the Coalition to become part of the solution, instead of the problem?

Which, of course, leads us to the problem of the Coalition's response to the NBN.

Any sober judge of the competing alternatives to provide Broadband into almost all homes in the country would say that the fibre plan is the thinking person's alternative. As Tony Windsor said, “You do it once, you do it right, you do it fibre.” It's almost future-proof, and follows my grandfather's dictum that, “The cheapest things always cost the most to buy.” Thus, even if the upfront investment may seem a bit rich, in the end it will pay for itself many times over by not only contributing to the Budget bottom line due to increased productivity flow-on benefits, but also by adding to the 'Triple Bottom Line' of the new economic paradigm, by increasing the quality of life of Rural and Regional Australians in so many ways. Not only that, but I have just recently heard about new technology which will enable you to use wireless technology to draw on your home's broadband quota in a portable fashion when you are outside the house, thus negating one of the Coalition's main arguments against fibre, that is that it is fixed and stationary, whereas their policy allows for maximum portability, using a hodgepodge of different modalities to bring the broadband signal to the electorate - a policy that has been demonstrated time and again to be hostage to some pretty serious limitations. I don't envy the task that Malcolm Turnbull has been given to try to sell the Coalition's dog of a Broadband policy. It's no wonder that he is concentrating on the business principles of the NBN, because the technological case for fibre, as opposed to Wireless+Satellite+Copper wires, is a no-brainer to the well informed. I can pretty confidently predict that Malcolm Turnbull can also hear the dead cat bouncing, but is choosing to ignore it.

Someone who blissfully chooses to ignore the dead cat bouncing around the room, fitfully, as it gets kicked by one Coalition MP or another, is Julie Bishop. I can't wait to see her up against the formidable opponent she now has in Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, and the mercurial Dr Craig Emerson in Trade. To say that they will enjoy leaving her feeling like a bedraggled old moggie is not putting too fine a point on it.

In fact, the only ray of light for the Coalition at the moment appears to be coming from the 'loathsome' Scott Morrison (copyright, Bernard Keane of Crikey), who appears to have a mole in Immigration willing to keep feeding him documents to aid and abet his government destabilisation program around the Asylum Seeker issue. Pity the new political paradigm appears to have caught up with him too, as Julia Gillard placed one of the Labor government's best performers, Chris Bowen, up against him to do battle; who, going by the comments today by Sabra Lane of the ABC's Canberra Press Gallery, is winning by acting as a ‘refreshingly honest and direct’ breath of fresh political air.

Now, I may be wrong in my summation, and, with the resumption of parliamentary hostilities on the floor of the House next week, we may just go back to an adversarial battle between the two major parties. However, there's something in the air that tells me a different story.

So, basically, what I think is that the electorate has undergone a sea change with this last election, from the 'old paradigm' of Howardian self-interested politics of 'What's in it for me?', to the 'new paradigm' of 'let's get together and sort out our society's problems constructively'.

And that if the Opposition does not wake up and smell the Fair Trade Coffee, they are in danger of slipping into political irrelevancy. Especially after the new Senate takes its place next year.

Well, at least that's the impression that I got when I stepped outside the virtual political beltway for a week.

What do you think?

An open letter to the Leader of the Opposition

Mr Abbott, we expect that you have mixed feelings about the outcome of the election. To get as close as you did to winning is cause for elation and congratulation, emotions echoed in the media, where many considered you unelectable six months ago. Yet the countervailing emotion must be intense frustration at getting so close then losing in the post-election period. You are credited with winning the campaign, but losing the post-election negotiations.

No doubt you are angry that two of the conservative-leaning Country Independents decided to support Labor instead of the Coalition. Among the several reasons for this was the NBN, which you vowed to scrap, and you have since assigned Malcolm Turnbull the task of ‘demolishing’ it. The Independents saw this as essential for regional development. You did not, instead coming up with a cheaper, slower and less technologically advanced plan that experts consider inferior and far less capable of meeting the nation’s present and future needs. So one cause of your not gaining power was your intransigence about the NBN, insisting it was a ‘white elephant’ and a gross waste of public funds. Another reason seemed to be your attitude to climate change and your resistance to a tax on carbon. Your attitude to both these issues was born of an obsessive desire to ‘pay back debt’ ‘and ‘end the waste’, two of your most potent slogans. In pursuing these aims you overlooked what was best for the nation in telecommunications and combating global warming.

