Or, How the ALP Should Play the Game of Political Pragmatism, Just Not as the Hollow Man Abbott Does.
So, you will by now have had seared into your brains the immortal words Tony Abbott uttered to his party room this past week: “In a choice between policy purity and political pragmatism, I'll take pragmatism every time.”
Peter Hartcher meticulously explained the context around that statement in his column on the weekend
I was compelled to unpack Abbott's statement and reflect upon what it meant with respect to contemporary politics, and especially Climate Change politics and for the Labor Party.
Let's just start by saying that, in terms of policy, it would be safe to make the case that the Gillard government is in many ways an old small 'l' Liberal government, probably not too dissimilar to one in which Malcolm Turnbull would feel comfortable, except for some philosophical differences around the edges which most governments usually accommodate. In fact, it could be said that because the Labor government has forsaken a more radically Left Wing agenda it has bled votes to The Greens. Except, of course, with respect to the Keynesian response to the economic crisis, which saw a lot of those voters come back into the ALP fold and then drift away again over Asylum Seekers and Climate Change. Other than that the initiatives the Gillard government have worked on have been 'Middle of the Road', veering a little to the Right or Left, as necessary. Such as the Health and Hospitals package which incorporated Case Mix Funding, and localised Community Boards to run Public Hospitals, as opposed to control from a Central Planning HQ. Also the NBN is being built by the government because that is the pragmatic and practical course of action, but it is going to be privatized as soon as the government feels it's right to do so.
The same has applied to Education policy. They do not seek to re-run the real Class War which would see Private Schools asked to rely on their own school-levied fees to educate children and Public Schools funded lavishly at their expense.
They are for Free Trade and the Free Market with light touch regulation.
Even their approach to tackling Climate Change is more pro the market than Tony Abbott's 'Picking Winners and Losers' approach from Central Planning HQ in Canberra.
They haven't even placed any real strictures on Middle Class Welfare entitlements, or massively increased the dole to an amount an unemployed person could comfortably live on. Though that's probably for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons. Or is it?
Thus essentially we can agree that the three biggest initiatives of the Rudd and Gillard governments: the NBN, built by government but then privatised at an appropriate time; the Health and Hospitals package - Local Boards and Case Mix Funding; and the ETS/Cap and Trade model for dealing with Climate Change, are small 'l' Labor government in action.
So, what have we seen as a result of these moves into 'small l' territory from the Liberal Party? Tony Abbott consistently deciding to move his party further to the Right, or to the Libertarian Left if you think about his Climate Change policy, where government picks a few winners but generally stays out of the game and leaves it to Private Industry to decide what to do. Nevertheless, the overriding move has been further to the Right under Abbott, and especially as the ALP government has increasingly colonised the middle political ground, which these days has veered to the Centre Right in the electorate's preference. Whether you and I like it or not.
This move has been made by Abbott to differentiate himself and his party from the Gillard government for reasons of political pragmatism, but also for ideological reasons. Though I'm sure that policies, such as an ETS, which Howard and Turnbull took to the 2007 election were compromises the Liberal Party were forced to accept and take to the people so as to attempt to forestall their inevitable defeat and to keep some skin in the 2007 game of Climate Change policy. I mean, as we are now seeing, the Coalition would more likely be happier to just let their supporters in Fossil Fuel Mining and Carbon-Intensive Industries, carry on regardless of the consequences to the Climate.
However, what I do know is that the positions the Coalition are forced to hold on many issues are just a thin veneer which covers their underlying determination to inevitably achieve their core goals, which they have doggedly pursued for decades: reducing taxes on the wealthy, or 'giving people's money back to them' as the Coalition have styled it, which encompasses Middle Class Welfare as well because they can't get away with advocating a large reduction in Personal Income Tax for the wealthy, as they do in America, so they have exploited the Tax and Transfer mechanism, without Means Testing in the main, as their way of getting the money back into the hands of the already well-off, just by another means. At one and the same time however, the Conservatives argue for the dismantling of the Post-War Social Welfare State. You can see this in Abbott's plans for no more 'passive welfare' which would see all welfare recipients moved on to some sort of unskilled work gang situation in order to be able to get money from the government in order to keep hand to mouth existence going. He has already mentioned sending unemployed young people to work on farms picking fruit for their dole, and with a straight face belying its Dickensian undertones also spoke of sending them to the mines.
Interestingly, as has been observed elsewhere, no such strictures are being advocated by Mr Abbott to be placed upon the well-off in return for their taxpayer-largesse to pay their bills for Private Health, Private Education and Maternity Leave from their well-paid jobs. Quite the opposite. Mr Abbott can't wait to shovel government revenue out the door to them quickly enough, with no strings attached and no questions asked.
Finally, in the Conservative ideological troika, of course, has been their overweening desire to 'free' corporate entities from government regulation, such that they can generate more profit for their shareholders, as opposed to revenue for the State, in order that they may make money at will and without control over how they do it, especially with respect to the effect they have on the environment, or the workforce, along the way.