You wanted the electorate to believe that under the Coalition debt, deficits and interest rates always would be lower, the cost of living more reasonable, that waste and mismanagement would evaporate and we would all be better off than under an incompetent Labor administration that could never manage money or implement any program without it becoming a disaster. These were the raison d'être for your fixation on austerity in budgeting, and no doubt the reason you attempted to make your budget look better than it really was by using specious assumptions. You were caught out with a black hole variously estimated to be from $4 billion to over $10 billion. The way you tried to avoid scrutiny by claiming there had been a ‘criminal leak’ from Treasury, now proved by the AFP to be not so, made the electorate and the Independents suspect you had something to hide, which turned out to be the case as revealed by Treasury once it finally got its hands on your figures. The media should have exposed the deceit but chose to downplay the black hole; indeed Michael Stutchbury categorized it as just a few ruts in the road. It would have been described as a massive chasm of earthquake proportions that would swallow the party completely if Labor had such a hole.

Although you know perfectly well that the only criterion of legitimacy of a government is the capacity to command a majority of seats in the House, which Labor clearly could after the Independents supported it, you still insisted it was illegitimate, and that since the Coalition had a better TTP it should be governing. As the AEC has now given its final TPP: 50.12% to Labor and 49.88% to the Coalition, Labor being over thirty thousand votes ahead, that argument is defunct. Even your claim of a higher primary vote is questionable as the Election Analyser in The Australian shows that with 93% of the votes counted Labor scored 37.99%, Liberal 30.46%, Greens 11.76%, LNP Queensland 9.12%, Other 4.42%, Nationals 3.73% and Independents 2.52%, with the rest bring up the rear.  Only by combining the conservative vote could you claim a higher primary vote. As you insist Labor and the Greens are ‘in coalition’ their votes combined would give a primary vote well ahead of the Coalition. So even that spurious criterion doesn’t work for you.

So we hope you will now drop the ‘illegitimacy’ charge and accept that Labor is in power, and desist from attempts to dislodge it in favour of the Coalition, which you continue to hint you will do given any chance. The people have decided, close though it was, that Labor is the government. Accept it, even if it does stick in your craw, just as did your loss in 2007.

You have signaled your intention to ‘ferociously’ hold the Government to account; you use words like ‘demolish’ when instructing Malcolm Turnbull about the NBN; and your attitude since the election was decided remains as it was before, to attack relentlessly, to destroy Government policies, to disrupt, and do as your mentor Randolph Churchill advised: ‘oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out’. We would prefer you reflect on the fact that you have 74 members if you count Tony Crook, almost half the House, all elected by the people of Australia to serve their country. How can they do that if all you do is oppose everything and set out to destroy the Government’s legislation and indeed the Government itself? You talked of a ‘kinder and gentler ‘ polity and parliament, but everything you have done since uttering those words have suggested the opposite – that you will make it a harsher place with more aggression and belligerence. Attack seems all you understand, and since you probably feel it has got you to where you are, you likely see value in continuing it, notwithstanding the fact that it let you down in the post-election negotiations. Many feel affronted that so many elected Coalition members, all paid from the public purse, under your direction will engage in destructive behaviour attempting to tear down the Government and its legislative program, rather than contributing positively and helpfully to the good governance of the nation. What a waste! A kinder and gentler approach would win you and your members so much more kudos and admiration.

Frankly we are sick and tired of aggression and destructive behaviour and want to see some collaboration from you for the good of the nation.

You have got to where you are by a series of derogatory slogans repeated endlessly and echoed faithfully by a largely complaint and supportive media, particularly News Limited and The Australian, that seems intent on promoting your cause, highlighting the problems in Government programs, never willing to concede the positive, the successful aspects. It reminds us of what happened under Josef Goebbels in Nazi Germany where he worked on the premise that if you tell a lie often enough eventually the people will believe it. You have told lies about Labor for years. How often have we heard: ‘waste and mismanagement’, ‘Labor cannot mange money’, ‘Labor is addicted to spending’, ‘Labor will always run the country into debt that the Coalition will have to pay off’, ‘Labor will never have a surplus budget’, ‘Labor will never stop the boats’, ‘Labor will never build a regional processing centre’, and so on it boringly goes. Whether you actually believe these slogans to be true or whether you use them because they work, we shall never know. And work they do: even Labor supporters when asked about the BER reflexly utter your slogans: ‘waste’, ‘rorts, ‘mismanagement’, ‘debt’, with no mention of the BER’s splendid addition to school infrastructure and the jobs it created. You have been brilliantly successful, with the aid of the media, in brainwashing a large part of the population.

Another highly successful slogan had been ‘A Great Big New Tax’, which you applied to emissions trading schemes, the most recent of which had the Coalition’s support until your party assassinated its leader Malcolm Turnbull, who negotiated the scheme with Labor. Of course you insist that because you are in Opposition, his assassination was not comparable with Labor’s assassination of Kevin Rudd. I wonder does Malcolm share that view?

You applied the GBNT mantra although you knew it was the polluters that would pay for polluting, and that any resultant increase in cost to consumers would be heavily compensated for by Government subsidies. You ran the line that every time the fridge was opened or the ironing was done the consumer would pay. Barnaby Joyce made an art form of that recital, adding his own idiosyncratic humor for good measure. You must have known that you were distorting the truth, the reality of the scheme, but what did that matter to you, so long as it worked? And it did. You managed to kill much of the public support for climate change action. Nice work!

GNBT worked so well that you applied it to the minerals tax schemes. You insisted that the miners paying their fair share of tax for mining our minerals would result in massive job losses, ruin the industry, kill the goose that was laying multiple golden eggs, and thereby deprive this nation of what you described as ‘the very industry that saved us from the GFC’, notwithstanding the fact that during the GFC the miners sacked a higher proportion of their workforce than did other industries and businesses. You scared workers in the mining industries witless with threats of unemployment on a grand scale, so much so that electors in the mining states, particularly in Queensland, turned savagely against the Government and brought it to close to defeat. Again your slogans worked; whether they represented the reality that would flow from a minerals tax was of no concern to you.

Your capacity for misrepresentation seems to have no bounds. We expect more grotesque slogans to fall from your mouth in the days ahead. But we are so weary of them.

You have chosen to keep many of your shadow ministries in their same positions. Have you no one better than Joe Hockey to be Shadow Treasurer? ‘Hockeynomics’ has entered our lexicon courtesy of Peter Martin to describe Joe’s bizarre thinking about economics, perhaps most flagrantly illustrated by his repeated attempts to convince us that the Government’s borrowings to service debt were pushing up interest rates. A Treasury paper: Reconsidering the link between fiscal policy and interest rates in Australia featured in Peter Martin’s One in the eye for Hockeynomics refutes Joe’s contention with: “Australian general government net debt has no impact on the short run real interest margin, and has only a small effect in the long run.” But that did not stop Joe mouthing his mantra again and again, and of course you did nothing to control him. Why would you?

You chose also to leave Andrew Robb as Shadow Finance, the man who tried so lamentably to defend the indefensible black hole in the Coalition costings, and justify the Coalition’s reluctance to expose its costings to Treasury scrutiny with the ‘criminal leak’ accusation, now disproven. His incapacity for explaining economic data, particularly if it’s shonky, was shown up time and again as he muddled and stumbled his way through it, using language and reasoning that would confuse even an expert. Have you no one better? Is this the team, Hockey and Robb, which you would inflict on this nation if you were in power? We know you are disinterested and economically illiterate, so I suppose it would be over to them as it was after your budget reply speech and throughout the election campaign. Heaven help us.

We see you have retained Julie Bishop as Foreign Affairs spokesperson despite her ineptitude in that post. Remember her imprudent premature utterances about Stern Hu, and her flaunting of the convention of not talking about AFP matters when she went on national TV over the Israeli passports affair? Yet she stays in one of the most senior positions in the Opposition. What a prospect should you ever form government.

No doubt you consider your appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as Shadow for Communications and Broadband a stroke of brilliance. Have you checked if he has his heart in demolishing the NBN? We suspect he has not, and if that is so, he will make a very poor fist of it. Perhaps you have set him up for failure, for obvious reasons. At least the man has talent, which is more than one can say for much of your frontbench.