So, for decades, since the Reagan/Thatcher tectonic shift in the Conservative political paradigm around the world, Conservative parties of the Right have pursued their goals determinedly. Sometimes that has meant short-term compromises and half-measures, for example, the GST compromise with the Australian Democrats, and the belated 'Fairness Test' for WorkChoices. Sometimes it's meant exploiting Culture War resentments, in fact inventing the 'Culture Wars'. Who can forget Howard's exploitation of it and Janet Albrechtsen's infamous quote: 'We're all Conservatives now.' It was a 'War' fought in order to drag the electorate around to their way of seeing the world. Sometimes it has meant a pose of moderation, 'Compassionate Conservatism'. For example, the Northern Territory Intervention, which occurred after a brutish decade of Assimilationist policy by the Howard government based upon his single-minded aim to see the end of the Indigenous Determination agenda left in place by Hawke and Keating, resting upon the foundation of The Native Title Act.
The seemingly-compassionate intervention in the Northern Territory was ostensibly on behalf of the suffering exposed in the 'Little Children Are Sacred Report'. Instead, what we got, when you looked closely at it, was a thin veneerial sham of action in order to advance further Howard's desire to destroy the Native Title Act once and for all, crush the Indigenous Homelands movement, and Indigenous Self-Determination, leave the land free from Indigenous control for the Miners to come into and exploit, and to continue the push of the Assimilationist agenda by forcing the inhabitants out of the homelands by restricting their basic services, and into the big towns and cities to be absorbed. Some compassion. Very definitely Conservative.
So, very often - almost always - for the Conservatives it has meant couching their agenda in other terms, via 'political pragmatism', since the agenda is, if you poll these ideas directly, wildly unpopular with the public. Australians generally still want the rich taxed enough, the Social Safety Net preserved, and corporate entities over-sighted by government to prevent their worst excesses from harming the environment and the little guy.
The Coalition thus talks about 'taxes' and 'spending' and 'regulation' in the abstract, never explicitly articulating their real agenda for those areas, since Australians generally oppose those concepts in the abstract while they support their more specific manifestations. The Coalition talk about cutting the Deficit, even as they propose policies which would increase the Deficit, such as with Tony Abbott's 'Direct Action' Climate Change policy, and his generous to the wealthy Paid Parental Leave Scheme, and with wanting to keep Defence spending unfettered, and, of course, with never wanting to Means Test Middle Class Welfare, and constantly thinking of new sorts of tax churn to introduce to satisfy his core covert desire to see the wealthy contribute as little as possible to the Progressive idea of the Welfare State.
So we hear the Coalition talk about 'Free Markets' even as they subsidise Fossil Fuels – an argument that was had between Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott this last week, and which was the genesis of the now infamous Abbott quote.
In short, the Coalition have mastered 'Post-Truth Politics'. They've realised that their rhetoric doesn't have to bear any resemblance to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights. They've realised that policy is policy and politics is politics and they can push the former while waging the latter battle on its own terms. The two have become entirely unmoored from each other.
So, it's not strictly true that they 'moved Right' when Rudd and Gillard took office. They just adopted a new political strategy, especially when Abbott took over from Turnbull, of total, unremitting, hysterical oppositionalism. Tony Abbott accurately foresaw that it was the only thing that could revive the battered party, who were down in the polls after 'Utegate', and it has paid off handsomely thus far. Also, as a result of their poll success, the Conservatives are becoming less and less reticent about voicing their real agenda because the agenda itself has not changed whilst they have been in Opposition. Just think about how sometimes various Coalition MPs bring the ghost of WorkChoices up and attempt to breathe new life into it even while Tony Abbott keeps declaring to the public it is “Dead, Buried and Cremated”.
The failed political logic, it seems to me, behind the majority of the time of the Rudd and Gillard governments, such as the negotiation with Turnbull of an ETS, then abandonment of it altogether, and the re-negotiation of the MRRT away from the RSPT, to make it more palatable to the vested interests who had turned their guns on the original proposal, is that the failure that lies behind these concessions was the thought that the other side would be made quiescent as a result of the concessions made, and that the government would get credit for acquiescing to popular demand and for being reasonable, 'Centrist', and actually politically pragmatic. As the polls and subsequent election showed, that was most definitely not the case. I think they believed they would get credit for compromising, which would translate into votes, victory and political momentum and capital. That has been their basic approach. Unfortunately, it reflects a naïve policy literalism that is absolutely ubiquitous on the Left. Don't they realise 'Good guys finish last' in politics? Not that I'm saying that you should not aim to be good, but that that is not all you should aim for.
What happened instead? On policy after policy, Rudd especially began with grand, high ideals, but was forced by the Opposition, essentially because of the arithmetic of the Senate, and the Opposition's decision to 'pragmatically' oppose everything, to make magnanimous concessions, in order to have any hope of getting anything through the Senate, which he didn't anyway a lot of the time. So he adopted Centre Right policies, and bled votes on his left to The Greens.
Also, every concession to the Right and adoption of some of their policies was still attacked by them in some way, shape or form, especially post-Turnbull, no matter how many concessions had been made, and which is still the case with respect to the MRRT, where Colin Barnett has rounded on the conceded ground as it has morphed from the RSPT to the MRRT, and attacked it again by raising State Royalties in defiance of the concessional deal. He's also trying it on with the Health and Hospitals Reform Package.
Now, from a naïve, positivist point of view, the media and other elite referees of public debate should be calling foul. The Coalition should have been penalised in the media for opposing and maligning policies that they'd supported not that long ago, for brazenly lying, and for rejecting all attempts at compromise. They chose the strategy; the strategy should have been explained plainly to the public.
But the crucial fact of 'Post-Truth Politics' is that there are no more referees. There are only players. The Right has its own media, its own facts, its own world. In that world the Climate isn't warming, and 'Direct Action' can do its bit to solve the Global Warming crisis. The government can continue to try to craft new 'Centrist' policies all day, but with the media the way it is there is no mechanism to convey that centrism to the broader public. There is no judge settling disputes or awarding points. There is just commentary, which either suggests it's a wrong thing to do from a Right perspective, or from a Left perspective, and thus it is simply perceived as craven concessionalism and not Centrism. The strategy – achieve political advantage through policy concessions – has failed. The government's approval ratings are down as a result. Best stick to some core principles instead and be rewarded for it.
Yet there still seems to be this craving, by many self-styled pragmatic, post-partisan moderates, to take the politics out of politics. To have an Adult Conversation. To be 'Reasonable People', to draw forth other Reasonable People with the power of ideas only and together to transcend petty partisan squabbling and 'Move Forward' with a 'Common Sense Agenda' based on 'Shared Values' (are you tingling all over yet?).
It's a nice idea but it's not how politics works. Just look at the polls since the hyper-politically pragmatic Tony Abbott took control of the Coalition, distasteful as it is to admit it. There appears to not be a huge swathe of uncommitted independently-minded voters out there waiting to be persuaded. Many, many voters, if the polls are to be believed, have fallen in behind the Uber politically pragmatic, Policy Free Zone that is Mr Abbott. Why? He knows how to sell his point of view. The selling points of the Conservative agenda – small government, free markets, jingoistic patriotism – have no motive force on their own. They are not binding and support no intellectual consistency. Which is why the endless, tiresome charges of philosophical hypocrisy from the Left are so fruitless. They are the politics, not the policy, and the two are not connected from the Opposition's point of view.
The policy, the motive force among the conservative elites, the real elites, the ones they NEVER talk about, is a defence of an oligarchic status quo ante, before the Welfare State, and a redistribution of wealth upwards. It is those voices that speak in the ears of our political class and their agenda that commands the assent of one and a half of our political parties. It's not hard to see why our political system is choked with veto points, vulnerable to motivated minorities, lobby groups if you will. It is insulated from public opinion, and it floods the political parties and the media with its money.
It is genuinely difficult to say therefore what, if anything, can rally the Left's diverse constituencies into a formidable political force capable of counterbalancing the influence of the country's oligarchy. The much-maligned Greens have had a pretty damn strong run at it. Environmentalists, from a standing start have pulled together a coalition of businesses, religious groups, unions and social justice groups. In a sane world, that's what success looks like. But in our political system it's just not been enough. Labor is still there as one of the two major political parties, so with the ALP we need to place our trust for Progressive political successes. The Greens are going to be hammered even more by the oligarchs in the future than Labor is. And Labor are the party of government anyway. This is also why The Greens have to know that they must compromise on the new Climate Change legislation. They must learn the art of political pragmatism too.
Now, many believe that policy differences are at the root of the failure to dethrone fossil fuels. It's just the wrong ideas, the wrong '5 Point Plan'. A different mix with more of this and less of that will bring the Reasonable People out of the woodwork in support. Again that forlorn, undying hope that the politics can be taken out of...politics.
No, the government and the MPCCC have to negotiate a good package of policies and go out and get the politics spot on in order to sell it to the electorate. The Reasonable People will not magically materialise in support of it and Tony Abbott and the Coalition of Fossil Fuel backstops will be using 'political pragmatism', as wrong and offensive as it may be to our delicate sensibilities, to attack it relentlessly. Because the referees in the media have vacated the field for the most part and are unlikely to call it in the government's favour anyway, no matter how reasonable are the policy prescriptions because it is not in their proprietor's interests to do so.
So. Policy is policy. Politics is politics. First you figure out what you want – for example, in my case I, like the government, want Clean Energy, appropriate land and water use, and economic justice – and then you grasp every opportunity with both hands to make progress towards those goals. Meanwhile you wage political war with the tools of politics: money, message, organisation, solidarity, and a healthy dose of ruthless opportunism.
Just like Tony Abbott.
Policy concessions aren't just a poor weapon in that war, they are no weapon at all.
Just ask Kevin Rudd.
I think that the government, if they use these weapons can prove they are hard-core politicians willing to fight to the political death for what they truly believe in, and they will thus be able to cause the political death of the Hollow Man of politics, who fights only with political pragmatism not policy, Tony Abbott.
What do you think?