We can see why you have retained Christopher Pyne in his positions, especially Manager of Opposition Business, where his irritating persistence, snapping at the heels of the Government, raising interminable spurious points of order, and generally disrupting parliamentary business suits your purpose well. It seems that disruption is to be the order of the day, and we imagine that repeated points of order and dissent from the Speakers’ rulings will become the norm.

You can see that we are disturbed not just by your modus operandi, but distressed that you seem intent on disruption, demolition, destruction, demeaning and damaging the Government at every opportunity, and determined to replace it with a Coalition Government – the party that really understands money and management and economics and governance, the party that can end the waste, pay back debt, stop new taxes and stop the boats, clearly the natural party to rule.

You are now regarded by your party room as a great leader who has rescued the Coalition from potentially long years in opposition and brought it close to government. Your aggressive, combative approach is seen as a major reason for this. Your inclination to continue in this vein will be strong and from all accounts this is the track on which you seem to have chosen to travel. Whether you have the insight to recognize that this approach is no longer appropriate, especially now that many see a ‘new paradigm’ of government emerging, or whether you have the capacity for any other approach even if you did, only time will tell. There are many, perhaps within your party, who would have doubts on both counts.

Andrew Elder summed up the situation well on Politically Homeless in a piece: Timid and inept opposition when he concluded: “Abbott has slipped back into attack-dog mode at the very time when people are starting to appreciate broader and more subtle ways of working in politics. He will probably succeed in fooling the similarly calibrated journosphere that he's a real threat, but he still hasn't addressed his economic and communications policy deficiencies, nor has he given serious thought to his party's future…. Timid and inept: Tony Abbott confirms his credentials for Opposition. The question is open on whether the Liberals want to stay there, and if not how committed they really are to Abbott as leader. “

That just about says it all.

What do you think?

An open letter to the Prime Minister

On behalf of most who comment on this blog site, congratulations Ms Gillard on the re-election of the Labor Government and of yourself as Prime Minister. Those who have supported Labor through its first term and who have admired the good work it has done, are relieved that it has another term to complete its current program and implement new policy initiatives.

We have heard the claims of illegitimacy coming from the Opposition and partisan journalists, but, like you, we know there is just one parameter that gives any government legitimacy, and that is the number of votes it can command in the House. Although the Opposition likes to quote the primary vote and the two party preferred when it’s ahead (which at present is one day in three), using those parameters as justification is just games playing.

Those who doubt that the Government will last long and make predictions about why it will fail or how it will fall, simply do not know what they are talking about. There is no recent federal precedent, and where there are state precedents they have worked well. Predictions of doom are simply wishful thinking by many, or just the usual media sensationalizing. We know you will ignore such ill-informed comment.

We know you will not be daunted by the hyperbole that our media enjoy so much, such extravagant language as ‘elected by the skin of her teeth’, ‘saved by the independents’, ‘Gillard at mercy of four unpredictable men’, ‘a fragile government at massive cost’, ‘sublime chaos’, and ‘after wooing the Indies, Gillard must now woo us’. The media thrive on conflict, think too often only in terms of winners and losers, and most journalists have not even started to get their minds around the new paradigm. Annabelle Crabb made a start in The Drum in Never mind the conflict, let’s report the parliament.  Political journalists ought to read and digest her advice, but probably won’t because they are captured by the 24 hour news cycle and the demands of their editors and proprietors.

We applaud your decision to not be governed by the media cycle in future. We were gratified by the comment you made late in your interview with Barrie Cassidy on Insiders last Sunday: “Well I think there's an obligation on news organisations in the modern age to act ethically and responsibly and report the facts.”  We support your willingness to confront journalists when they ask questions in a rude or antagonistic way, when they focus on trivialities, and when they ask leading questions fishing for the answer they want. We hope you will castigate them when they attempt ‘gotchas’ or ask ‘rule in, rule out’ questions. We are pleased that you refuse to be intimidated by the likes of Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones, who tore into Kevin Rudd so cruelly. Frankly, we are sick and tired of rude, aggressive, antagonistic, trivializing journalists; politics is too important for this unseemly behaviour.

It is especially commendable that you have been re-elected despite an antagonistic media and a hostile national newspaper, The Australian, with its well-disciplined coterie of attack dogs intent on emphasizing the negatives and omitting the positives, no matter what the subject. Sadly our ABC has taken to following the News Limited tabloids in all their negativity, about which Mr Denmore has commented so pointedly in a piece in his new blog The Failed Estate: The Opposition Says… 

We hope that you will devise a media strategy that will neutralize the pernicious influence that the MSM exerts on political life in this country. The media will kick and scream; indeed it has started already, but the more it screams the more you can be sure the strategy is on target.

One problem Labor has had in its first term has been communicating its achievements, explaining its plans and achieving the endorsement of the public. This was particularly the case with the ETS. We know that the Abbott-led negativity about the reality of climate change and his Great Big New Tax mantra were very hard to counter, and that when it comes to taking the hard decisions, because most prefer the easy option of doing nothing, the public is willing to be convinced that action is unnecessary anyway. As interest in taking action about global warming waned, as willingness to pay for that action in other than a token way diminished, and as the Copenhagen conference faltered, Labor was persuaded to postpone the ETS. That turned out to be a move which angered many electors, turned them towards the Greens, and reduced Labor’s electoral impact. We do not know who was responsible for this decision but it has been hinted that it was the Sussex Street group that included Karl Bitar and Mark Abib.

We understand too that this group has a major influence on party tactics, campaign strategy and internal king-making and dethroning. Although erroneously labelled ‘faceless men’, they are not all that visible to Labor supporters, working as they seem to do in a subterranean way to influence Labor’s face to the public. We are weary of their influence and trust you will take steps to make Labor internal workings more transparent to ordinary citizens. If these same people are responsible for the campaign tactics and strategy, they need replacement, as perhaps does Hawker Britten. If a longstanding Labor pollster such as Rod Cameron says in his Lateline interview on 8 September Labor campaign panned by pioneering pollster that this was Labor’s worst campaign ever, something radical needs to be done right away, as campaigning for the next election starts now. In retrospect it is unthinkable that a Government that has achieved so much so quickly and saved the nation from recession, business failure and crippling unemployment has had to scramble so desperately for re-election. It should have been a cakewalk. If those responsible for building on that could not do so, they lack the competence in public relations that is needed for electoral success.

We were taken by your approach to your new ministry which makes a lot of sense. Of course, some academics are apprehensive about the absence of the words ‘education’ and ‘research’ in the ministry titles as if that means those areas will be neglected, and some medical people concerned with indigenous health are querying what the changed titles mean for them. Grog’s piece in Grog’s Gamut The Cabinet PIcks and Pans is a sound appraisal of the changes and an insider’s perspective on how they may affect the public service.  The images of those appointed are nicely illustrated in The Notion Factory in The Labor Lineup

As expected, the Coalition has pushed the ‘plotter’s rewarded’ line, faithfully echoed by a compliant media. An unbiased appraisal shows that far from that, the appointments have been made on merit and past performance. We feel sure that the memory of a near-death experience will galvanize all appointees to apply themselves assiduously to their responsibilities. Of course this morning on ABC radio Greg Hunt was still banging on about Peter Garrett being ‘promoted’ for his ‘incompetence’ in the Home Insulation Program – Hunt just can’t let that go. He’s still harping on the number of warnings Garrett was give, the fires and the deaths, the Coalition’s intent to push legislation to inspect every home insulated, and the need for a Royal Commission. Yet in the next breath he’s saying the Coalition will be ‘constructive’! Pigs might fly.

We hope that when the Coalition line up is announced that the Government will apply the blowtorch to it and expose its deficiencies which are inevitable since it has such indifferent talent. The finance shadows have performed badly, foreign affairs has been poorly served by Julie Bishop, and Peter Dutton was out of his depth in health. How the Coalition will attempt to manage these deficiencies will be fascinating to contemplate.

So we see a new era for Labor and our nation under your leadership. Your strength, your consultative style, your capacity for fruitful negotiation, your ability to lead strongly, and your determination to take no more babble from the Coalition and no more rubbish from the media, augers well for the time ahead.

We wish you every success. There are many, many supporters in the electorate who are right behind you.